Studying History Using Historical Literature

Tuesday, July 4, 2023 by Catherine Gilliland | Uncategorized

We can encourage our children to invest themselves in understanding historical events and their effects on populations by modeling interest in history and its value in everyday life. Take time to enjoy historical literature together (historical fiction, biographies, and primary sources), visit museums, historical parks, and other historical locations. Follow up your experiences with enjoyable conversations about how the historical events or places you have learned of shaped people's lives.

A simple internet search will net you with a plethora of titles from which you can select stories to share together with your family. I am including only a few titles and series that our family especially enjoyed! 

We enjoyed nightly read-aloud times, snuggled in blankets during the winter, or sacked up in sleeping bags while camping during the summer. Are you spending some time driving this summer? Checking out audio versions of your favorite stories from your library or Audible to help those miles to slip by with enjoyment. As you read, remember to ask open-ended questions that encourage your children to think about the problem the character(s) need(s) to solve, the events leading up to the climax, the characters themselves, and the theme(s). Ask your listeners how they agree and disagree with the story's outcomes, and whether or not they would have responded the same as the characters if faced with similar situations.

Elementary Years

American Girl books by various authors.

Based upon numerous time periods in American History, from the mid-1700s to the late 1900s, these stories tell the everyday experiences of a fictional character: her challenges, day-to-day life, and what changes she faced. A different fictional character represents each different time period.

If You … Scholastic book series various authors

These books are actually great for many ages. Their layout is simple with plenty of colorful illustrations and a reader can skip around to look for specific information without losing continuity.

Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

There are very few who are not acquainted with these timeless children's stories which recount a young girl's experiences growing up in America during its westward expansion.

Indian Captive (Lois Lenski)

The story of Mary Jemison, taken from her family's farm in eastern PA in 1758 by a band of Seneca Indians. She learned with them to a Seneca village on the Genesee River (western NY) and learned how to live as one of the Senecas.

Sarah, Plain and Tall (Patricia MacLachlan)

Set in the Midwest during the late 1800s, two children wait in anticipation for someone to answer their father’s newspaper advertisement for a new wife and mother. The woman who answers has never lived in this type of farm setting before.

Stickeen (John Muir and Donelle Rubay)

The story of one of John Muir's adventures in SE Alaska. 

Middle School Years

G.A. Henty Historical Fiction. Mr. Henty, a prolific writer of historical fiction during the 1800s, authored several American History titles.

Across Five Aprils (Irene Hunt)

A compelling classic of a boy's coming of age during the Civil War. This tale is based on stories the author's grandfather told her about his life during The War Between the States.

Amos Fortune, Free Man (Elizabeth Yates)

Taken as a young man from his tribe, African Prince Atmunshi is captured in the mid-1700s and taken to America as a slave. Renamed Amos, he masters a trade, purchases his freedom, and dies free in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in 1801.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Jean Lee Latham

The story of Nat, a young boy who is forced to leave school to be apprenticed to a tradesman during the Revolutionary War era. He never gives up on his dreams of becoming a Harvard University student and continues to teach himself higher-level mathematics, Latin, and French. Eventually, Nat becomes a navigator on the high seas, recognizes numerous mathematical errors in the navigational tables of the day, and sets out to correct them all, saving the lives of countless future sailors.

Farewell to Manzanar (James D. Houston, Jeanne W. Houston)

Farewell to Manzanar describes the experiences of Jeanne Wakatsuki and her family before, during, and after their internment at Manzanar internment camp during WWII as a result of the US government's internment of all Japanese Americans.

Guns for George Washington (Seymour Reit) 

During the winter of 1775-76, Gen. Washington needed guns and ammunition to help reclaim the city of Boston which was blockaded by the British. This is the story of Colonel Henry Knox and his brother Will transporting 183 cannons from New York's Fort Ticonderoga to Boston to free the colonists. 

Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes)

The story of a young apprentice in Boston during the weeks leading up to the 'shot heard round the world'.

On to Oregon (Honore Willsie Morrow)

The epic journey of the Sager children by covered wagon from Missouri to Oregon in 1848 along the Oregon Trail.

Out of the Dust (Karen Hesse)

Written in diary form, the story details two years in the life of a young daughter of a struggling farming family in the Oklahoma Panhandle during the mid-1930s, The Dust Bowl years. After a tragic accident results in the death of Billie Jo’s mother and baby brother, she and her father must find a way to reconcile the past and prepare for the future.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)

Set in colonial America, prior to the famous Salem Witch trials. A young girl, whose guardian has just died in Barbados, sails to America to live with last remaining relatives. Their Puritan ways are very different than those to which she is accustomed, including the ways they relate to a particular Quaker woman.

High School

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)

Huck runs away from his abusive father. With his companion Jim, the runaway slave, makes a long voyage down the Mississippi River on a raft. During the journey, Huck encounters almost every class living on or along the river, a variety of characters and types whom Twain memorably portrays. As a result of these experiences, Huck overcomes conventional racial prejudices and learns to respect and love Jim. 

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain)

Called "The Great American Novel", this is the story of a young boy growing up along the Mississippi River in the 1840s. Tom Sawyer lives with his Aunt Polly and his half-brother Sid. Twain's story tells of Tom's adventures–those of a typical young boy in that setting.

Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad (Ann Petry) 

A 1955 biography, takes readers on a journey through Harriet Tubman’s life, from her March 1922 birth to enslaved parents on a Maryland plantation to her death as a free woman in New York in 1913.

Sounder (William H. Armstrong) 

The story of an African-American boy living with his dog, Sounder, and his sharecropper family in the 1950s whose difficulties increase when the father is imprisoned for stealing a ham from work. 

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)

In May of 1943, a young American military lieutenant, Louis Zamperini, crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Louis Zamperini, a bombardier and a former Olympian drew upon all his courage, cunning, and fortitude following his plane crash in enemy territory to survive in this epic account.