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I remember my high school history books. They were nothing like these beauties! My history textbooks were full of summaries and facts. These are full of ideas and people and fascinating narratives that make the events of the past come alive!
Today I want to share with you my favorite history books for high school students covering the early modern time period. And we’re going to be looking at books for both early American history and world history.
I think it’s important to study American history, or the history of your particular country, in the context of world history. Our students—and we—can learn a lot by keeping that larger perspective and making those important connections between people and events.
I’m going to be talking about ten different books. That’s a lot to keep track of. So if you would like a reading plan all laid out for you, that incorporates all of these books—plus all of the books I’ve recommended for the family and grades 1–9 in my other reviews—take a look at the Early Modern and Epistles lesson plan book. It also has narration reminders, Book of Centuries entries, and exam questions to help you.
Let’s start with my favorite high school books for American history.
America: The Last Best Hope, Volume 1, by William Bennett (1492–1914)
This wonderful overview is actually a series, and I do recommend all of the books in the series, but for early modern times (approximately 1550–1850) I like to use Volume 1. It covers from the discovery of America through World War I, so I use the first seven chapters for early modern, and then the rest of it as we move into modern times, along with others in the series.
It’s good in the high school years to include overview books that take a bird’s eye perspective on a subject or a time period. With all of the great biographies and specific event narratives that your student has read throughout the younger grades, he should have an ample storehouse of those living ideas and people from the past, so in the high school years he can draw on those relations with those events or people as they are mentioned in the overview. It’s hard to find a good concise American history overview that is interesting, current, and written in a living narrative. America: The Last Best Hope meets all of those criteria. It’s the best that I’ve found, and I’ve gotten good feedback from students who have read it.
By the way, this is a great series to help your student make a transition to college level work. It’s a thick book, so your student will gradually be reading longer and longer sections as he works his way through the chapters. That’s great preparation for the amount of reading that will be required if he goes to college. But happily, this reading is in an interesting and living American history book. It’s a great series.
American Voices, edited by Ray Notgrass (1616–2007)
Another important genre to include in the high school years is original documents, primary sources. Charlotte Mason included poetry of the time period and literature of the time period at this level, because she believed those types of writing gave a good understanding of the thoughts and experiences of the time. The best resource I have found for primary sources is American Voices, edited by Ray Notgrass. This is a hefty collection of documents, speeches, essays, hymns, poems, and short stories from American History.
And you can split it between Early Modern and Modern Times. I like to use selections from the first half of it while studying Early Modern and selections from the rest during Modern Times.
The only commentary is a short sentence or two to set the stage for each document, telling who the author was and in what historical setting the piece was written. The emphasis is on the documents and literature and poetry. It’s a great resource. When your student is reading about the Revolutionary War, you can bring in alongside Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, and excerpts from Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and the Declaration of Independence. Your student can read the inaugural addresses of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln; letters from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville; Civil Disobedience by Thoreau; and powerful excerpts from the article by Frederick Douglass that he titled, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” And those are just a sampling of the fascinating documents in this collection. There are lots more for both Early Modern and Modern Times. If you want your student to really understand American history, be sure to include the documents, literature, and poetry as you go along. The American Voices collection makes it simple to do.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin (1555–1765)
You can find this one free online quite easily. There are a couple of great points about reading Franklin’s autobiography. First, it’s excellent writing with touches of humor. So even though it may not be the easiest read, it rewards those who give it their full attention. Second, it covers almost 200 years of Early Modern history. He starts by tracing his family in England, beginning at 1555, and tells his life story up through 1765. Sadly, he never finished it. Those final 25 years we must read from someone else’s perspective. But what he did leave us is an interesting inside look at life in colonial America.
Lafayette and the American Revolution by Russell Freedman (1757–1834)
Russell Freedman is one of my favorite authors for Early Modern and Modern Times. His books are meticulously researched and include interesting details told in a living way. They also include lots of artwork and illustrations from the time period, so when you’re reading about Lafayette, you get a personal picture of him in your mind. For Early Modern times, I like to recommend Lafayette and the American Revolution, because it shows how the principles of the fledgling United States impacted France and it paints a memorable portrait of one man’s sacrifices for the cause of freedom in two countries.
A couple of bonus titles for this time period are Washington at Valley Forge and Give Me Liberty: The Story of the Declaration of Independence, both by Russell Freedman.
Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (1801–1877)
You may recognize that last author, Ken Burns, for his stellar video documentary work. I’m happy to say that this book is really a companion to a video by the same name. The video is what made this historical journey come to life for me. You can still find it at pbs.org and I saw a few used copies on Amazon. It’s fabulous! The book follows the same format as the video documentary. Both contain lots of entries from the diaries of Lewis and Clark and vivid pictures of the land and the people groups that they encountered along their journey to the sea.
(Note: Let me give you two heads-up if you are able to watch this video. Two very short comments are made during the documentary. Both are accurate and factual, not at all sensationalized, but you might want to know they are coming. During the section called “Our Friends” an Indian ritual is described matter-of-factly that includes wives offering to “sleep with” other men in the tribe. Those are the words used in a brief comment. During the section “O! the Joy” they tell how Lewis and Clark found out that the Indians living near the west coast had already learned some English words from ship captains and such. Some of those words are swear words. Again, mentioned factually and without any sensationalizing. But I thought you might want to know ahead of time.)
Now for my Early Modern world history recommendations for high school. I have five books in all, but three of them I have already reviewed in my top picks for grades 7–9: Hearts and Hands: Chronicles of the Awakening Church by Mindy and Brandon Withrow, plus The World of William Penn and The Year of the Horseless Carriage, both by Genevieve Foster. I think these three are great reads for all of the older students, grades 7–12. Good living books can be interesting and appropriate for a wide range of ages. Rather than repeat my reviews of them here, follow this link to my previous reviews. If you’re not already familiar with these books, you can go there and read about these three great titles that your high school student is sure to enjoy.
The other two titles include a collection of biographies and a historical fiction.
First, the biographies: Famous Men of the 16th and 17th Century by Robert G. Shearer (1519–1715).
Some of you may be familiar with the Famous Men series by Haaren and Poland. Rob Shearer of Greenleaf Press has provided a great service in bringing those books up to date. I love to recommend his editions of that series, because I know he has incorporated the advantage of more recent research and wider perspective while still staying true to the narrative style. His Famous Men of the 16th and 17th Century is a wonderful collection of biographies of prominent men and women who lived in the 1500s and 1600s. Your student will read about Catherine de’ Medici, Elizabeth I, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Galileo, Pascal, Rembrandt, William of Orange, Louis the Fourteenth, and more. People from France and England and China and Germany, Denmark, Poland, and Sweden are all featured in this book. Twenty-eight life stories that will give your student insight into this time period in a way that no textbook can.
The historical fiction book is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859). Set during the French Revolution, this famous novel will definitely make that era of history come alive for your student. Intrigue, mystery, adventure, narrow escapes, honor, loyalty, and daring all come into play in this classic book. Sure, it can be read at any time as a literature title, but pairing it with a study of Early Modern history helps to lock its events into place and make it that much more memorable. Dickens is not the easiest author to read, but your student’s efforts will definitely be rewarded with this tale.
So those are my top picks for high school students studying Early Modern times. How about you? Do you have some favorite living books that you want to share for this time period and age group? Let us know by leaving a comment.