Posts Tagged ‘History’

Living Books on the 1930s

Dear Reader,

This is the latest installment in my series on the living books we have been using in our homeschool. You can find all the booklists here.

Living Books on the 1930s

This segment came for us between Thanksgiving and Christmas so I hope you will forgive me for not making all of it that we could. While I was surprised on how little of value I found on the Roaring 20s, there is seemingly no end of resources on the Great Depression; it is a time that has captured our imaginations and continues to fascinate. My goal in this section was to give more of a flavor of the time, a taste of what life in this difficult period was like, rather than to get caught up in the political and economic details and the barrage of acronyms (CCC, TVA, etc.).

Our spine, as it has been this year, was from the series Our Century. I have discussed the pros and cons of this series previously so I will not get into it again. Suffice it to say it provides a nice, if brief, overview of the major events ans trends.

A few years back I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan which gives a wrenching account of the Dust Bowl. I could not wait for one of my kids to read this book. I assigned it to my 11th grader for this period. It is a non-fiction book but with lots of personal narratives. It is intended for popular reading for adults though it was not hard reading. I would call it high school level.

My 10th grader tends to be very busy with other things near the holidays so I went easy on her. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t read (or didn’t remember reading) Blue Willow by Doris Gates. Though I haven’t looked at it in years, I remember loving this book as a child. It was easy reading for her; I would call it middle school level. Sadly, she did not seem to love it.

My 7th grader read a non-fiction book: A Nation Fights Back: the Depression and its Aftermath by Irving Werstein. This is one of our favorite authors and he did not disappoint.

My 6th grader read Queenie Peavey by Robert Burch. She seemed to enjoy it. It was not hard reading for her. I would call it upper elementary-lower middle school.

I read a couple of long picture books aloud to my younger two. (Side note: Just because my kids are older, we haven’t given up picture books. Sometimes they provide a good introduction to another topic that we don’t have time to get into in depth. And when they are well-done, picture books can be wonderful, living books. By “longer picture books” I mean books that cannot usually be read in one sitting.)

Wingwalker by Rosemary Wells and Brian Selznick tells the story of a family who must leave Oklahoma and finds themselves in Minnesota (I believe) where the father becomes a wingwalker with the circus.

Fire in the Sky by Candice Ransom tells the story of the Hindenburg’s fateful last voyage. I did not think it was incredibly well-written but it was hard not to be moved by the events of the final chapters.

Some other picture books we considered but did not find time for are: When Grandpa Wore Knickers by Fern Brown and Andree Vilas Grabe and What You Know First by Patricia Maclachan.

Longer books you might want to consider: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy, Long Way from Chicago and Year Down Under by Richard Peck, Shiloh by Phyllis Naylor, and Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (and many others) by Mildred Taylor. Many of these we had read previously. They are good books even if you are not studying this period.

And, of course, you can’t cover this era without mentioning John Steinbeck. My oldest read Of Mice and Men recently for literature. It is one of Steinbeck’s more manageable book for length. If you too are limited on time, the old Grapes of Wrath movie is a great choice too (see below).

If you are looking for more non-fiction, especially for older kids (middle to high school), some of our favorite authors have quiet a lot on this period:

Shattered Decade 1929 by Irving Werstein (so also Werstein’s book above; I have not seen this volume but most of Werstein’s books could be used in middle school)

Books by Albert Marrin (Most of Marrin’s books are high school level, but some are simpler and could be middle school.):

Years of Dust

FDR and the American Crisis

Movies on the 1930s:

We watched a number of movies relating to this period. The movie industry really took off in the 30s so one can find both movies made in the 30s and those set in the 30s.

Gone with the Wind – Though set in the Civil War and Reconstruction, Margaret Mitchell’s classic was both a best-selling book and movie in the 1930s. I made my kids discuss why people living through the Depression might have been so attracted to this story.

Bonnie and Clyde – Enough humor and violence for my kids. A slightly older movie, it does not really show much nudity or blood but there are a couple of “adult” scenes and Bonnie and Clyde’s deaths at the end are vivid (though again not bloody). The movie does a good job of showing that crime does not pay though it also hints at why people supported outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde at the time.

The Untouchables – Criminal activity was booming in the 30s. This movie tells the story of Scarface Al Capone and his capture. …

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – We watched this a few years ago. It is the story of Homer’s Odysseus set in 1930s America. Humorous and and ultimately wholesome. I don’t remember how much adult content there was, not too much I think. Great soundtrack too.

The Grapes of Wrath – We didn’t want to take the time to read Steinbeck’s (long) classic but the classic movie covers a lot of the bases. My kids enjoyed it.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl – We watched this movie last time we studied this era, when my kids were much younger. I am not a fan of the American Girl franchise but I think this movie is one of their better pieces. When we watched it, our neighbor’s house across the street was being foreclosed on.

To see what people in the 30s were watching (and for a more wholesome choice), try some Shirley Temple classics. The Little Colonel (set in post-Civil War south) is one of our favorites.

Happy reading (and watching)!


Living Books on the Roaring Twenties

Dear Reader,

We’ve finished another decade in our study of 20th century history so here again are the books we used and what I thought of them. Find all the booklists here.

Living Books on the Roaring Twenties

This is going to be  a fairly short list. We only spent 2 weeks on the 1920s and I did not find a lot of good books to use. My goal for this section was to convey life in the 20s. We are saving the big stock market crash to go with the 30s since it really begins a new era.

Our spine books this year are from this series:


As I’ve said before, they are not classic living books but they at written in a quite readable style compared to more modern works. They do give a good selection of American history, world history, and popular culture. I don’t always read all the culture stuff (especially anything about sports, yawn). I did read the section on pole sitters this time. My kids found it very amusing and my oldest was surprised that this was such a phenomenon that they included it in the book.

I had both high schoolers read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I remember liking this book in high school. I read it again before I gave it to them. Though it starts a little slow, it is a good story with a lot of action at one point. The picture of life in the 20s it gives is very much of the extreme upper classes but I think that is okay for an era known for its freedom and excess. If you have not read the book recently, I do recommend prereading as there are some adult themes like adultery. Other Fitzgerald works could also be good choices. He has many short stories.

I really struggled to find any other living books on this era. I got out a small stack from my library and was pleased with pretty much none of them.

Here first are a couple of the books I rejected as being too dry and not at all stories:

For my 7th grader, I chose Al Capone and the Roaring Twenties:


Perhaps because it is on one more narrow subject, it seemed better than most of the others I looked at.

I had my 6th grader read three short books:

The Roaring Twenties by R. Conrad Stein (above left) is from a series I like, Cornerstones of Freedom. Unfortunately, this time I was not able to get one of the older books from that series which typically have titles like “The Story of . . .” But I settled for one of their newer books. American has Fun by Sean Price (above right) is also not a living book and is actually fairly simple for her age but a) I had another week to fill and b) it seemed less horrendously dull than my other choices. The one book which was decent was And Now, A Word from Our Sponsor : The Story of a Roaring ’20’s Girl by Dorothy Hoobler (sorry, no picture on this one). It was not the finest writing but it was a story, about a young girl who builds a radio on the 20s, and seemed engaging.

And lastly, a few of the books we didn’t use but which might be worth a look:

From left to right we have:

  • Top Drawer: American High Society from the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties by Mary Cable — seems to be about what its title suggests. I chose not to use it because it was too broad chronologically for what we wanted to it seems like an interesting subject.
  • Joy Hakim’s War, Peace and All That Jazz — I know a lot of homeschoolers like Hakim’s books. I’ve mostly looked at her science books and find them too busy — eg. with side boxes of added info — for my tastes. Given the scarcity of good materials on this age, however, this one could be worth a look.
  • First Book of the Long Armistice by Louis L. Snyder — Despite its title, this seemed like it was a higher level book, at least middle school age. Again, it seemed broader than what I was looking for.
  • Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen — This looked to be an adult book (reading level, not content, though I didn’t look at it enough to know about that). It could work for high schoolers.

Are there better books on the 20s? I think there must be; I’m not sure if the lack is just in my library system. If not, somebody get out there and right some stories about this fun era!


Living Books on the 1910s and WWI

Dear Reader,

It’s time for the latest installment of “what we’ve been reading for history.” This time the topic is the 1910s including Word War I. You can find all my booklists for history and more here.

Living books on the 1910s and WWI

As I’ve said before, for our spine this year we are using the Our Century series. Though this not difficult reading – I’d call it upper elementary or early middle school level even – it serves out purposes this year, providing a introduction and overview in a relatively short amount of time. Though perhaps not a living book, it is not poorly written. Perhaps because it in an older series, it seems less dry and disjointed than similar but more modern books.


Though this period includes a major event – a World War no less – we didn’t take too much time on it. This makes me a little sad, especially as I reflect how long we spent on the Civil War last year, but with a goal of getting through 1900 to the present in one school year, we don’t have much choice. My goal was not to have my kids learn all the battles or even the flow of the war but to understand its causes (as much as anyone can!) and to know some big picture things like how the war was fought (trenches, aerial bombings) and major turning points (US enters; Russia exits).

I had my sixth grader read The Many Faces of WWI by Irving Werstien. Werstein is a favorite author and I look for his volumes when I can. I would call the level of his books generally middle school (as opposed to our other favorite author, Albert Marrin, who is more often than not high school level).

My 7th grader also read a Werstein book: Over Here, Over There: The Era of the First World War. Both did well with their narrations. I learned things from my 7th grader’s narrations, like how the Mexicans taunted the US in this period.

My 10th grader read The Story of the First World War by Red Reeder. I had not run across this author before but was pleased with the book. Since her older brother plays the bagpipes, my daughter ended up narrating many times the story of a bagpiper shot during the war (“Argh! I’m fine but me pipes, me pipes!”). A quick check on my library system shows that Reeder has books on all US wars through WWII, including many on the Civil War. I’ll definitely look for this author again. I’d place his books at the middle to early high school level.

I’m trying to have my 11th grader get a more global perspective so I had him read another Werstein book, Ten Days in November: The Russian Revolution. This is a slim volume but he actually had a mission trip in the middle of this segment of homeshcool so I was looking to get him through the subject without anything too burdensome.

As a family read aloud we did John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. This book is not explicitly about WWI but portrays a very similar situation in that lots of countries have complicate alliances and are being basically tricked or goaded into war. More than anything else I think it shows the paranoia people may have felt that hidden powers were controlling world events, and not for the good.

I read Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon by Dhan  Gopal Mukerji to my younger two. The title character pigeon plays a role in the war. There is quite a lot beforehand which tells of life in India and pigeon keeping. I found it to be a very well-written book which was a pleasure to read. One could do it as geography too because it gives such a picture of the narrator’s life.  It does portray the native religion in a positive light if that sort of thing puts you off, though I would suggest just using it as a jumping off point for discussion.  Read aloud it could be done for upper elementary and older. On the subject of pigeons, if you are ever in Oklahoma City, I highly recommend their (free!) pigeon museum. It is small but quite well done.

A book I checked out but decided was more than anyone could squeeze in at this point was The Yanks are Coming: the United States in the First World War by Albert Marrin. If I had wanted my oldest to read something more on the US, I would have had him do this one. Marrin, as I have said, is a favorite author.

Though we haven’t watched much yet, I’d also like to mention some movies set in this era. The Humphrey Bogart classic African Queen is set during WWI. I watched it with my older two when the little ones were away and they enjoyed it.

I’d love to have us watch Sergeant York, a WWI movie which I remember seeing with my dad growing up. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have it accessible at the moment.

While looking for things to watch, I also ran across the Young Indiana Jones series. There are apparently two seasons, one set before WWI and one during WWI. From the reviews I read they are high school level for both violence and adult situations. We haven’t watched any yet but they sounded good.

Next up: the Roaring 20s.


Living Books: 1900-WWI

Dear Reader,

This school year we are tackling the 1900s and 2000s. Kind of a big task since last year we only got through about 1860-1900. Obviously, we will not be spending as much time on the World Wars as we did on the Civil War. My main focus is on American history but for my oldest (11th grader) I am trying to incorporate more international events. The first chunk we took was  from the turn of the century to World War I. Though my kids are all in middle or high school this year, there may be some things below that work for elementary too. I am not above using an easy book if it is a good book or gives us what we need at the time. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on 1900-WWI

I greatly simplified our spine this year. Last year we got pretty bogged down in big thick spines. This year I want to spend more of our “together time” on Bible so I chose a pretty simple spine. Here it is:


I got this series of books from a library book sale some years ago. We actually used it many moons ago when we first did the 1900s. My kids were much younger then so you can see that it is not tough reading. Honestly, it is probably upper elementary level, even 3rd-5th grade. Yet I am using it with my 6th through 11th graders. Why? Part of the answer is in what I want a spine to do — it is an introduction, a fly-over of the period we are studying. My kids will each get more detail and more challenging reading and narration in their individual work. But the spine book makes sure that we are not missing major events. (Part of it is also a lack of good spines I can find on this period; many of the ones we have used in the past are older and actually stop before 1900.) This series may not look on the surface like living books, and perhaps it is not. But it is actually fairly well-written and I am happy enough with the content. It has some of the look of the sort of modern “busy” book that annoys the sock off of me, but it keeps the side blurbs to a minimum and the text itself is reasonably interesting.

There are a lot of topics one can cover for this period; a lot of social things — immigration, women’s rights, etc. — were going on. Since we are not spending too long on anything this year, I got each child a more comprehensive book. If you are looking for things on smaller topics, you can also check out some of my posts from last year on the end of the 1800s. Many of the issues span the century divide and were covered, at least in part, last year (immigration, for example, is one we touched on last year).

I had my 6th grader read two shorter books:

Jean Fritz is a favorite author. Her books vary in length. Each of these is probably at a 4th-6th grade level, a longer chapter book basically.

My 7th grader read Albert Marrin’s Spanish American War:


I like Marrin because he tends to cover a lot of ground even in a book that is ostensibly on one narrow subject. This one might not have had the range of some of his but it was still good. Usually, I use Marrin’s books in  high school but this one didn’t seem too tough.

My 10th grader also read a Marrin book:


Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America is more typical of a Marrin book in that it gives the flavor or an era. She seemed to enjoy many of the stories and learned interesting tidbits about TR.

My 11th grader focused on the Boxer Rebellion in China. I looked at two books on this topic, The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston and The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David Silbey. Though Preston’s book looked good, I opted for Silbey’s as it was shorter and fit better into our schedule.

One more book on China I looked at was China’s Long March by Jean Fritz (again):


In the end I chose not to use this book (yet?) because it is really more about the 1930s. I am mentioning it here in case you are looking for more on China and also because I am not sure if we will have time to get to it later.

Since our spine isn’t long, I read a few other books aloud to my kids.

For brief intros to various topics I love the Cornerstones of Freedom series. Be sure to get the older editions which all begin The Story of . . . The newer ones are not living books(IMO)!

Arctic exploration was also a topic at this time:

Both of these are books we have read when my kids were littler too. Curlee’s Into the Ice is an overview of Arctic exploration. Black Whiteness is about Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic.  It is a more poetic and heart-wrenching account. (It is also set in the 1930s but I included it here anyway.)

Lastly, here are some books I looked at but didn’t end up using:

Werstien is another favorite author (look for him in my WWI booklist coming soon!). This particular volume is more of a pictorial history though there is an introduction which one could read. It might be a good choice for the boy who is into the specifics of military things. Rebel in Petticoats is about the move for women’s rights. It looked good but I couldn’t find time for it.

Until next time–



Mark Twain on Learning History

Dear Reader,

I am reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. I got it thinking one of my children might use it for history, but we weren’t able to squeeze it in this year. He gives a wonderful, though brief, account of the discovery and exploration of that river.

Along the way, Twain gives his view of memorizing the dates of history. Here is what he has to say:

“To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is  a remark which states a fact without interpreting it; it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names — as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t see the sunset.” (p. 5)

He then makes what amounts to a wonderful argument for keeping a Book of Centuries (a habit we have been sadly neglecting in our homeschool of late):

“The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing to us; but when one groups a few neighboring historical dates and facts around it, he adds perspective and color . . .” (p. 5)

Twain goes on to demonstrate what he means:

“For instance, when the Mississippi was first seen by a white man, less than a quarter century had elapsed since . . . the driving out of the Knights-Hospitallers from Rhodes by the Turks; and the placarding of the Ninety-five Propositions — the act which began the Reformation . . .When De Soto took his glimpse of the river, . . . Michael Angelo’s pain was not yet dry on the ‘Last Judgment’ in the Sistine Chapel . . . Elizabeth of England was not yet in her teens . . .” (pp. 5-6)

He continues in this way at quite some length.

Makes me want to get back to those Books of Centuries . . .



Living Book List: The Gilded Age

Dear Reader,

Once again here are the books we’ve been using in our homeschool. This time the topic is the Gilded Age, that gaudy but peaceful era at the end of the 1800s.

Living Books on the Gilded Age

Our spine book (the one  I read aloud to all the kids) was once again from Henry Steel Commager’s series The American Destiny. Volume 9 is on the Gilded Age.


Among other things, the gilded age is the age of invention. Books on inventors and inventions abound. For the elementary crowd, check out Robert Quackenbush’s books. I had my 5th grader read Ahoy! Ahoy! Are You There? A Story of Alexander Graham Bell and Along Came the Model T! How Henry Ford Put the World on Wheels. We also read another book on the Model T, Peter Spier’s Tin Lizzie which follows the life of one particular car.


Still on the topic of inventors, my 10th grader read Robert Silverberg’s Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry. The bits of how Edison went about inventing were quite interesting.



Another big Gilded Age topic on which you’re sure to find a lot of books: Immigration. We read some picture books on the subject: Rosemary Wells’ Streets of Gold and Eve Bunting’s Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story which tells the journey of the first children to pass through Ellis Island. I also had my youngest read R. Conrad Stein’s The Story of Ellis Island from the Cornerstones of Freedom series (but see this post on avoiding the newer version of the series).

Our next big topic is factories. Again there are a lot of books available. We chose The Lowell Mill Girls: Life in the Factory  which uses some letters to tell the story of life in the factories and The Mill Girls by Bernice Selden which tells if three girls living in the factory system. I read Kids during the Industrial Revolution by Lisa Wroble to my two youngest. It is a simple book and I would not call it living. My 9th grader read Albert Marrin’s Fesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. I love Marrin’s books. Like most of his, this one focuses on one event but manages to tell quite  a lot in the process. Plus it was an interesting read.


Another Marrin book that I wish we have had time to get to but didn’t: The Spanish-American War. This one is probably high school level.


With industrialization come the titans of business. My 6th grader read Andrew Carnegie by Clara Ingram Judson. It seemed like quite a good book and was middle school level.

The Gilded Age seems to have had m0re than its share of tragedies. I read my younger two Robert Quackenbush’s There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight about the Great Chicago Fire (sorry, I don’t know why that one picture insists on being upside-down). It is a poetic account. My 10th grader read about the Chicago fire as well in Peter Charles Hoffer’s Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America. I consider this book a find. You can tell the author loves his subject. The last inferno is 9/11. I think we will get it again for that when the time comes.


If you like art, you might want to check out Shirley Glubok’s The Art of America in the Gilded Age. It is a relatively short, easy to read book, but I had my 9th grade art lover read it.

Finally, we move on to life in the Gilded Age.


My 5th grader read Anna, Grandpa, and the Big Storm by Carla Stevens. It is a chapter book on a blizzard that hit New York City unawares. It is more of a 2nd-4th grade level. She also read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes about a Polish girl in Connecticut and The Green Ginger Jar by Clara Ingram Judson, a mystery story set in Sa Francisco’s Chinatown.  If you have time, you can check out Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. If you are pressed for time, there is a very abridged version for kids, The Boy’s Ambition. Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry doesn’t quite fit. It is about life on a Polynesian Island but you can use it to talk about the Hawaiian islands which the US acquired at this time.  Lastly, I had my 9th grader read Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes about Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco.

Happy reading!


Living Books on the American West

Dear Reader,

In our study of American history, we have reached the latter half of the 19th century. I am dealing with this period somewhat topically; we just finished  a study of the west and will next address industrialization. The are a number of topics subsumed under this heading: Native Americans, cowboys, pioneer life, the gold rush, the settlement of the west and its closing, plains farming and ranching, and the beginnings of the move for conservation. You can find all our reading lists for American history here.

Living Books on the American West

Our Spine

We used, as we usually do, a spine book which I read aloud to all the kids. This book provides and overview of the era and ensures that we don’t have any huge gaps . My children (4 of them, ages 10-15) can then read more in-depth books on specific topics at their own level. Our spine this year has been the series The American Destiny by Henry Steele Commager. It is aimed at a high school level (which two of mine are) and though I am not 100% satisfied with it (it can be a bit dry) and I am content enough with it to see it through this year at least.  Volume 8 of this 20-volume series address the west.

Picture Books

There is no shortage of books on the west; it is one of those topics which captures the imagination. I’m sure there are many good picture books on the subject. We read just a few (my kids are getting a bit old for picture books). Here are some to look for:

Klara’s New World by Jeanette Winter is a long picture book. It is the story of a young girl who emigrates with her parents to America (from Sweden, I think). The book mostly describes their journey, with only a little about their life in the New World, and nothing really on the hardships of being a pioneer.

Dakota Dugout by Anne Turner is another long picture book. As its name suggests it tells about like in a dugout house on the prairie.

Glen Rounds has a number if picture books on the west. We read Cowboys and Sod Houses on the Great Plains. The former was very short and well below my kids’ levels but Rounds’ pictures are nice and it would be good for pre-K through maybe 1st or 2nd grade. The latter was a little more complex (though that’s not saying much) and did give a good description of what sod houses were like.

Fiction: chapter books and beyond

We weren’t able to get to all the books we would have liked. I did not read Smokey the Cow Horse by Will James. My librarian was very excited I was checking it out though and apparently had fond memories of it. It looks like a nice old book but was a little long for us right now. It is fairly thick.

We’ve enjoyed Sterling North’s books in the past but didn’t manage to get to The Wolfling. None of my kids are that into animal books right now but if you have one who connects better with animals than people, this could be a good choice.

I checked out Carolina’s Courage by Elizabeth Yates, but my 10-year-old told me I ad made her read it last year when we studied Native Americans. Like most of Yates’ books, it is a sweet one and not too difficult. I would call it 3rd-5th grade level.

I did have my 10-year-old read Thunder Rolling in the Mountains by Scott O’Dell. O’Dell is an author I always look for; he has many historical fiction books. This is one of his simpler ones; I would call it 4th-6th grade level. My daughter seemed to enjoy the story which is about a Native American girl whose tribe is forced to move. She meets Sitting Bull at the end.

We did not get to Donna Vann’s Wild West Adventures. It is part of  a series which I am tempted to use for geography, each volume being set in a different locale. It looks to be 4th-6th grade level and to be a wholesome, Christian series. It might be a bit obvious on the Christianity bit for my tastes but some like that.

I had my 6th grader read The Bite of the Gold Bug by Barthe deClements. If anything, it was too easy for him so I’d say it is again 4th-6th grade level. I don’t think it’s fine literature but it did give some sense of life in the gold rush.

I had my 9th grade daughter read My Antonia by Willa Cather. This is a classic make-your-high-schooler-read-it book. I had never read it myself and really enjoyed it. I tend to be skeptical of the books everyone reads but this one is well worth it. I also read another of Cather’s books, O, Pioneers! which I also enjoyed. It is slower to get started and I can see why My Antonia is the one most people go to, but it is still a good book if you have the time. Both are about Scandinavian immigrant families on the plains.


I had my 5th grader read The Story of the Homestead Act from R. Conrad Stein. This series, The Cornerstones of Freedom, is a good one if you get the older version. Look for the books with “story of” in the title. I believe there are others that would fit this time period too but I didn’t get them from my library in time.

I also had my 5th grader read Wild and Woolly West by Earl Schenck Miers. It’s one of those lovely older books which do a good job of making a story of history.

My 6th grader read War Clouds in the West by Albert Marrin and Westward Adventure by William O. Steele. Both are favorite authors. War Clouds is one of Marrin’s simpler books and I would call it middle school level (most of his I would use for high school). Westward Adventure is also middle school level and is really six short biographies in one though at the end they all come together.

I also had my 5th grader read Saving the Buffalo by Albert Marrin which, not surprisingly tells all about the buffalo, the extinction they faced, and how they have come back. She seemed genuinely concerned for them which seems like a good sign.

I read Holling C. Holling’s The Book of Cowboys aloud to my younger two. I didn’t used to be a fan of Holling’s books but they are growing on me. Some parts of this one dragged (we weren’t very interested in all the kinds of saddles) but it is not a bad story and is certainly thorough. Two New York City kids go to the west to spend a summer with their uncle on his ranch.

My 9th grader read yet another Marrin book: Cowboys, Indians and Gunfighters. This one is a little harder so I am calling it high school level, though Marrin’s books are well-written and not truly difficult. In the interest of honestly, I’ll tell you my 10th grader, who has done the most Marrin books, balked at doing another one, though his reason was that they are really too thorough which I consider a good thing.

I did have my 10th grader read Ghost Towns of the American West by Robert Silverberg. We have done a couple of his books previously as well and have enjoyed them. He narrated it well and seemed to enjoy the book.

Poetry and Movies


We already owned Tales from Gizzard’s Grill, a long poem by Jeanne Steig. It is silly fun.

We also watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the old movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. We all thoroughly enjoyed it. There are one or two bits that are a bit racy (though nothing is really shown) and you do see that a man and woman are sleeping together. But there is enough humor and plot for a modern kid. We had also watched a number of Gene Autry movies recently (in another context) and my kids enjoyed those as well. They tend to be on the short side which is nice and are completely wholesome.

Next up: the Industrial Revolution


Picking Living Books

Dear Reader,

My method for homeschooling history is to get a stack of books on our topic — usually whatever comes next chronologically — from the library, to skim them, and to pick one or two for each child to read (as well as possibly some read-alouds). If there is a lot in our library system, one trick I use is to sort the results by publication date, from oldest to newest, and to request the older ones first.

Next up for us is a brief detour from our study of American history to touch on Victorian England. I need to get more books still, but I have a few here sitting on my counter so I thought I would share a paragraph from each to show how I pick a living book.

“One Friday in August, late in the morning, Susan Shaw came into my life again, more than a year and a half after she had vanished from Ward Street and the twentieth century.” (All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd)

“Almost one hundred years after her birth in 1819, ad novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie slyly points out, Queen Victoria’s image might have called to mind pocket change rather than pomp and glory, and the place of her birth was merely an architectural backdrop to promenade and play. From this perspective, the old queen signifies little to Edwardian children. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the narrator compresses the widely known facts and fancies of Victoria’s life at Kensington Palace from birth to accession — her solitude, love of dolls, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s audience with the newly made queen, and her public coronation — into a child’s version of Victoria’s life-story: ‘She was the most celebrated baby of the Gardens . . .'” (Becoming Victoria by Lynne Vallone)

“‘I will not learn my lessons!’ Princess Victoria stamped her tiny foot. ‘I want to sing and dance and playa s other children do. If my father were alive. he would not make me spend all of my time in the schoolroom!'” (Queen Victoria: English Empress by Sally Glendinning)

So which of these three would you pick? I find the first and third most engaging. Their first paragraphs make me want to know more. The first, if it isn’t obvious, takes a modern child and, by some stratagem, I don’t know what yet, has them travel back to Victorian times. I find this plot device a bit overdone and it tends to make me skeptical of the book as a whole. Nonetheless, the story still sounds intriguing and I want to read more.

The third strikes me as not being overly well-written, but, on the other hand, it also makes me want to continue reading. And in the first few sentences it has given me a taste for Victoria’s personality and a fact about her: her father is dead.

I couldn’t even bring myself to type out the whole first paragraph of the second book. I was bored reading it and I was bored typing it. It’s not that it’s completely dry, it is trying to be interesting. But it is also slipping in too many facts in too small a space without really giving me an interest in the subject. It does make me want to find and read Barrie’s book though 🙂

An key point here, I think, is that while there are some guidelines for living books, there are no hard and fast rules. One book may be living for me and not for you or vice-versa. This is important to keep in mind as we pick books for our children especially — just because I like a book doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for my child. On the other hand, we do want to gradually challenge out children’s reading and understanding skills so  one needs to use discernment and not let them off immediately if they squawk about a particular book.

As for me, I am back to the library because I have only two books I like so far and 4 children.


Living Books on the Build up to the Civil War

Dear Reader,

A new school year, a new crop of living books. As we continue to work our way through American history, my kids and I have been studying the last years before the American Civil War. As you may recall, last school year we made it through the presidency of James K. Polk (one of my new favorite presidents; did you know he was a Presbyterian?). This section covers Zachary Taylor through James Buchanan. For my complete list of lists of living books on American history see this post.

Living Books on the Build up to the Civil War (Taylor-Buchanan)

Spines — First a bit about spine books. If you are not familiar with the concept, try this post. I have two sets of spines this year, one more advanced series which I am reading aloud to all my kids (currently in grades 10,9,6 and 5 btw), and then the older, simpler books we were previously using which I read to just the younger two. The latter include This Country of Ours by H.E. Marshall and The Story of the Great Republic by Helene Geurber. For my older kids (and the younger ones have to listen too) I selected a series entitled The American Destiny, edited by Henry Steele Commager. (We had previously used Commager’s book on the Constitution and liked it very much.) This is a twenty volume set and volume six is the one that covers this time period. The reading is a bit lengthy for us to get through in the weeks I had allotted, but I am liking the series so far. At least for this portion of history it is not a chronological account of events but a discussion of issues (spoiler: the big issues are slavery and abolition). I find it a pretty fair and balanced approach on a controversial piece of history.

Volume 6 of The American Destiny

Volume 6 of The American Destiny

Presidential biographies by Mike Venezia — I read these aloud to my younger two. They are not true living books, imo, but they are fun. There are funny cartoon like pictures (as well as real ones). Venezia also has books on artists and others.

Venezia's volume on Zachary Taylor

Venezia’s volume on Zachary Taylor

This period isn’t all about slavery — it was the prime time for whaling too so let’s start with some books on that:

Holling's Seabird

Holling’s Seabird

Seabird by Holling C. Holling — This author is very popular with homeschoolers. I never used to like him but have come to appreciate some of his books. I wouldn’t say they are riveting but they do a good job of addressing  a subject. This one is really about the changes in sea travel as the generations of a family experience it, but it starts with a whaling ship. I’d call Holling’s books upper elementary level.

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 092358 (2)

Sperry's All Sail Set

Sperry’s All Sail Set

All Sail Set by Sperry — I was tempted to have my 6th grader read this book. It does look like a good, living book, but I opted for the next one instead as it looked just a wee bit easier and more likely to hold his attention.

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 144009

Whaler ‘Round the Horn by Stephen W. Meader — My 6th grader is reading this story of a boy who goes to sea on a whaling ship. He is doing a really good job narrating it and is telling me about different kinds of whales and the like. He is not normally a good narrator so I take this as a sign that the book has peaked his interest.

Evernote Snapshot 20150909 075354 (2)The True Adventures of Daniel Hall by Diane Stanley — This is a long picture book. I read it aloud to my younger two in two sittings. It is the true story of boy who went to sea on a whaler and ended up stranded in Siberia. This was a really good story. Honestly the writing style was not the most engaging; I found it a wee bit dry, but the story itself was so engaging I really enjoyed it. Oh, and I think the kids did too.

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 095844

The Story of the New England Whalers –This is one of a number of books from the Cornerstones of Freedom series that I had my younger two read. They are all about 40-50 pages and can easily be read in 2 sittings. I really like this series for making sure we at least get a brief introduction to topics we might otherwise miss. Be sure to get the old version of the series though — you will know them by their titles; they all seem to start with “The Story of” as far as I can discern — as I explained in this post (make sure to look at the comments for a full explanation).

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 144014

Riding the Pony Express by Clyde Robert Bulla — Here’s another fun topic from this era that kids will enjoy reading about. Bulla is a great author who has lots of historical fiction for kids. My fifth grader has been enjoying this one. I’d definitely call it upper elementary level (3rd-5th grade).

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 144013

The Sod House by Elizabeth Coatsworth — Another good book by another favorite author. Again this is upper elementary level and was read by my fifth grader. A family moves from the east to the frontier and lives in a sod house (surprise, surprise). They encounter problems with neighbors, but there is a happy ending when good new neighbors arrive from . . . dum, dum, dum — New England (yay!).

But we can’t avoid the big topic of the time forever. Here are some books on that whole slavery thing:

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 092359

Evernote Snapshot 20151008 165012

The Story of the Underground Railroad and The Story of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry— More Cornerstones of Freedom books. See my comments above on their whaling book.

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 092359 (1)Harriet Beecher Stowe by Jean Fritz — Fritz is another author I like to look for. Her books range in level but this one I’d call middle school level. I had my 9th grader read it.

Evernote Snapshot 20150910 074936The Drinking Gourd by F.N. Monjo — As you can see in the picture, this is an “easy reader” type book. It was a little below my 5th grader’s level but Monjo is another favorite author and she seemed to enjoy the story. I would call it a 2nd-4th grade level.

Evernote Snapshot 20150909 075355Nettie’s Trip South by Ann Turner — This is a picture book which I read aloud to my younger two. Of course it was a little young for them as well. I thought the author did a very good job, though, if giving a young girl’s impressions of the slave trade after a journey south. It is not an unbiased book.

Evernote Snapshot 20150916 092358 (4)Bound for the North Star by Dennis Fradin — We actually ran out of time and no on read this book but I really liked the looks of it. It is a collection of stories from the Underground Railroad.

Evernote Snapshot 20151008 165012 (1)Brady by Jean Fritz — Another one by Jean Fritz. This one is historical fiction about a family on the Underground Railroad that helping slaves escape. It seemed like an exiting story. I had my 6th grader read it. I would call it middle school level though a 5th grader could probably handle it.

Evernote Snapshot 20151008 165013The Fight for Union by Margaret Coit — This is really a history of the time period, that is, the build up to the war. I had both my 6th and 9th graders read it. I consider it a find and definitely a living book.

Evernote Snapshot 20151008 165013 (1)A Volcano beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War against Slavery by Albert Marrin — I love Marrin’s books and almost always have my now 10th grader read one. I think you could do a whole history curriculum (at least for early American history) out of them. Despite the title, Marrin always brings in lots of events and people from the time period so there is a lot more than John Brown discussed here. Personally, I never knew much about John Brown himself. He was quite a wacko.

And that’s my list. Next time (you guessed it): the Civil War.


Another Example of a Written Narration

Dear Reader,

Since the last one was short, I thought I’d give you another example of a written narration from my 10th grader. What I liked in this one is that he refers to a character from a read-aloud we are doing (that’s the “Lady Ashton”). I also like that he adds a personal tone by giving his own conclusions and opinions. What I don’t like is that he says “had went.” I hope he knows better than that; I know he doesn’t talk that way. I’ll try to give samples from my other kids in the near future too so you can compare how narrations look at different ages. One last note before I give you the narration: this child mentioned recently that he reads differently when he knows he has to narrate. I am not sure quite what that means but I think it is what we are looking for here. I will say that even accounting for age he is by far my best narrator. It is amazing to me what he can remember even from long passages. Though this narration is long, his oral ones can be even longer and more detailed.

Here then is the narration:

     John Brown’s friends who helped him at Harper’s Ferry were rounded up and brought on trial.  Four of them were tried together.  Two of them had no clue what was going to happen after they got the guns.  All four were sentenced to death.  Another man who had taken serious injuries had to wait before he was tried.  He was also hanged.  There was another man who managed to get away from the police for a while, but he was arrested and tried and he was hanged on the same day as the sick man.  But if my numbers are correct, two managed to run away and somehow make it to safety.
John Brown has some rich friends who had helped him get guns back in Massachusetts and were mentioned in a lot of John Brown’s letters.  When they realized Brown had left their letters to him lying around, most of them desired to run.  One went crazy, but he was fine in the end.  Another one gave his full support to John Brown’s ideas, from the safety of Italy.  He had went there on medical vacation, similar to the vacation Lady Ashton wants to go on.  He decided he would give Brown his full support, but he wanted to stay in Italy.  Three of them ran into Canada, but they were informed that they would not be prosecuted they decided they could go home.  One of them hung out in Canada for a little bit longer than the other ones, just to be safe.  Another one went to England and stayed there for two years before he thought it was safe.  And then there was the man who went about his normal business and thought all the other guys were wimps for leaving.
Many legends have come about because of John Brown’s death.  A bunch of southerners did not want Brown to be killed because of what it would do to the press.  Some northerners want John Brown to be killed because they realized John Brown knew how to work the press.  So, the southerners shouldn’t have killed him and they obviously couldn’t have let him go, so they should have put him in some absurdly remote dungeon for the rest of his life where he couldn’t write books or anything.
Many people became fired up by Brown’s death.  He did not end slavery like he wanted to but he cut away some of the roots of the tree of slavery.

Until next time


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