We recently took a detour from our study of American history to cover the French Revolution. This was a pretty brief unit for us — only 3 or 4 weeks — but I do have 4 kids all reading different things so I have a few books to recommend. We did not get into Napoleon yet; I am going to come back to that after we have looked at the first few American presidents.
Here’s what we used:
The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber — We used this book as a spine and I read it to all the kids together. This was to make sure that they got the basic facts and were not missing any key events or ideas since their individual reading might be more focused. I was not a fan of Guerber’s volumes on ancient Greece and Rome, but I have used a couple of her other books recently and have been very pleased with them. She tells the historical events but in a narrative style that is easy to read and understand and entertaining as well. A true living book. We did not read the whole book but only the chapters relevant to the Revolution. I think we will come back to it for the Napoleon years. I also learned things — I was shocked and saddened by the character of the royal family at and before their deaths. They truly showed Christian character and I found myself almost in tears reading their stories. Spoiler — the French Revolution does not have a happy ending for the aristocrats.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy — I preread this book (something I don’t often have time to do) and then had my 14-year-old read it. We both really enjoyed it. The title figure is an Englishman who helps French aristocrats escape during the Reign or Terror. There is a bit of a mystery to it in the first half and the second half is suspense (how will they escape?). It was really hard not to give hints and spoil it for my son. I was pleased to to find that there is a whole series of books about the Scarlet Pimpernel. I am hoping I can get him to read more of them outside of homeschool. For historical value, this book is certainly not going to tell you everything about the French Revolution but I think it does give a good feel for some of the issues, and particularly how those in other European countries felt about the whole thing. There are also moral dilemmas that one could discuss.
Miss Jefferson in Paris by Regina Kelly — Though not as old as the Scarlet Pimpernel, this is a slightly older book. It tells the story of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter when they lived in Paris before and during the French Revolution. I had my 12-year-old daughter read this book. She seemed to enjoy it and she is hard to please when it comes to homeschool-y books. It was a kind of easy read for her. I would think it is 5th-8th grade level and she is at the upper end of that. Again, this book will not tell the whole story of the Revolution but gives a slice of life at the time. Because we were reading our spine too, she was able to recognize events and some idea of their significance. She seemed to find it easy to narrate which I always consider a test of s good book as well.
You Wouldn’t Want to be an Aristocrat in the French Revolution by Jim Pipe — If you are not familiar with this series, it is silly fun. Not true living books but I do use them from time to time. I had my 11-year-old read this. It only took him a few days. He did a good job narrating it and I think that it gave him some decent background on the Revolution. The series will appeal to boys who like the gross-out type books.
Norby and the Queen’s Necklace by Janey and Isaac Asimov — I stumbled across this book through a library search. I was intrigued by the authorship — Isaac Asimov and his wife. This is the story of a robot and his human crew who somehow are involved with Marie Antoinette’s necklace and end up traveling back in time both to France and to other places. It is part of a series of Norby books. I had my 11-year-old read this one as well. He seemed to enjoy it. It was well suited to his level — sort of a longer chapter book. While he was able to recognize events from the other book he read and our spine reading, I didn’t get the impression that there was a lot of history involved here. Mostly they seemed to bop back and forth into different times. His narrations (oral still) often left me befuddled as to who was doing what which could be him or could be the book, or some combination of he two. A fun read and I could see getting him more of the series for fun, but I am not sure of its educational value.
The Fair American by Elizabeth Coatsworth- We’ve read other of Coatsworth’s books and she has reached the status of an author I always grab if I can. I had my 9-year-old read this book. It is about a little French aristocrat boy who has to escape the Reign of Terror. It is long chapter book level. My 9yo did okay with it though I think some parts confused her a bit. I’d say it’s 4th-6th grade level. It seemed like a good story and I think she enjoyed it. It seemed to me that it was light on historic details. They seem to be mostly escaping and other than the fact that they must escape it didn’t seem like there was much detail about the time. Of course, I didn’t read it myself so it could be her narrations were just lacking — or perhaps I should say she was focused on other details. Still, it seems to have been a nice read.
Moi and Marie Antoinette by Lynn Cullen – This is a long picture book written from the perspective of Marie Antoinette’s dog. My 9-year-old liked it though it would be hard to displease her with a book about a dog. I had her read it in three sittings though she probably could have done it more quickly. It seemed like a nice book though it completely misses the very sad parts of the story. It’s all happy earlier years (not so happy for the peasants, of course, but it’s not about them).
Of course there are many other books out there. These are the ones we could get our hands on and which fit our schedule. Given more time I would have loved to use A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis.
One more picture: