Favorite Modern Times History Books for the Family

I must admit that I’m somewhat partial to old books. But when you’re teaching modern history, you have to find some new favorites. And I’m happy to tell you about some real gems that I’ve found and can heartily recommend for the whole family.

Good living books make it simple to teach your whole family together for history. A living book will appeal to a wide range of ages. And the books that I will be sharing today do just that. You can read them to all of your students together, then give individual reading assignments to your older students on the same time period. I’ll cover my recommendations for all the grades in future posts. 

Modern Times, Epistles, and Revelation

If you want a sneak peek at that comprehensive book list, or if you would like daily plans already laid out that cover the family reading as well as all the different grades’ books, take a look at Modern Times & Epistles, Revelation. That book will give you daily itineraries for geography, Bible, and history—both American and world history for that time period. 

I think it’s valuable to teach American history in the bigger context of world history. The events of world history did not happen in isolation, especially in modern times, major events and key people often affected multiple nations, not just America. So I like to read American history two days a week and world history two days a week during this time period. The reading plans in Modern Times & Epistles, Revelation are set up that way and cover all of the books that I will be sharing today, plus all of the grade-specific books that I’ll be reviewing for you in future posts.

American History

Stories of America, Volume 2 (1850–2012)

We covered Volume 1 for Early Modern times. Volume 2 covers Modern Times, about 1850–2012. It is written by a variety of authors. And it makes a great spine book for the modern times era, because it covers key events and people of the time period. You can then branch off and read more in-depth about any of those events or people. It begins with the Oregon Trail, the California Gold Rush, and the Civil War; moves through Alexander Graham Bell, Booker T. Washington, Helen Keller, and the Wright Brothers; brings in the Titanic, both world wars, and the civil rights movement; then wraps up with the space age, the cold war, 9/11, and the information age. Thirty-six chapters of modern history written in a way that is interesting and appropriate for all ages. You will also find relevant poetry by American poets sprinkled throughout its pages. A fabulous book for all of your students to read and narrate, and it has corresponding Narration Notecards available that give you custom narration prompts for all the grades for each chapter.

The Story of Thomas A. Edison by Frances M. Perry (1847–1901)

The best biographies are written by someone who lived at the same time as the person being written about. They can give firsthand accounts and personal ideas right from the source. This book is that kind of biography. In fact, it was written in Edison’s lifetime. Engaging enough for adults and readable for younger children, it paints a living picture of Edison and his unique ideas. The narrative follows his life from “train boy” to newspaper publisher to telegraph operator to world-famous inventor. Plus, this is an expanded edition of the story; it includes additional photographs, patent sketches, and personal diary notes to help you get to know the man behind the inventions. That section will be especially captivating if you have a child who is interested in how things work. You will enjoy this story of one of the most influential inventors who ever lived.

Next are three books by Elizabeth Mann that tell the stories of three prominent construction projects in American history during this era: The Brooklyn Bridge (1852–1883), Hoover Dam (1904–1935), and Empire State Building (1929–1981). Each one does a great job of bringing that particular structure’s story to life and helps you get to know the people behind those structures as well as how they were built. They remind me a bit of the David Macaulay books that I mentioned in the Middle Ages and Renaissance reviews: Castle and Cathedral. They have detailed color illustrations as well as photographs and some fold-out pages to emphasize the expanse of the projects. As with David Macaulay, Elizabeth Mann has written other books like this, and I’ve found them to be very interesting.

Now, for this era of American history, I like to focus on a famous American who has witnessed many of the key events of modern times and has also met many world leaders: Billy Graham. I have two book options to recommend. Pick the one that you think will be the best fit for your family: Billy Graham: God’s Ambassador by Russ Busby or Billy Graham: Just Get Up Out of Your Seat by Catherine Mackenzie (1918–2005). Just Get Up Out of Your Seat is a biography; it tells the story of Billy Graham’s life and ministry in living biography fashion. God’s Ambassador also tells his story, but it is more of a scrapbook format with short entries about key events and people and lots of photographs and captions. It also includes quotes from world leaders, celebrities, politicians, and crusade attendees whose lives were touched by this man. I think Billy Graham’s life is a great way to encourage some mental connections and, in a way, review historical events and people as you read about and see his interactions with them through his long lifetime.

Then I want to mention the reference book, Our Country’s Presidents by Ann Bausum. I reviewed it in the post covering Early Modern favorite books for the whole family. It is updated with each new president and provides a great portrait of each president in American history. A nice reference book to keep on your shelf.

World History

I have four great books to recommend for your whole family to enjoy together.

First is Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, by Lorene Lambert (1850–2012). We talked about Volume 1 for the Early Modern time period; Volume 2 covers Modern Times. It includes events in the histories of Germany, China, Africa, Russia, England, Israel, Japan, Norway, Peru, and more. It tells the stories of inventors, explorers, rulers, patriots, and scientists from around the world. Your child will learn about the world wars, about how the great depression was worldwide, about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the toppling of the Berlin Wall, and the building of the Channel Tunnel between France and England. Thirty-two living chapters, along with helpful maps in the back. And Narration Notecards are also available for this title, giving you custom narration prompt options for each chapter.

Next is a biography of George Mueller by Faith Coxe Bailey (1805–1898). Reading about George Mueller’s life will give your students a picture of what life was like for many people in England in the 1800s. Your family will also be challenged in their faith as you read about how George Mueller grew to trust God completely with the needs of the countless orphans in his care. It’s a powerful story.

Then two more biographies I like to recommend for the whole family to read: Gandhi: The Young Protestor Who Founded a Nation by Philip Wilkinson (1869–1948) and Mandela: The Rebel Who Led His Nation to Freedom by Ann Kramer (1918–2010). Both are similar in their format. Not thick, but packed full of illustrations, artifacts, explanatory notes, photographs, and captions. Take these in small chunks; don’t try to read the whole book in one sitting. Your children will remember much more if you read shorter portions and give them time to ponder what was read before diving into the next portion. Gandhi and Mandela are key figures on the world history stage of modern times, and these books will give a good introduction to the ideas that ruled their lives and the experiences that shaped them. Each book features a timeline along the bottom of the pages that can be helpful for narrations. The succinct entries can give you key events to ask your children to elaborate on, to tell all they can remember about that event.

So those are my top picks for the whole family to enjoy reading about Modern times. I’ll be covering my favorite titles for the various grade levels in future posts.