Living Books for History: Early America

We have been “officially” doing unofficial kindergarten at home for a little over a month now. I’ve been teaching Raisin at home for much longer, of course, but I had to call it official at some point.1 I decided we would learn about American History this year, and I feel it’s definitely time to report on some of the wonderful books I’ve discovered in this year’s journey.

Before we dove in to the history of America, we did a general overview of the geography of the country. I thought it would be fun to learn about the landmarks in a silly way first, because I tend to remember things when there is a story surrounding it. So first we read about Paul Bunyan and labeled a map with the landmarks he and Babe created! Steven Kellogg’s Paul Bunyan is a great picture book option for initial familiarization with the folktale. Kellogg’s illustrations are rich in detail and his retelling of the Paul Bunyan folktale adds some fun Midwestern stories (that’s where I live). I really liked the way the landmarks were brought to life, both in the illustrations and in the story.

Then I stumbled upon Audrey Wood’s The Bunyans (illustrated by David Shannon), an extension of the folktale into a new generation. Paul Bunyan has married a giantess, and they and their two children are now creating even more havoc around the United States, from Big Sur in California to Niagara Falls in New York. I loved how the author brought humor in to a traditional folktale with the kid’s mischief, and Shannon’s illustrations were richly detailed and wonderfully realistic (well, other than the giant people) as they brought the landscapes to life.

After we read the folkloric stories about American geography and talked about truth and fiction, we read some nonfiction books about the landmarks. The Wonders of America Ready-to-Read 1 Series was easy enough to allow my son to feel “smart” by reading them himself. And yet, despite the simple reading level, each book provided context for the landmark and various facts that he remembered. He learned facts such as where the landmarks were located in the United States, how they were created, and what people did years ago and what they do there today. We read the books The Mighty Mississippi, Niagara Falls, The Rocky Mountains, and The Grand Canyon. It is difficult to find nonfiction about geography perfectly geared toward a very young reader, but these books are just right for their audience.

Then we began a week-long study of the Native Americans. This is another place where I found it was difficult to find “living literature” or even nonfiction that was geared toward very young children. North American Indians by artist Douglas Gorsline (first published 1978) was one we read. It was okay. It provided good information with overwhelming the young reader. It also was written so that a strong early reader could take over the reading. Although it is somewhat dated in its approach, the illustrations were well done. Further, the focus on the different Indian groups provided some context for how the different tribes lived differently in various parts of the country. It also emphasized the complexity of pre-Columbian society by explaining how different tribes communicated through sign language.

The First Americans by Jane Werner Watson (first published 1980) was similarly an okay book for introducing children to the various tribes, containing similar and somewhat dated information in how it was presented. My son did not like the pictures in this one, however, so we didn’t read all of it together. I also cannot find a cover image for it, so apparently it’s no longer in print!

We did find one more book to celebrate Native Americans: Many Nations by Joseph Bruchac and lavishly illustrated by Robert Goetzl (published 2004). An ABC book, Many Nations celebrates Native Americans, native culture, and the beauty of the natural wold by cycling through the alphabet. From “Anishinabe artistis making birch bark bowls” to the Eagle and beyond, it is lovely and relevant. It reveals another side of Native American life, namely that some of the cultures have survived until today.

Although it seems that Native American cultures is a topic that is covered in detail in various books that study each individual tribe, there seem to be few books for early readers celebrating the entire existence of Native American Indians. It is a gap that seems rather difficult to fill, as I want my young son to learn the basics this year but I know he is not old enough to comprehend the intricacies of the complicated society that was America before Columbus arrived. Nevertheless, he gained a general understanding of the various types of tribes throughout the country as we learned about the various types of homes they’d make.

We learned about Leif Erikson next. I have to say that I may be one of the most unusual homeschooling/classics reading/living books loving moms out there for this reason: I really do not like the D’Aulaire’s book about Leif Erikson (Leif the Lucky). The more of the other ones I read (Pocahontas, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln) the less I like them! I grew up loving the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, so I feel horrible about hating their historical books. The pictures are scary looking and distorted, the text is far too long to keep a young child’s attention, and the facts and stories they tell are extraneous and somewhat boring at times. Raisin couldn’t stand them either: he was not a fan. As a result, I really did not have any good books about Leif Erikson and the Vikings, other than the Maestro text (more on this in a moment).

Christopher Columbus, on the other hand, is a celebrity to read about. There are picture books, early readers, and chapter books about him, and my son loves him. This is odd, since the majority of the books I chose to focus on with him are decidedly anti-Columbus. First came Stephen Krensky’s early reader Christopher Columbus. This was just what an early reader needs for nonfiction: easily accessible text, just enough information, and not too many pages. My son even read this aloud to his little sister at one point!

Then we read aloud Pedro’s Journal by Pam Conrad, a fictionalized early chapter book from the perspective of a young cabin’s boy who attended to Columbus on the voyage. Raisin really liked this book because it seemed like a fun adventure. He loved the chapter when young Pedro sank the ship! He also inexplicably found Columbus and Pedro to both be rather nice “because they took some natives home to Pedro’s mom.” The book obviously shows Columbus as rather a paranoid and insensitive man: Raisin liked him anyway, even though he realized that taking the natives from their home was not a nice thing to do. At any rate, this read aloud was a wonderful success! It formed the bulk of our week of studies. Raisin did not want to do any of the craft projects I found, but he did want to read more of our chapter book.

After we read Pedro’s Journal, I read the picture book Encounter by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon. This showed the arrival of “strangers” on an island, from the perspective of a dreaming young boy who forebodes danger for his people. It’s clear that the strangers are Colubmus and his crew: the boy touches the sword and slices his hand, just as a native boy did in Pedro’s Journal. The picture book has a sense of foreboding and does end on a dark message. The young boy has grown old and is pondering over his changed life after the arrival of the strangers. I thought it was a nice book to show the different perspective of the natives from that of the ship’s crew. Raisin says he didn’t like it because it was “too sad.”

After Columbus, we began learning about some other explorers, just a few. In addition to these “living books” we’ve been reading, I also read The Discovery of the Americas by Betsey Maestro and illustrated by Giulio Maestro, the first book in a nonfiction picture book series about the history of America. Exploration and Conquest is the second book, and we read portions of it to learn about a few more explorers and make an Explorers game. The American Story series is fantastically written. The books currently in print only cover American history until 1815, but I believe that subsequent history books are in progress. I’ll have to circle around and discuss these books again some time. While I don’t believe we’ll be using all the books in the series (they are geared toward upper elementary readers), I plan on having them on hand for my own reference!

What wonderful children’s books (board books, picture books, early readers or chapter books) have you found to help you teach about early America?


  1. I am not legally required to track his schooling in my state until he is 7 years old.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Just wanted to say I’m enjoying your posts, it’s great to see about all the great books out there for kids in all these subject areas. I have two kids (ages 6 and 4) and although I’m not homeschooling, I’m always on the lookout for quality books for them. It’s helpful to read your thoughts on each one. Keep up the good work!

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