Favorite Early Modern Books for Grades 7–9

I love being surrounded by great books! My father recently made me two more bookcases, so I’ve been happily reshuffling and reorganizing my collection of history and literature books. That’s one of my favorite tasks: handling and organizing my books. As I hold each one, it’s like looking into the face of an old friend.

So today, I want to introduce some of those friends to you. We’ll focus these introductions on books for students in grades 7–9 and these will be great living books that will add much to your study of Early Modern times, approximately the years 1550 to 1850.

We’ve already discussed spine books for the Family and extra books for the younger grades (grades 1–3 and grades 4–6) in previous posts. And don’t worry, my high school picks will be coming soon.

Whenever I recommend books for Early Modern or Modern Times, I like to include both American history and World history. I think it gives our students a great advantage to study American history in the context of what was going on in the rest of the world at that time.

And if you would like daily lesson plans that detail the order in which to read all of these wonderful books and how many times a week to read them and how much to read at each sitting, you’ll find all of that already scheduled out for you in our lesson plan book called Early Modern and Epistles. It will layout a plan for all of the books I recommend across all of the grades for that time period.

Okay, let’s get to introducing my book friends. First, American history.

American History

Poor Richard by James Daugherty (1706–1790)

You can’t find a better biography of Benjamin Franklin for this age group than Poor Richard. James Daugherty is a master storyteller and distinct artist, and both of those qualities shine through in this book. Reading the story of Ben Franklin’s life provides a great overview of colonial America, the Revolutionary War, and the founding of our government. And James Daugherty provides that overview in personal terms with a living narrative written in rich language.

Early Thunder by Jean Fritz (1775) OR Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (1773) 

I would recommend you choose one of these two. Now, of course, if your student is an avid reader and you’re always looking for more good books to give him, use both; that’s fine. But they are somewhat similar. Both are historical fiction that center on a young man’s adventures in the pre-Revolutionary tension. Early Thunder centers on the rising tensions between those loyal to the king and those who want liberty. Daniel has to make his decision. Johnny Tremain is the story of a silversmith apprentice who has an accident that renders one of his hands useless. As his life takes a new path, he comes in contact with Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and other Boston patriots and discovers his place in American history. Both books are well written and make for excellent reading. Plus, they are both about the same length (Johnny Tremain is a little bit longer) and both about the same reading level, so use whichever you have handy. They’re both great.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (1779–1800)

This Newbery Medal winner is written like historical fiction, but it chronicles the life of a real man, Nathaniel Bowditch, and his valuable contribution to navigation. It was fun a few years ago when I was visiting my nephew who is in the Navy. Somehow we got onto the topic of navigating the ships at sea, and he mentioned the “Sailor’s Bible,” which is what they call the book that Nathaniel Bowditch wrote. The official title is The American Practical Navigator. Well, I immediately recommended that my nephew read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, if he wanted to know the story behind that “Sailor’s Bible” that is still used today. The story is very readable and follows Mr. Bowditch from his modest beginnings to his first sea voyage to his eventual mastery of navigation and publishing of his work. Best of all, Nathaniel Bowditch was self-educated. It’s a great book filled with great ideas for your student. And, as with any good biography, you learn much about the time period as you follow a person’s life events.

Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloan (1805)

Eric Sloan found a small wood-backed, leather-bound diary in an ancient house in the eastern United States. It was the diary of a fifteen-year-old boy, Noah Blake, and documented a year in his life: 1805. The author has used that diary and seamlessly woven in his commentary on early American life to create a vivid picture of the work and tools and plans and ingenuity that were demonstrated by those early settlers. If you have a son or daughter who loves to study how things work, the exquisitely detailed pen-and-ink drawings will be fascinating. But the narrative will be interesting to all, regardless. It’s a fabulous living depiction of how life changed for that family over the years, even while focusing on just one year in the life of an Early American boy.

Those are my early American history picks. Let’s move on to world history books.

World History

The World of William Penn by Genevieve Foster (1660–1718)

So much was happening around the world during this time period, and few authors can show you the full scope better than Genevieve Foster. You may be familiar with her books covering other time periods, but I like to recommend two titles of hers for Early Modern times. And both are surprisingly small, compared to her others, which is great, because we can take our time and make those personal connections that are such an important part of learning. The first Genevieve Foster title that I recommend for this time period is The World of William Penn. Your student will learn about Penn, yes, but also about the emperors of India and the Taj Mahal, about the great Manchu emperor in China, about Louis the Fourteenth in France and Peter the Great in Russia. But not just rulers. Your student will also see how scientists, like Edmund Halley and Sir Isaac Newton, and explorers, like Marquette and Jolliet and la Salle, all fit into that era. William Penn’s life spans a fascinating age of exploration and discovery. Plus your student will gain great ideas from Penn’s beliefs that undergirded his relationships with the Pennsylvania Native American tribes. The World of William Penn, it’s another great living narrative from Genevieve Foster. Since I’m listing these books in chronological order, I’ll get to the other Genevieve Foster at the end.

The Story of Modern France by H. A. Guerber (chapters 1–23; 1715–1795 [1910])

You may recognize this author from The Story of the Greeks and The Story of the Romans that we recommend for those time periods. The Story of Modern France does a great job of laying out the French Revolution in a succinct yet living narrative. The book goes on to tell more about the history of France, but the main reason I assign this book is to cover that revolution. So I usually recommend only the first 23 chapters. Your student can certainly finish the whole book if he wants to, but only chapters 1–23 are scheduled in the lesson plans. And don’t worry if you don’t use the whole thing; happily, this book is in public domain, so you can find it free online.

Hearts and Hands: Chronicles of the Awakening Church by Mindy and Brandon Withrow (1700–1860)

The Withrows have written a series of books about church history that focuses on telling the stories of influential Christian men and women. Hearts and Hands is volume four in that series and presents living biographies of gifted preachers and justice fighters around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries: Jonathan Edwards, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Wesley, William Wilberforce and the Abolitionists, William Carey, Elizabeth Fry, Liang Fa, Adoniram and Ann Judson, Fidelia Fiske, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others who played key roles in church history. I feel a kindred spirit with the authors; the back cover copy starts out: “Let history come to life—just the way it should do.” For living church history, check out the History Lives series.

Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates (1725–1801)

This is another Newbery Medal winner and a powerful story. It traces the life of Amos, from his capture in Africa in 1725 to his horrific trip across the ocean to his life as a slave in New England. After more than twenty years as a slave, he was able to arrange for and buy his freedom. The narrative follows his establishing a trade and building a homestead and finally being able to purchase freedom for the woman he wanted to marry as well as some needy children in his town. Your student will learn much about the evils of slavery and yet how a strong character and kind heart can rise above hard circumstances and overcome evil with good. It’s a true story and a powerful book. 

The Year of the Horseless Carriage by Genevieve Foster (1801–1821)

This is the other Genevieve Foster book that I love to recommend for this time period. It’s the thinnest of them all, but this is the one that gave me the most “ah-ha” moments when I read it. Though it sounds like it chronicles only one year, it does much more than that. Here is the author’s introduction:

“In 1801, when this book begins, Napoleon Bonaparte was not only the ruler of France; he was also planning to conquer and rule over England, as well as the entire continent of Europe. In America he owned all the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. What he planned to do with it was of great concern to Thomas Jefferson, the new president of the United States.

“In fact, in 1801, Napoleon was causing such a stir in both Europe and America that the invention of the ‘horseless carriage,’ the most significant event of that year, passed by almost unnoticed. It was not until Napoleon had been defeated by the kings and emperors of Europe, and was a prisoner on the island of Saint Helena, that the first public railroad was started in England and the locomotive began to take the place of the horse.

“This is the story of those eventful twenty years—from 1801 to 1821.”

And through this masterful storytelling, your student will form connections between Richard Trevithick, Thomas Jefferson, Beethoven, Robert Fulton, Lewis and Clark, James Madison, and more. A great book that sets the wheels in motion for transitioning into Modern Times.

So those are some old friends of mine that I hope will become good friends to you and your 7th–9th grade student. Do you have any other book friends that you would like to recommend for Early Modern at this age level? Leave a comment and let’s talk books.