As we finish up studying the American Civil War I thought I would once again share with you the books we have used and how they worked out for us. You can find all my posts on living books on American history here.
Living Books on the Civil War
Our spine book, that is, the book I read aloud to all the kids, is from the series The American Destiny, edited by Henry Steele Commager. Volume 7 of this 20 volume set covers the Civil War. I find that Commager gives a very balanced treatment. While he covers the main events, his approach is somewhat topical. He spends a fair amount of time on causes and reasons behind various aspects of the war (why was there a war at all? why did the North win? and even a bit at the end on how the war has been interpreted). I would say the level is a bit high for most of my kids. It is definitely high school level and maybe even upper high school.
I love Albert Marrin’s books. My oldest has read a number of them by this point. He has three options on the Civil War — one on Abraham Lincoln, one on Robert E. Lee and one on U.S. Grant. Though Marrin picks one figure to focus on, he does a good job of telling the whole story of the war. I had my 9th grader read the one on Abe Lincoln and my 10th grader read the one on R.E. Lee.
I already owned the series pictured above by James Arnold and Roberta Weiner so I decided to have my 6th grader read them. They are not living books. There are actually four in the series, one on life during the Civil War and three on the various years of the war. He did an okay job (for him) of narrating them so I suppose thye weren’t a complete waste but I am not sure I would recommend them. They are not as bad as many modern books with their many sidebars and such (I hate that) but the narrative lacks that special something.
Book of the American Civil War published by Brown Paper School is another book I owned (two copies actually, to my surprise) and therefore used. Again it is not a true living book (as evidenced by the fact that you can’t even see an author’s name on the cover). It is a series of stories, anecdotes etc. on the Civil War including some hands-on crafts and recipes (which we ignored). The stories themselves are not bad and use characters to bring the time alive but it is not a continuous narrative. I had my fifth grader read this one.
Favorite author Genevieve Foster has two books on Abraham Lincoln. The one on the right, Abraham Lincoln’s World, is, like many of her books, more of a survery of the world at the time. In the past I have found these books very useful because I do like to include some of what is going on in the rest of the world. I opted not to use it this time beacse it seemed to repeat a lot that we had already addressed and I couldn’t find enough time to fit it in. The book on the left above, Abraham Lincoln, is a biography. I had my fifth grader read it and would say it is certainly no more than an upper elementary level book.
There are, of course, no shortage of books on Abe Lincoln. This one, Me and Willie and Pa by F.N. Monjo, another favroiet author, is told from the perspective of one of his sons. I read it aloud to my 5th and 6th graders. It is not a hard book but is well done and has some amusing bits. It shows a very human side of the president.
My 5th grader also read Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address by Jean Fritz. If anything it was a bit simple for her. I would say its more of a 2nd-3rd grade book.
Another Jean Fritz book: Stonewall, a biography of southern general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. My 6th grader read this book and did well with it. I liked that it told some about the man’s early life. I learned from his narrations.
Two Flags Flying by Donald Sobol was a real find. This older book tells the story of the Civil War through brief (2-3 pages each) stories of the people who were involved. We didn’t read it all since it was due back at the library before we were done. I suspect it might become tedious to go through the whole thing. On the other hand, it could be a good spine book for younger kids. It lends does a good job of presenting the character of each man as well as telling what he did.
Billy Yank and Johnny Reb: Soldiering in the Civil War by Susan Provost Beller is again not a real living book. I had my 6th grader read it. It talks about the life of s soldier. It is not a gross-out book but does contain some details to intrigue a 12-year-old boy.
Sheridan’s Ride by Thomas Buchanan Read is another book someone had given us. It is a poetic account of Sheridan’s famous ride to support his troops. I think it helped to read about the events before we read this version. Otherwise I am not sure it would have been clear what was happening. But it is always fun to include some poetry.
These graphic histories are also something we had on hand. I didn’t actually use them but thought I would point them out. I am not a fan of graphic novels and such but if you have a boy who is in to the details of the battles they could be a fun choice. I think they are fairly detailed in terms of who was positioned where and which army was on which hill and all that. I didn’t think we needed that level of detail but some kids are into it.
A couple of picture books: Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco and Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds by Marissa Moss. The former I had my 5th grader read to fill an extra day or two. Honestly I am not quite sure what happens in this book other than that it is abut a white boy and a black one. Perhaps that is a sign she didn’t quite get it? The latter I read aloud to my two youngest. I really enjoyed the story. It is not a hard book but Sarah Edmonds’ life was a pretty interesting one. We didn’t dwell too much on the fact that this young woman chose to basically live as a man. That might cause issues for some.
We’re getting into some historical fiction now —
Perilous Road by w well-known author, William O. Steele — my 6th grader read this one. Brothers end up on different sides of the war. Steele’s books are ones I always look for.
Escape by Night by Laurie Myers — I read this one aloud to my younger two. It was a good story though not terribly well written. The basic plot was interesting which kept our attention. A southern boy finds a Yankee soldier in the local hospital and helps him and a slave to escape. I liked that the family is shown reading the Bible, worshiping and singing psalms. They even read Covenanter history. But we were also bothered by this. My own denomination, the RPCNA, traces its roots to the Covenanters and they were very opposed to the southern cause and quite abolitionist. There are still few RP churches in the south for these historical reasons. So why is the boys’ family there in the south? (His father is the preacher too.) Fortunately I’ve indoctrinated my kids enough that they recognized this seeming incongruity on their own.
The River Between Us by Richard Peck. We’ve enjoyed some of Peck’s other novels. He is good writer and this book was no exception. My 9th grader was supposed to read it but I ended up reading it aloud to her (because she was too busy crocheting to fill holiday orders from her Etsy shop — shameless promotion). I’m glad I got to hear the story though; it was very compelling. I liked that it brought in other, otherwise uncovered aspects, like the awkward position of free blacks in New Orleans. I suppose it has some adult content though in that one of the female characters is illegitimate and ends up also living with but not married to a man.
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. I couldn’t resist the title of this one. Even the author’s name is good — do you think it can possibly be his real one? I had my 10th grader read this book though I think it could be read by a younger child. He said it was alright but didn’t seem thrilled with it.
Soldier’s Heart by Gary Paulsen — I had my fifth grader read this one. Gary Paulsen is an author we like. Her take was “it was good for a schoolbook” which is fairly high praise around here 😉
“The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane — A classic American short story (but not too short). I had my 10th grader read it. I think he liked the story. I had him give brief narrations and asked him at the end if he thought the main character had learned to be brave but I didn’t dwell too much on its literary merits.
Almost forgot this one! Civil War Sub: The Mystery of the Hunley by Kate Boehm Jerome. I had my 5th garder read this one though again it is an easy book for her. I’m not sure it is all that well-written but the story of this Confederate submarine is a complelling one and is worth reading.
Lastly, a few random resources:
From Antietam to Gettysburg is a coloring book. We didn’t use it and I’m not a big fan of adding in other activities but if you have one who would like to color while they listen to read alouds it could be a good choice.
Civil War Cooking: The Confederacy is what it sounds like, a discussion of what they ate in the South during the war and some recipes. Of course they didn’t eat very well. We didn’t actually use this one either.
And a video: Civil War: America Divided. We were given this 10-part video series and I really wanted to like it but none of us did. It is very dry and I think we only got through 3 or 4 parts before giving up.
That’s it for now. Next up: Reconstruction.