||January 1, 2007
A comprehensive look at the ancient Maya and what made them extraordinary.
Barnes & Noble.com
Sheri's web site
The amazing accomplishments of the ancient Maya as well as the Maya currently living in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula are highlighted in this collection of 25 creative, educational, hands-on projects. Covering everything from the 20-base numbering system to the Maya's extensive trade relationships, kids learn about appeasing the gods with a "jade" ceremonial mask, language development with a screen-fold book for drawings and hieroglyphs, and Maya astronomy with a sand art picture of the cosmos. Informative text and sidebars teach about the Maya's impressive achievements in science, math, language, music, medicine, and architecture; and their daily activities and management of natural resources.
"The Maya believed their gods moved the planets. They considered Venus to be the most important planet. They called it Nok-Ek, which means Great Star, because it was so bright it was visible to the naked eye."
"The ancient Mayan written language is a complex system of sound, pictures and logograms. A logogram is a written character that represents a meaning or a word. Some of the hieroglyphs represent individual syllables, some are pictures that represent a word or idea, and some represent a spoken word or phrase."
Q: How did you become interested in writing about the Maya?
A: When I visited Cancun several years ago, I took a day trip to the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, in Mexico’s northern Yucatán Peninsula. In the center of the ruins is a pyramid topped by a temple called El Castillo, the Spanish term for “the Castle.” As I climbed the skinny stone steps, it felt weird to realize I was reenacting history, walking the very steps that Maya priests and kings climbed on the balls of their feet to offer up the blood of human sacrifices to their many gods. I got so dizzy at the top of the pyramid that I had to sit down! The Maya practice of sacrificing humans gives me the willies, but surely that religious practice didn’t give the Spanish invaders the right to torture the Maya. The Maya were not the savages the Spanish made them out to be.
Q: In researching the book, what information surprised you the most?
A: That the Maya were so advanced in language, art, mathematics, farming, and even studying the stars. They knew so much! But that knowledge, which they carefully recorded in special bark books called codices, was destroyed in bonfires set by the Spanish. Why? Because the Spanish priests set on converting the Maya to Catholicism considered them to be of the Devil. The world is fortunate, indeed, that a handful of the books survived when they were sent back to Europe as souvenirs. The books were discovered in European libraries only after John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood alerted the world to the Maya ruins by publishing their book Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán in 1843.
Q: What is the most important invention or creation that came out of the Maya Civilization?
A: Perhaps there is no single invention that was most important, as their contributions were lost to the world for so many years. But it’s important to recognize their achievements, given that the Maya living in the rainforests of Central America today are held in low regard. Obviously, the fact that they were the only Mesoamerican people with a complete writing system makes them unique, as does their practice of using the number zero as a place holder in mathematical equations. And as many medicinal remedies used by the Maya are currently being studied by researchers, to find cures to alleviate pain and disease, it’s important to recognize those contributions as well.
Q: What purpose do the activities serve in the book?
A: To make history come alive for kids. We all learn more by doing than reading or listening. The activities in Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself will help kids retain information about the accomplishments of the ancient Maya. As they make a model of a pyramid, for example, they’ll “get” how knowledgeable and exact the Maya were when building. And when they make a replica of a death mask, they’ll “get” the value that ancient Maya placed on creating first-class art. They’ll also understand how the Maya’s religious beliefs permeated every aspect of their society. When they carve their own glyph from a bar of soap, they’ll trace a symbol used by ancient Maya scribes. And when they make a hat from corn husks, they’ll “get” how critical this crop was to the Maya. Corn was, so the Maya believe, what the gods made the first humans from.
Q: What do you hope kids come away with after reading Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself?
A: I hope they’ll gain an appreciation of what these people accomplished—without any of the dazzling technology that we have today. And I hope they’ll get a sense of just how dependant civilizations are on their members, just as a clock relies on its internal springs and wheels to keep telling perfect time. Societies must always keep an eye on the big picture in order to thrive. Things must be kept in balance. If one aspect of society gets out of whack, such as the overpopulation that most likely led to the failure of many ancient Maya cities, things begin to fall apart. We need to keep that in mind today, given the demands we place on our planet. The destruction of the world’s rainforests is a huge problem that the world needs to focus on.
Q: After researching the book, did you come away with any favorite stories, legends or anecdotes?
A: I found it very interesting that the Maya did not have money like we do. Instead, they used cacao beans as currency. And there were those who tried to make counterfeit beans by filling the husks with sand. Savvy buyers and sellers soon learned to bite the beans to make sure they were solid! I was also struck by how the Maya relied on visual clues to announce their station in life. Slaves had it bad: not only was their hair cut short, but their bodies were painted in black and white stripes! And this is really interesting: when Maya warriors attacked rival cities, their wives traveled with them. Each night, after the sun set on the day’s battle, the wives made dinner for their husbands. Talk about commitment!
Contributor: Nomad Press
Amazing Maya Inventions You Can Build Yourself
Sheri Bell- Rehwoldt
I thought I knew a bit about the Maya, but after reading Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt's book, I realized that I knew very little. This civilization which flourished for about 3,000 years has left traces that have really only been more fully understood in the last century and as far as decoding the writing system only for the last 35 years. The Mayan civilization was complex and while there is still much that remains unknown, what we do know is fascinating. The Mayan social hierarchy, their ability to create accurate calendars, count, and support a civilization with major city states that included as many as 50,000 inhabitants is truly amazing. The layout is busy, but kids don't seem to mind finding information all over a page-boxes with facts and pronunciation guides, pictures and illustrations, plus straight text. It all works, and there really is a wealth of data. The activities are there, and they can be used to reinforce learning. They range from something as simple as making a chocolate drink, to playing a complicated game called Bul to those that require considerably more skill such as creating a loom, spinning cotton into thread and actually making a piece of cloth. (That is probably the most difficult activity because it takes many of the steps for granted or covers them in text like "Then cut all warp threads from your cardboard loom and tie pairs of strings on each side together in a tight knot.") If I hadn't undertaken a project of that nature previously, I would be a bit lost. It is almost a misnomer to consider this publication an activity book--it is a social studies lesson with some activities added. Not a criticism, because the book offers a tremendous amount of information. The single color printing works and perhaps in the future a book in full color may be in order. If you have an interest in the Maya or will be addressing the civilizations of Central America, do add this book to your collection. 2006, Nomad Press, Ages 9 up, $14.95. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
Buffalo News - Kid Bits
SOMETHING TO MAKE
Buffalo author Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt offers a fascinating exploration of the ancient Maya people in "Amazing Mayan Inventions You Can Build Yourself" (Nomad Press, $14.95). The Mayas survived for close to 3,000 years until their last city fell to Spanish invaders in 1697.
This paperback is packed with colorful details about their skill at building, their interest in astronomy and their development of complex calendars. It also has games, crafts (including directions for making a royal Mayan jadeite necklace replica from green Sculpey clay) and recipes (including one for Mexican hot chocolate). Interesting factoid: The Mayans used cacao beans for money!
Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt (who also wrote "Great World War II Projects You Can Build Yourself") will conduct a craft session and book signing at Borders.
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