Today I want to share my top picks for living history books on modern times. These are the books that I recommend for grades 7–9, and in some cases, all the way through twelfth grade. I’ll explain more about that in an upcoming post.
We will be looking at books for both American history and world history. I love to teach both side by side, so the student gets a global perspective of history and realizes that what happened in America did not happen in a vacuum, especially in modern times.
All of these books are scheduled in the Modern Times & Epistles, Revelation lesson plans. Those plans will give you day-by-day reading itineraries, so you know which books to read, in what order, and how much on which days. All of that planning has already been done for you—for all the grades. If you would like to read my reviews on modern history books for the younger students, here are my top picks for grades 1–3 and grades 4–6, as well as for the whole family to enjoy together. (My high school picks will be coming soon.)
Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman (1809–1865)
You may have read other biographies about Abraham Lincoln, but I’m going to venture that none of them has affected you like this photobiography will affect you and your student. The writing is exceptional, revealing so many personal details that make Lincoln come alive in your imagination. You really feel that you are getting to know him as a person, not just a historical figure. And the photographs and time-period illustrations add so much! There is a two-page spread that is especially powerful. It contains a photograph of Lincoln taken each year of his presidency. You can see clearly how the pressures and anxieties of the Civil War became etched in his face. And did you know that on the morning he died, someone emptied the contents of his pockets and placed them in a box? That box remained in the family’s possession until it was finally presented to the Library of Congress in 1937, marked “Do Not Open.” It remained locked in a vault until 1976, when the package was finally unwrapped. Do you know what was in his pockets? Read the book and find out. The final chapter is a Lincoln Sampler, a collection of quotations taken from his speeches and letters and notes. Just a fabulous book! Not long, but packed full of living ideas and powerful images.
Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt (1861–1865)
This is the story of the Civil War told from a home front in Illinois. Jethro is nine years old when the war begins; and during the five Aprils of the Civil War, he struggles to understand it all and how it affects him as he grows into a young man. The book is historical fiction, but researched through letters and family records and based on the stories the author’s grandfather told of those five years. The discussions and debates woven throughout the narrative offer your student a glimpse of the many points of view and conflicting ideas that fueled the war, but they are explained so Jethro, and your student, can understand and begin to think through them for himself.
Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt by Jean Fritz (1858–1919)
Jean Fritz has a way of communicating American history that makes it come alive. This biography about Theodore Roosevelt is a classic example. It’s a fabulous narrative of his life, mixed with anecdotes and quotations and personal details that will help your student get to know Teddy as a person. And the emphasis on Roosevelt’s determination to work hard to get what he wanted in life will shape your student’s heart and mind even as he will learn much about history during the turn of that century. A short, accessible, and very interesting biography; plus, the pen-and-ink illustrations scattered throughout are exceptional!
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman (1867–1948)
I’ve already mentioned a book by Russell Freedman, the photobiography of Abraham Lincoln, but I want to also mention this book by the same author. It’s a fantastic chronicle of the curiosity, the persistence, the creativity, and the struggles and triumphs of the invention of the airplane. And in true Freedman fashion, it is couched between two lesser-known but striking details. The narrative begins by describing “What Amos Root Saw,” as he watched the Wrights’ flying machine circle the sky over a cow pasture. He wrote about it in a magazine, saying: “When Columbus discovered America he did not know what the outcome would be, and no one at that time knew. . . . In a like manner these two brothers have probably not even a faint glimpse of what their discovery is going to bring to the children of men.” With that idea leading the way, the story of the invention of the airplane is recounted. But just as striking is the little-known fact that closes the book: when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon for the first time, he carried with him a piece of the original Wright Flyer that gave birth to the Age of Flight. Do you see the relation between those two bookends? It’s ideas that those that make Freedman’s writing stand out among history authors and make this book a fascinating narrative.
Another fabulous author on modern history is Albert Marrin. I want to mention two of his titles that I recommend for seventh through ninth graders, and I’ll mention some additional titles of his when I give my high school book reviews in an upcoming post: The Yanks Are Coming, which is all about the United States in the First World War, and Victory in the Pacific, which focuses on the Pacific Theater in World War II. Both of these books offer your student an engaging narrative along with helpful and captivating photographs. Personal stories are included along with interesting details that make these accounts vastly different from the dry textbooks that I was given in school to learn about the wars. With those textbooks, the wars were just a list of facts to memorize: dates, battles, key names. Nothing about those lists made the wars interesting or even memorable. In fact, it was easy to get the two world wars confused in my mind. But these books are different. They give the human stories and the living ideas that paint a vivid picture of history and make it stick in your student’s mind and heart.
One parental advisory: occasionally there is some strong language included when a soldier’s comments are quoted or when a common slogan of the troops is mentioned. In my mind, those inclusions are not sensationalized and simply give an accurate record of life during the war as a soldier. As your student enters the teen years, it might be time to introduce such language, sparingly and as part of accurate historical narratives, so your student is not caught blindsided by such language when he leaves your home. Reading it as a historical record is not the same as condoning his own use of it. You make the call; I just wanted to let you know that strong language is sometimes included in these books.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (1933)
For students (and possibly, parents) who weren’t born until after the civil rights movement, this book may be an eye-opener. It is a historical fiction of just one year in the life of a black family living in Mississippi during the Depression. Experiencing, through a living book, the prejudice and discrimination that was shown against fellow human beings, based only on the color of their skin, will give your student a deeper understanding and sympathy toward people of all colors. Learning someone’s story can be a powerful thing. And this story is written not with bitterness or hatred, but with strength, dignity, and respect. It is a compelling book that lays the foundation for studying the civil rights movement and the importance of noticing character, not skin color.
Louis Pasteur: Founder of Modern Medicine by John Hudson Tiner (1822–1895)
This is a great biography of a great French scientist and his relentless search for truth. As your student reads about Pasteur’s life, he will be struck by how hard Pasteur worked to find the answers to his questions. He was not looking for popularity; his was a search for proof. And as he proved other scientists’ discoveries wrong, and they attacked Pasteur, he did not fight back; he merely held public demonstrations so people could judge for themselves whether what he proposed was true. There are many great character lessons unfolded in this biography along with the fascinating story of a scientist’s life. This title is part of The Sowers series, so it emphasizes the Christian beliefs of Pasteur throughout the narrative.
Across America on an Emigrant Train by Jim Murphy (1879)
You probably know Robert Louis Stevenson from his poetry and his books, such as Treasure Island; but this title unfolds a little-known chapter in his life as he crossed the United States on an emigrant train. Jim Murphy does a fabulous job of recounting what Stevenson experienced, using Stevenson’s own words and filling in the details of what that journey looked like and felt like and even smelled like. Through reading this account, your student will come to understand more about the railroads—how they were built and how they were operated—and about what it was like for people as they traveled from various countries around the world to begin a new life in America. The book is full of time-period illustrations and photographs as well as an interesting and living narrative. Look for other books by Jim Murphy too; he is another excellent author.
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (1941–1946)
In June 1941, Esther and her family were arrested by the Russians, herded into cattle cars, and forced to live in exile on the endless steppe of Siberia. (A steppe is a grassland plain with no trees.) Esther tells the story of what their life was like during the five years that they weeded potato fields and worked in the mines, struggling to stay warm and find enough food to stay alive. Many people know about the concentration camps in Germany during World War II, but the existence of the Russian steppe camps is less known. And this autobiographical account of the author’s childhood in Siberia will not be soon forgotten.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
This is, perhaps, an unusual title to include in a history line-up, but it’s there for a good reason. This book is a satire that takes place on Mr. Jones’s farm. The animals stage a revolution and take over the farm. Their ideas for establishing a new government are exemplified in the great commandment: All animals are equal. But over time, the leadership devolves and the revolution begins to go wrong, even as those in authority provide excellent excuses for why they are changing the rules and, eventually, altering the great commandment itself. And those changes touch the reader’s heart, for they affect certain favorite animals on the farm. It is a powerful story, yet the author never intrudes or points a moral. The story simply provides an excellent invitation to discuss political powers, the abuses of that power, and what we have noticed in the affairs of the world. This is not a book just to be read and set aside; it is an excellent story to be discussed with your student.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (1985, 2008)
This is a powerful story that takes place in Sudan in 1985 and 2008. I recommend it for grades 4–6 as well as grades 7–9. Check the previous post on modern times books for grades 4–6 to read the full review.
Rescue and Redeem: Chronicles of the Modern Church by Mindy and Brandon Withrow (1864–2005)
I reviewed another volume of this series in my book recommendations for Early Modern history for this same age group. The Withrows have written the History Lives series to tell the stories about influential Christian men and women throughout history. Rescue and Redeem is volume five in that series. It gives living biographies of Christ-followers who wanted to live out the gospel in every culture and fight against injustices around the world. Your student will read the stories of a Japanese samurai who traded his sword for a Bible, a Hawaiian princess whose faith strengthened her to defend her nation, German and Ugandan pastors who stood up to murderous dictators, a teacher in India who rescued child widows, and a writer in Britain who created a world in a wardrobe. The final chapter issues the challenge: “When we look back at previous generations of Christians, we understand how history lives. And when we look ahead to the generations of Christians yet to come, we see that the future lives, too. Many more thrilling stories of faith and compassion and obedience will be told in the coming years. Will yours be one of them?” It’s a great resource for church history in modern times.
All of these books contain powerful ideas that will feed your student’s mind and shape who he is becoming. That’s what living books do. And that’s why I love them!