We’ve been sharing our favorite books for studying the Middle Ages and Renaissance, telling a little about each title and breaking it down by age range. So far we’ve covered grades 1–3, grades 4–6, grades 7–9, and grades 10–12. What’s left? Well, today I want to give you some titles that are great for all ages.
You know, a well-written living book will appeal to a wide range of age levels. Sure, the younger students might not wrap their brains around everything in the book, but they will gain a lot of good ideas—the ones they are ready to grasp—and they will be exposed to some great writing along the way. The oldest students might already know a lot of what is read, but good living books bring out fresh details and different perspectives that can make the historical person or event seem new again.
So I like to read some history books all together as a family, keeping everyone on the same time period and inviting good discussion between older and younger children. Perhaps I should have started my reviews with these Family books, because I like to make them the center of our history study. Then I bring in those age-level books alongside, giving extra reading assignments for the older students and a change of pace for the younger ones.
Now, lest that thought seems overwhelming and you’re trying to figure out how you would put all of those reading pieces together, let me reassure you. We’ve already done the planning for you. We have day-by-day lesson plans available that detail how to use all of the books I have mentioned with your whole family together; the plans lay out very simply which books to read when and how much to assign or to read aloud on which days. Just look for the lesson plans called Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation & Epistles. That guide puts all of these books together for you in a cohesive plan for all of the grades for the whole year.
So let’s dive into my top picks for living books that the whole family will enjoy on the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation.
A Castle with Many Rooms: The Story of the Middle Ages by Lorene Lambert
The book that I like to make the centerpiece of our study on this time period is called A Castle with Many Rooms: The Story of the Middle Ages by Lorene Lambert. This is a fabulous living book that covers 1,000 years of history. And it is not limited to just European history; chapters cover what was happening in the Middle East, in the Americas, in Asia, and in Africa too during those years.
Your students will hear how the Roman Empire exits the stage of history; how an Irish monk and a band of Norsemen sail over the Atlantic’s dark waters; and how a new army arises out of the deserts of Arabia. They will meet Justinian the Great, King Arthur, Charlemagne, the Vikings, and the Maya people. They will learn about monasteries, feudalism, knighthood and samurai warriors, the crusades, and castles. And they will discover the changes that came along with Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, Giotto, William Tell, Joan of Arc, Prince Henry, and Gutenberg.
One chapter each is given to the Renaissance, to Martin Luther and the Reformation, and to Copernicus and the scientific revolution that he began—all setting the stage for the next segment of history to unfold. It’s a delightful and enjoyable look at an amazing time period, one that the whole family will enjoy! And many of you will be happy to know that Narration Notecards are available for A Castle with Many Rooms, giving you detailed narration prompts for all ages for each of the 32 chapters in the book.
Next on my favorites list are two books by David Macaulay. David Macaulay has created a series of books that focus on key structures around the world and throughout history. These books contain detailed sketches and drawings along with a living storyline that makes the structure come alive. So for the Middle Ages and Renaissance time periods, I like to include his book called Castle and the one called Cathedral.
Each book walks you through the construction of one of those buildings, from the first idea through the finished project. It tells about all of the various craftsmen who were needed for various jobs, where they came from, and how they lived during the construction. And as you follow the building’s construction, step by step, you learn so much about engineering and materials and life in that time period.
Castle is set in 1283—1295, and includes how those in and around the fictional castle withstood an enemy siege and catapult attack. Cathedral covers the construction of a fictional cathedral in France from 1252 through 1338, when the beautiful building was finished 86 years later. Though these books are shorter, I like to take them in small segments so we can look closely and carefully at the drawings and give ourselves time to wrap our minds around the details as we go along. There are other Macaulay books like these set in different time periods; look for Pyramid, Mosque, Ship, and Mill, to name a few.
Around the World in a Hundred Years by Jean Fritz
When we get up to point of Prince Henry the Navigator (which is a chapter in A Castle with Many Rooms), I like to bring in the book Around the World in a Hundred Years by Jean Fritz.
Now, if you start at the beginning with this book, here is a heads-up: you will encounter a less-than-complimentary description of Christians in the first chapter. The statement is made that “Christians did not believe in scholarship. They thought it was sacrilegious to be curious.” That statement can initiate a great discussion about who the author is referring to as “Christians,” what she means by “scholarship” and “curious,” and what might have prompted her to write that description. If your older students have already studied the Early Modern time period, they can bring into the discussion how church leaders responded to Galileo’s assertions and similar incidents. If your children are younger, or if you don’t want to broach that discussion right now, you can simply skip that statement or you can start with chapter 2 or chapter 3. However you decide to approach it, I encourage you not to let that one statement prevent you from enjoying this book; there is a lot of good here.
Jean Fritz has a great sense of humor and a real knack at bringing history and geography alive. And this book about the major explorers, from Henry the Navigator to Magellan, is one of my favorites. The detailed, sometimes humorous, drawings and helpful maps only add to the experience.
The Bible Smuggler by Louise Vernon
Then if you want to add a Family book on the Reformation event, I recommend reading The Bible Smuggler by Louise Vernon. It is a historical fiction about William Tyndale and his adventures translating the Bible into English, printing copies, and smuggling them into England in the 1500s. Your children will live the adventure through the eyes of Collin, an English boy who helps Tyndale with his dangerous project.
Louise Vernon has written other titles, as well: Ink on His Fingers is about Gutenberg’s struggles to print the Bible using moveable type; The Man Who Laid the Egg introduces Erasmus to your children; and Thunderstorm in Church tells the story of Martin Luther. She also wrote The Beggars’ Bible, about John Wycliff.
And while we’re talking about bonus titles, another good biographer is Diane Stanley. You can find several of her books about people who lived in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They look somewhat like advanced picture books with lots of text, but they are interesting for all ages. Look for her biographies on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Joan of Arc, as well as several that go on into the Early Modern time period.
Do you have any other favorite titles on the Middle Ages and Renaissance that the whole family can enjoy together? Leave a comment and let me know. I love to talk books!