Favorite Modern Times History Books for Grades 1–3

There are a lot of books available on modern history (about 1850 to present day). The trick is to find the good ones, the ones that are appropriate for those younger grades mentally and emotionally. Some very difficult events occurred in modern times, and because of advancing technology, we are more aware of some quite disturbing details about those events—details that we don’t usually have for older history. But I don’t believe that the younger grades are the time to share those details in full force. 

Children that age are still in the beginning stages of wrapping their heads around how big the world is and how many different people are in it and how they personally relate to all those others. They still have a strong need to feel safe as they make sense of the world around them. I lean toward offering a more gentle pass through history for these students; time enough to learn grisly details later, when they grow more mature and emotionally stronger and better able to grapple with disturbing ideas. I’m not saying everything should be sweet and light; I’m saying be careful of expecting a child to handle descriptions and images that can set an adult back on her heels.

So the books I’m going to share with you today follow that philosophy. They talk about the world wars and the interpersonal conflicts but in a way that is appropriate for this age group.

I’ll be sharing both American history and world history titles, both set in modern times. Studying both tracks of history helps our children develop a global perspective and understand that what happened in America did not happen in isolation.

Half of these books are included in the daily lesson plans in Modern Times and Epistles, Revelation; the other half are bonus titles that you can substitute in your study or keep for leisure reading as desired. There are a lot of good books out there for modern times, so we have to be choosy and not overload.

American History

A Boy Named FDR: How Franklin D. Roosevelt Grew Up to Change America by Kathleen Krull (1882–1945)

This book traces FDR’s years leading up to his election. It focuses on his wealthy childhood and his home education. Most importantly, it traces the lessons his parents taught him about character and caring for the less fortunate and outlines how those ideas took root in Franklin’s heart and began to bear fruit as he grew older. It follows his fledgling political career and the devastation of his contracting polio and paralysis but also his persistence in not giving up. His achievements as President are highlighted on one page. This is mainly a book about the ideas that shaped his life and character. And in the back there is a timeline of his life with short excerpts from his speeches or fireside chats on the radio during those times.

Just as a side note, I first became aware of this book when I visited the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. That was the retreat home where FDR would go to rest or have informal meetings. I also visited the Warm Springs facility that he helped establish for polio victims, taking advantage of the revitalizing power of the naturally warm spring water. Both locations have an excellent museum. They make a great field trip if you happen to be in the area.

The Unbreakable Code by Sara Hoagland Hunter (1941–1945)

This is a fascinating book about a chapter of World War II that many people don’t know. During the war, the U.S. was sending messages in code, which is a common practice; but the Japanese were having no trouble intercepting and decoding all those messages. The U.S. needed a harder code, and they decided to use the Navajo language. Few outsiders had ever learned it, and it had never been written down; so there was no alphabet for the Japanese to discover and use to decode. In this lovely book, a Navajo grandfather tells the story of how he used his Navajo language and character during the war; and in the process, he gives his grandson courage to face his own future. The original code is included in the back of the book.

I Have a Dream: The Story of Martin Luther King by Margaret Davidson (1929–1968)

This short biography is a wonderful way to introduce Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement to your children. As I mentioned earlier, it presents this time of conflict in a way that is appropriate for younger children. It begins when Martin was six years old and he is told that he can no longer play with his two best friends next door, simply because their skin is a different color. His mother does a wonderful job of explaining the views of society during that era and ends that first chapter with the key idea that the civil rights movement championed: “You must never feel that you are less than other people. You are as good as anyone.” The book follows the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and work and handles his assassination very well. Plus, it is illustrated with captivating photographs from his life. A great introduction to a key figure in American history.

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca (1969)

This book is an interesting mixture of simplicity and complexity. Some of the pages feature only one sentence—a well-written sentence, but still only one sentence. Other pages contain a lot of information about the first moon landing. Taken together, it’s a great resource for this age group. And don’t overlook the extras on the end sheets inside the front cover and inside the back cover. You can use as much as your child is ready for and save the rest for enjoyable discovery in the future. I agree with how the inside flap describes the book: “Simply told, grandly shown, here for a new generation of readers and explorers is the story of Apollo 11. Here are the steady astronauts, the ROAR of rockets, and the silence of the Moon. Here is a challenge met, a journey made, and a view of home, seen whole, from far away.”

Those four titles are the books that are scheduled in the Modern Times and Epistles, Revelation lesson plans. But I also want to give you four bonus titles for American history.

Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire (1809–1865)

I mentioned some of the D’Aulaire books in the Early Modern reviews. They are superb living narratives for younger children. In fact, I like to use this one as an example of what a living book sounds like, and people who are brand new to that concept quickly understand the difference between a dry recitation of facts and a truly living book. It’s great to see their eyes light up when I begin reading this one. One page is all it takes. It’s a wonderful introduction to Abraham Lincoln from his birth “deep in the wilderness down in Kentucky” through the end of the Civil War, “with malice towards none, with charity to all.” It does not mention his assassination. It ends with the idea that he had done what he should do and he sat down in his rocking chair to rest.

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (late 1800s)

Anna and Caleb live with their father in a cabin on the prairie. Since their mother has died, Papa has placed an ad in a newspaper back East to find a new wife. Sarah answers that ad, saying that she will come by train, and describes herself as plain and tall. When she arrives, the children respond to her warm and wise ways and do all they can to convince her to stay. How they become a family is a beautiful story. The chapters are short,  but they contain some powerful ideas that deserve thinking time; so don’t rush through it.

Franklin and Winston: A Christmas That Changed the World by Douglas Wood (1941)

With a perfect mixture of national leadership and personal anecdotes, this book describes the extraordinary visit when Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met at the White House for the first time. During those pivotal days, they got to know each other and made plans that would lead to the success of the Allies in World War II. Excerpts from speeches and letters are woven into the narrative, and the painted illustrations by Barry Moser are absolutely fabulous. An impressive picture-book biography.

Lily’s Victory Garden by Helen L. Wilbur (1941)

When Lily’s town responds to President Roosevelt’s call for growing food in Victory Gardens during World War II, Lily asks a neighbor if she can use their land. Their gardens have been neglected ever since their son died in the war. Reluctantly, the neighbor agrees with the stipulation that Lily must not bother his wife, who is not well. But as Lily faithfully works the soil and plants begin to grow in the garden, healing also begins to grow in the grieving mother’s heart. It’s a sweet story that spotlights efforts on the homefront during the war, to contribute to the cause and to deal with the losses.

World History

Only a Dog: A Story of the Great War by Bertha Whitridge Smith (1914–1918)

It’s hard to find books about World War I—or any war, for that matter—that are appropriate for young children. But when I read Only a Dog, I knew I had found one of those rare gems. The story is told from the dog’s point of view. When his family is targeted by the enemy and disappears, this Irish Terrier goes looking for them and ends up in No Man’s Land between the two lines of combat. An English soldier rescues him and from then on, the dog faithfully stays by his side. Your children will learn about the realities of the Great War but in a tender, first-person style, somewhat like Black Beauty in tone. Army, as the dog comes to be called, encounters saddened civilians, enemy fire, life in the trenches, hand-to-hand combat, medical care, and soldiers’ camaraderie—all described from his innocent point of view. The character trait of faithfulness is emphasized throughout. But, yes, it ends like most great dog stories do; so be prepared. A fabulous book and a gentle way to introduce World War I to your younger students.

The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden (1906–1940)

Many of our children (and us) have grown up with Curious George, created by Margret and H. A. Rey. What most of us don’t know is that—well, two things: George’s name was originally Fifi, and those beloved books almost didn’t happen because of World War II. It was only because of a daring wartime escape that we have Curious George in our libraries and hearts today. This book is the story of that journey by bicycle and train. It is divided into two parts; the first part tells about the artists and their life before the war, and the second part relates their escape from Paris. It reads like a mixture of scrapbook and illustrated children’s book, featuring both photographs and drawings. And I think it’s a great way to gently share what life was like for those civilians trapped in the midst of the war and looking for a way to escape to safety and freedom.

And here are two bonus titles, both related to World War II.

The Little Ships: The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II by Louise Borden (1940)  (same author as The Journey That Saved Curious George)

This book highlights the brave English fishermen, civilians, who responded to the call to help their country and used their personal boats to rescue soldiers trapped across the English Channel. The story is told by the daughter of one of those fishermen, who accompanied him on his trips across the channel. She tells what she saw and heard and thought and did to help the effort, all the while looking for her big brother who could be among those soldiers somewhere.  

Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived World War II by Marisabina Russo (1904–1950s or 60s)

This is one of the best books I have found for introducing the Holocaust to young elementary children. It is based on a true story. When the author was a little girl, she went to her grandmother’s house every Sunday for a family dinner. Every week she and her grandmother would sit down with two photo albums: one from her grandmother’s old life in Poland and one from her grandmother’s current life in America. She would always ask her grandmother to tell the story of her life, but her grandmother would always stop at a certain page in the old album, close it, and move on to the new album. Well, one Sunday the grandmother decided that the girl was old enough to hear the whole story. Her experiences as a Jew in Nazi Germany and a concentration camp are recounted simply and with reassuring, loving comments mixed in. This book will explain what happened but in a manner that I think is appropriate for grades 1–3. The only disappointment I have in this book is that the recurring theme is “May luck follow you wherever you go.” The grandmother repeatedly refers to feeling lucky, rather than holding to faith in a personal God. That emphasis saddens me, but it can prompt some good discussion within your family. And I love the real photographs from the grandmother’s albums that are included on the end sheets. It’s a sensitive narration of a heart-wrenching subject.

Let me just remind you that these books are designed to dig deeper into certain people and events during modern times. The books that I reviewed for the whole family to read, Stories of America, Volume 2, and Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, will give the broader scope and offer stories of people and events through 2012.

When you put the two together—a collection of stories about people and events that span the time period plus additional books that focus on some of the specific people and events in that collection, like the ones we’ve shared today—you have a great living study of modern times, or any time period in history.

It is books like these that make history come alive to our children and plant seeds of ideas that will nestle deep within their hearts and shape who they are becoming.