Living Books for History: Early Colonists

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I was able to time our American History learning to correlate to the Thanksgiving Holiday! We recently finished learning about the pilgrims, which works out very well for us since we’re taking the next week slow, as a holiday from lots of school work.

Before we got the pilgrims, though, we read a few books about Roanoke and Jamestown. Raisin and I read about the mystery of Roanoke in Jane Yolen’s Roanoke, The Lost Colony: A Mystery from History. Told from the perspective of a fictionalized child with a detective father, Yolen’s picture book had just enough information about the colony of Roanoke to interest my son, but without too many details. I liked how each page had a few different types of information: a main paragraph, a box with new vocabulary words and definitions, and another “notebook” with more information. This meant we could read some or all of the text on the page, but not feel overwhelmed. My son enjoyed learning about Roanoke, and for some reason that is the name of the colony he always remembers first. For him, it is not Jamestown or Plymouth or Cape Cod, but Roanoke is always his guess for when he’s otherwise forgotten. Yolen’s book is illustrated by Roger Roth.

For myself, I enjoyed the slightly longer and more detailed The Lost Colony of Roanoke by Jean Fritz. Fritz has a way of making history come alive. Her writing is geared for upper elementary school students or middle school students, and her book subsequently provides an increasing amount of detail about the colony’s purpose and possible reasons for its disappearance. Fritz’s book is lavishly illustrated by Hudson Talbott, and the beautiful illustrations make it a lovely book for pondering over.

Neither author tells exactly what happened to the colony at Roanoke, of course. No one knows. But these two books provide lots of clues for possibilities. Both authors leave it to the child reader to decide for themselves what they think happened.

Jamestown was our next destination in our studies. We watched a video online about the settlement and played a “build a colony” game online as well. My son played it over and over again: sometimes his colonists died; other times they became wealthy. Together, we read A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla. In this middle-elementary reader, a young girl in England struggles to keep her brother and sister together after her mother passes away. Because her father was a part of the advance group that traveled to Jamestown, she determines to get her young family to Jamestown as well. Reading this book together helped Raisin internalize what England would have been like, how traveling on a ship may have been, and the ways in which settling in Jamestown was a stark contrast to life in England at the time. Although it was written at a second or third grade reading level, it does not talk down to the reader, and the somewhat complex story provides for an interesting adventure.

I also read Pocahontas and the Strangers by Clyde Robert Bulla. I had intend to read it aloud to Raisin as well, but we didn’t get to it. Bulla’s story is the romanticized story of Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life. I liked reading it, but I did not feel it was remarkable. Raisin got the same information by watching a cartoon movie about Pocahontas (from the Animated Hero Classics series). Bulla’s writing is formulaic and was somewhat boring to me, but it is at just the right level for a second or third grade reader to read himself.

For myself, I couldn’t resist picking up Joseph Bruchac’s Pocahontas. Although fictionalized, it is obvious from the complexity of the story that Bruchac did research into the John Smith and Pocahontas story. I loved the alternating view points: one chapter was Pocahontas’ narration, and the next would be Captain John Smith. Their voices were unique. I really enjoyed seeing how the same event was interpreted in such different ways by the two groups. Bruchac is himself of Native American heritage, and his sensitivity to the complexity of the situation gave him amble motive to get it right. He also has an afterward noting the sources he referenced. Pocahontas is a well rounded historical fiction that examines the complex and dynamic friendship that Captain Smith and Pocahontas developed. I highly recommend this book for the strong middle school reader or the young adult interested in Pocahontas.

All of that lead us to the pilgrims. Together we made some paper models using a Scholastic Make-and-Learn games book. First, we learned about the departure of the pilgrims and the voyage of the Mayflower in Tattered Sails by Verla Kay and Dan Andreasen. Although Kay never mentions either the Mayflower or the pilgrims by name, in her book, she depicts children in a crowded and dirty city, a crowded and dirty boat, and then the open expanse of land. I also liked the depiction of all the work the children had to do once they arrived in the new land. Kay writes in unpretentious rhyme that makes Tattered Sails a delight to read. Despite the lack of historical details in her text (or maybe because of what is lacking), her book was a good place to start in our discussion of the pilgrims because it provided discussion as we compared and contrasted their homes.

Pilgrim Cat by Carole Antoinette Peacock and illustrated by Doris Ettinger (Albert Whitman 2004) is prose, and it does not read as well as Tattered Sails. But it does provide a different perspective on Thanksgiving by telling the story of traveling on the Mayflower, settling in Plymouth, working, and celebrating the first Thanksgiving through the perspective of a girl who adopts the ship’s cat. The young girl Faith Barrett gets ill, and the cat helps comfort her. As Squanto teaches her to plant corn, the cat sneaks some of the fish from his bucket. Although the book is full of historic details, it comes across as a story about a girl and her cat, a nicely accessible way of approaching history.

Alice Dagliesh’s The Thanksgiving Story (illustrated by Helen Sewell) is another book about a child’s family traveling to Plymouth. Because it is has dated illustrations, it was not a favorite for my son. Ironically, The Thanksgiving Story won a Caldecott Honor for its illustrations. It has lots of details, and we read it over the course of two different days. The story is based on a real family that traveled on the Mayflower. In general, it’s a wonderful selection for the season, but because of the abundance of text, it is not one that all younger children will enjoy.

Finally, we learned more about Squanto by reading Joseph Bruchac’s masterpiece Squanto’s Journey (Harcourt Children’s Books, 2000). Illustrated by Greg Shed, this gorgeously illustrated book tells the story of Thanksgiving from the perspective of a young man who had grown up in the area that became Plymouth Bay. Squanto was kidnapped and taken to Europe as a young man, and this is his story. Once again, because Bruchac has native heritage, he addressed a needed aspect of the first Thanksgiving, the displaced natives that once lived on the coast of Massachusetts. Squanto’s Journey is my favorite version of the first Thanksgiving and the pilgrims because somehow I feel it is most accurate.

What are you reading with your kids this holiday ?

Reviewed on November 19, 2012

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.

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