Are you familiar with the idea of spine books? These are books which one uses, especially in history but possibly also in other subjects, to give a sort of backbone to one’s studies. That is, they give the whole story, though perhaps in less depth, and other books might be used to supplement and give more information on specific subjects of interest.
Some people don’t like spines but I really like using them. I think they work well with our situation which is four kids of different ages and reading levels. We can read the spine altogether and then I have the children read other books on their own which complement the spine and are geared toward their reading and comprehension levels. This system allows us to do history together and yet to also reach each child at his or her level.
So as I prepare for the coming year, I have been looking at a lot of possible spine books and I thought I would give my impressions of them. If you are new to this, perhaps my work will give you a better sense of which books might be a good fit for your family. On the other hand, if you have used any of these, perhaps you can give me a more accurate impression of how well the books worked for you. These are not books I have read all the way through (I don’t have time for that!), but I have skimmed them to try t decide which will work best for us in the coming year. We will be studying early modern history (exploration of the New World through 1850 if we get that far), but many of these books either cover a wider scope or have other volumes so my observations may also apply if you are doing a different period.
Sp without further ado, here come the spines!
Child’s History of the World by V. M. Hillyer (CHOW) — We have used Hillyer’s Child’s Geography and really liked it. One of the main problems with that book, which I assume will also come up in the history volume, is that the language is dated. Specifically, the terms Hillyer uses for different people groups are no longer considered acceptable. He speaks, for example, of Mohammedeans and Negroes. As we went through his geography, I would either edit as I read, substituting a more acceptable term or else use it as a springboard to discuss how such things have changed.
Beyond that, this is a one volume history of the world, about an inch thick. As such, it cannot be terribly thorough. The language also appears fairly easy. I don’t think it would be at all challenging for my 7th and 8th graders. I may have my younger children read sections from it on their own. So my verdict on CHOW is that it is probably engaging and could be good for younger children to whom one just wants to give an overview of history but that it is not enough for our family to be the main spine we use.
Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer (SOW) — These volumes are hugely popular, especially with classical homeschoolers but also with many others. There are, I believe, four of them and also optional supplements that give activities to go along with the readings. In the past, we have listened to parts of volume one, on the ancient world, as an audiobook. I ultimately decided I did not like SOW for ancient history because it combines all the cultures, going back and forth between Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and others. That is not how I wanted to approach ancient history. I preferred to study one civilization at a time which I think was helpful for that period of history since the cultures had less contact with each other.
Of course, when you get to early modern history, the world is already much more connected so I thought it would be worth revisiting SOW for this time period. My kids have been through American history before, but I wanted to include events in Europe this time through to give them a broader perspective. So I thought SOW, which does take a more global look at history, might be a good choice.
I have a list of topics I would like to cover, based on TruthQuest’s history guides. For many of the topics that go beyond America only, SOW seems to be the only resource so I think I will definitely be using parts of it. But I am not choosing it for my one and only main spine. The reason is that I am still not thrilled with how it approaches history. My main emphasis is still on American history and it does not seem to be very thorough on this. And it mixes in things like Japan and India which I have no problem covering at some point (we have done a brief unit on India and a long one on China) but since they are not at this point impacting American history, I don’t really want to include them now. Basically, I think SOW jumps around too much and I feel this can be confusing. If I want to give my kids a good impression of what early America was like (which I do), I want that to be our main emphasis.
Stories of the Nations by Sonya Shafer (SON) — This volume, along with Stories of America, are the spines recommended by Simply Charlotte Mason for this period. I only purchased the nations volume because I assumed I would find material on America more readily but would need help with the topics which go beyond it. This book is listed as being for grades 1-6 and I would say that seems accurate. Now I have no problem using as a spine something that is a little bit below my older kids’ levels because I also want my younger two to be able to comprehend it. But I did find the chapters a bit short, and many of them are on topics we have already covered in our study of the Middle Ages such as Shakespeare and Kepler. So for us, I don’t think this is comprehensive enough, but again, like SOW, I will probably use some chapters to help flesh out the picture of what is happening in the rest fo the world.
Sweet Land of Liberty by Charles Coffin (SLL) — This seems to be a pretty comprehensive history of early America, up until the revolution. There is a volume after it, but I have heard that it is not as good. This is about the only book I have found that seems to cover America while still discussing the broader picture of how European nations figure in. In particular, it seems to spend a lot of time discussing the struggles between the French and the English, but I suppose that is the major relevant struggle of the time. It does not get into things ike what is happening in Russia though I would like to cover that too. But I have two reasons not to use this book as our main spine. The first is that it is just written at too high a level for my younger kids. I think it would be good for a high schooler and I am still debating having my 8th grader read all or part fo it. The second issue is that it is not in my estimation as much of a living book as the others. Despite their flaws, all the books I have mentioned so far are living. That is, they tell history as an engaging narrative. Now SLL is by no means a textbook; it is a narrative. But the way it is written seems less living to me. What I mean by that is that it goes quickly from one person or event to the next, throwing out dates and names in a way that I think would make it very hard for my kids to take each one in.
American History Stories by Mara L. Pratt — This is a four volume work available from Yesterday’s Classics. These seem like really nicely written, living accounts of American history. The level is perhaps below where my older kids (middle school age) would be but that it what I am looking for for our joint reading. There are two main reasons I did not end up choosing it for my family. The first is that I am just more familiar with the last work I will discuss by H.E. Marshall and I would like to continue with his writing. The second is that it is not the longer and therefore the most in-depth. On my Kindle, Pratt’s first volume which goes up to the Revolution takes 1320 locations while Marshall’s section covering the same period takes 4200. However, if one were looking for something a bit shorter, I think Pratt’s volumes would be a wonderful choice.
So that brings me, lastly, to This Country of Ours (TCOO) by H.E. Marshall. This is also available from Yesterday’s Classics. We just finished going through most of Marshall’s Our Island Story in our study of the British Middle Ages. It was a very engaging and detailed work and a large part of the reason I am opting to use Marshall’s volume on America is that we enjoyed his other one so much. I have found as I seek to align it with other books we might use that TCOO takes a different approach than many other books. While generally chronological, it deals with the colonies by area, discussing Virgina first, then New England, and then the Mid-Atlantic states, the Carolinas and Georgia. It then goes on to talk about the French in America and the Revolution. So if one wanted something more strictly chronological, this might not be the preferred work. I kind of like the idea of approaching it this way, however, just as I liked dealing with one ancient culture at a time. I am hoping it gives the kids a good picture of what is happening in each place. Either way, I figure, one jumps around, whether through time or through space.
Those are the spines I have looked at. I imagine there are still others out there. I would welcome feedback from anyone who might have actually used one of these.