Posts Tagged ‘wild west’

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