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Today I’d like to share some of my favorite living books for early elementary students, those in grades 1–3, covering history during the years of 1550–1850 or so. I’m going to share titles for both American history and world history during that era, often called Early Modern.
I think it’s helpful to study American history in the context of world history, because the events are often interrelated. American history did not happen in a vacuum, and you can help a child understand the bigger picture when you read about world history alongside it.
In a previous post, I shared my top picks for this time period that the whole Family could enjoy together. Those are my favorite “spine” books. The titles I’m going to share today focus on specific people or events during that time period. You can use them to branch off that overview “spine” and elaborate on certain parts or dive into more details on a person’s life.
I’ll start with my favorite American history books for grades 1–3 and then move to world history books.
By the way, when I say these books are for grades 1–3, I do not mean they are written on those grade levels for the children to read. We expect you to read these books aloud to the children during those grades. They can comprehend a higher level when they listen to a book than they can read for themselves at this age. So I simply mean that these books’ ideas and content are appropriate and would be interesting for children about ages 6–9.
First, American history. These books focus on Colonial America and the Revolutionary War.
The Pilgrims of Plimoth by Marcia Sewall
This wonderful account of the pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower and established Plimoth Plantation is written as though the pilgrims are telling their story. In fact, quotes from their journals are interwoven throughout the narrative. Though this is technically a picture book, there is a lot of text. Don’t try to read the whole thing in one sitting; it would be too much to absorb well. Happily, the book is divided into sections. I recommend reading each section in a separate sitting. Your children will hear about the Pilgrims and their story; it’s told in past tense. The rest of the sections describe everyday life for the Menfolk, the Womenfolk, and Children and Youngfolk, all written in present tense. (“We rise each day as the sun comes up.”) The final short section gives a quick concluding page about the plantation and their hopes and dreams for it.
Next is a trilogy for young students: Samuel Eaton’s Day, Sarah Morton’s Day, and Tapenum’s Day—all by Kate Waters. These three books build off of the Marcia Sewall book and give an even more vivid look at everyday life during Pilgrim times. Samuel Eaton and Sarah Morton are children in Plimoth Plantation. Tapenum is a Wampanoag Indian boy who lives near the plantation. So the three books give a wonderfully balanced view of daily life during that era. I love that the books are illustrated with photographs taken on site; they make these descriptions of long ago very living and relatable. The three books are meant to be a trilogy, so enjoy them that way.
The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh
This Newberry Honor book is not long, but it packs many important ideas in its 11 chapters. Sarah Noble is eight years old when her father treks into the Connecticut wilderness to build their family a new home. Mother has a new baby who cannot make the trip, so Sarah goes along with Father in order to cook for him. As you read this story, your child will gain strong ideas about what courage looks like—not in crisis situations, necessarily, but in the midst of the challenges that each day brings. He will also gain ideas about living peacefully with the Native Americans as friends and neighbors. In fact, Father and Sarah become such good friends with their Indian neighbors, that eventually Father leaves Sarah with them while he goes back to fetch Mother and the rest of the family. Your child will also pick up the subtle idea that even young children can be a help to their parents and the family. This is a true story. Can your eight-year-old do the cooking? That is a powerful idea! But it’s not pushed in your face or pointed out; it’s simply a foundational part of the story. And your child will benefit from that nod toward responsibility and helping. Through all of Sarah’s experiences traveling in the wilderness, establishing a household, helping her father, and interacting with neighbors who have a different culture, your child will learn many lessons about life—in the early 1700s and today.
Benjamin Franklin by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire
The D’Aulaires have written many wonderful titles covering American history. I especially like this one on Benjamin Franklin. The detailed illustrations have mottos from Poor Richard’s Almanac tucked into them. And the narrative includes personal touches that make the historical figure very personable, relatable, and memorable. For example, Benjamin’s father used to take a long time saying grace whenever the family sat down to eat. One day, when Benjamin was a young boy, he remarked, “Father, think of all the time you could save if you would thank the Lord, once and for all, for the whole larder.” Young children can definitely relate to that situation! Don’t try to read this whole book in one sitting; take it in small portions with time to ponder all of the ideas it presents. And look for the D’Aulaire books on Pocahontas and on George Washington; plus, you could read their books on Buffalo Bill and Abraham Lincoln as you begin to transition into studying Modern Times. Wonderful authors. Wonderful books.
Toliver’s Secret by Esther Wood Brady
This adventure story is a great way to make the Revolutionary War come alive for your child. I can do no better than share some of the back cover text: “Ellen Toliver is shocked to learn that her grandfather is a patriot spy. Then he’s injured on the day of an important mission—and she’s the only one who can take his place. It’s the last thing shy, timid Ellen wants to do, but her grandfather, and her country, are depending on her. It seems simple: Take a boat across New York Harbor and deliver a loaf of bread with a secret message for General Washington baked inside.” But things don’t go as planned. It’s a great historical fiction that your child is sure to enjoy.
Now for my favorite world history titles on this same era, about 1550–1850 or so. Remember, the “spine” book, Stories of the Nations, that I mentioned in that other post will give the full range of those years’ events. These books that I’ll be listing are great for focusing on specific people or portions of those years.
A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla
Another great historical fiction, but this one is based on true incidents. Be sure to read the Historical Note at the end of the book. (No spoilers.) Three years ago, Amanda’s father left for the new colony of Jamestown, in America. He was planning to come back and get them, but it has been a long time with no word of his whereabouts. When her mother dies, Amanda becomes the head of the family and decides to take her brother and sister to America to find their father. The ocean crossing is long and hard, and when the ship wrecks, the children find themselves on an island rather than their intended destination. What happens next you will have to read about for yourself. You may remember this author, Clyde Robert Bulla, from a book I recommended for studying the Middle Ages, called Viking Adventure. He is an excellent children’s writer with many wonderful titles to his credit, and this book is no exception.
Dangerous Journey by Oliver Hunkin
John Bunyan was a key author during Early Modern times, and I wanted to give my children an introduction to his story of The Pilgrim’s Progress as we studied this time period. Unfortunately, most of the children’s versions of that classic don’t do it justice. But then I found Dangerous Journey. This book preserves the feel and the picturesque language of the original while still making it accessible to young children. The illustrations also help the children follow the story line quite easily. This version is divided into chapters that break the story up into the main events and give good portions for reading sessions. Is this a replacement for the original? No. I still encourage the children to read the original when they are older. But Dangerous Journey is a trustworthy introduction when they are young.
Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? by Jean Fritz
Jean Fritz has such a great sense of humor and a keen love for history. This book will give your child a view of America’s war for independence from a British perspective. And your child will learn a lot about King George III—his life and what it was like to be king. The author includes lively and interesting tidbits about his habits and thought processes, making his story come to life in your child’s mind. A great book to encourage your child to consider both sides of a conflict. (Sadly, the publisher has recently changed the cover art on this book, but try not to let that deter you from all of the good that is inside.)
Out of Darkness: The Story of Louis Braille by Russell Freedman
Russell Freedman’s books are usually recommended for an older age group, but this one has a different feel from his others. Out of Darkness is still an interesting narrative, well written, and historically authentic, as are his other titles. But this one is half size and divided into short chapters with beautiful pencil-sketch illustrations. Take your time working through it. And, as with any great living book, your older children might want to listen in too. And don’t be surprised if reading this book sparks an intense desire to learn Braille or at least experiment with it. If you know a person who uses Braille, you might want to arrange a live demonstration or two and help your children formulate questions to ask that friend. The story of Louis Braille is a great opportunity to study history and expand your child’s present world at the same time.
Let me add a couple of bonus titles for world history too.
Starry Messenger by Peter Sis
I’m mentioning this one only because it is a good introductory biography to Galileo in short, but surprisingly complete, statements. However, my one reservation with this title is the artwork. The illustrations are quite unusual, and some might be too intense for your child—especially the ones near the back of the book where the author is telling about Galileo’s fears when summoned before the pope. But other illustrations are just fascinating. So preview all of the pictures in this book and discern whether it is a good fit for your child.
Galileo’s Leaning Tower Experiment by Wendy Macdonald
Another great picture book about Galileo, this one focuses on one incident in Galileo’s life: the experiment he conducted to test whether heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, as was commonly believed. This retelling has an element of historical fiction to it as the story is told from a young Italian boy’s perspective as the helper to Galileo in his experiment. The illustrations are fabulous, painted by a talented Italian artist, and give your child an authentic look at where Galileo lived. One of my favorite picture books for early elementary students.
So those are my favorite titles for grades 1–3, covering the Early Modern time period in both American history and world history. These are the same titles that are used in our daily lesson plans for this time period, called Early Modern and Epistles. Those plans lay out exactly which of the books to read when and how much in each sitting. They also give narration reminders and helpful exam questions at the end of every term, to encourage your child to recall and relate his favorite parts from these great books. And the lesson plans include the Family books I mentioned in that previous post, plus books for all of the grade levels. I’ll be covering those picks in future posts, but if you want a sneak peek at my favorite Early Modern titles for grades 4 through 12 too, you’ll find them in that book’s resource list and daily plans.