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living books for emergent readers: I Can Read! American history books

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“Children benefit from working steadily through well-chosen books,” Susan Schaeffer Macaulay writes in her book, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, a summary of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. And how true this is! When we give children the opportunity to read life-giving books, and ask them to share their language about the book, that experience and story has then become their own and becomes engrained in the person they are becoming!

Children deserve to have living books that spark imagination and wonder. All too often, books can be set to a lower standard, by well-intentioned, but ignorant adults, who think that larger ideas cannot be obtained by smaller children.

What is a “living book”?

  • the best of the best of books that are offered
  • high literary quality that offers a range of complex words, sentences, and syntax
  • living ideas and thoughts are offered, not telling the student what they should think or feel about the text
  • in summary: not just any “book on any printed matter in a binding, but a work possessing certain literary qualities able to bring that sensible delight to the reader which belongs to a literary word fitly spoken.” -Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason wrote, “One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books. The best is not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough.

When a child is in between the stage of learning to read (with living books) and cannot quite read more difficult, beautiful chapter books, we should provide living books that teach their history! Here is a list of beautiful history books, I have my children read them in order and simply give an oral narration. These readings usually come in second or third grade, but if they are introduced in first, or fifth or sixth grade, that is fine too! The beauty of education, is we meet the child where they are at, give them beautiful and edifying books and materials, and then step back and allow their ideas and thoughts about those resources flourish!

These books have served as history lessons, gentle and slow. We have history time together as a family, and often their individual history reading will not coincide, but these simple American History books serve as a solid foundation for history learning for any young elementary student. The importance is on quality, not quantity, when providing books for our children, and also ensuring they narrate the ideas portrayed in the books, both the central idea that the author is conveying, as well as their own thoughts about what happened and their personal feelings about the story. We segment the books into sections, so 1 or more chapters can be read at a time, depending on your child’s reading or interest level. But take caution in reading them too quickly! Take your time and let them really invest in their narration (“tell me what happened in the story.”)

“And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children.” – Charlotte Mason

I hope this list of (mostly) chronological living history books for your early elementary child will edify their hearts and minds!

George the Drummer Boy by Nathaniel Benchley: More than two hundred years ago, Boston belonged to the British. George was a drummer boy with the King’s soldiers there. One night, George and the other soldiers were sent on a secret mission. They crossed the river and headed toward Concord. George had no idea that this was the start of the American Revolution.

Sam the Minuteman by Nathaniel Benchley: Benchly re-creates what it must have been like for a young boy to fight in the Battle of Lexington.

The 18 Penny Goose by Sally M Walker: The American Revolution is being fought in the hills around Letty Wright’s family’s farm, and the Wrights must flee to safety. There is no time for Letty to bring Solomon the gander. She tries the only thing she can think of to save him—and is as surprised as the other colonists when it works.

George Washington and the General’s Dog: George Washington fighting in the American Revolution. He sees a dog lost on the battlefield. Whose dog is it? How will it find its master? Early readers will be surprised to find out what happens in this little-known true story about America’s first president.

George Washington: The First President by Sarah Albee: After General Washington led the American colonists to victory in the Revolutionary War, everyone thought he should become the first president of the United States. Washington would turn out to be a strong leader and a wise president.

Ben Franklin and the Magic Squares: A funny, entertaining introduction to Ben Franklin and his many inventions, including the story of how he created the “magic square.” A magic square is a box of nine numbers arranged so that any line of three numbers adds up to the same number, including on the diagonal!

Thomas Jefferson’s Feast: This founding father was one of America’s first foodies. After a visit to France, he introduced all sorts of yummy treats to America—including one that upset more than just tummies and created a culinary controversy.

Red, White, and Blue: The Story of the American Flag: Some people call the American flag Stars and Stripes or Old Glory. But did you know that it hasn’t always looked the same?

Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner: One fateful night during the War of 1812, Francis and his friend helped talk the British Navy into releasing a prisoner of war. But they couldn’t return home just yet because the Battle of Fort McHenry was starting! If the British captured the fort, America might very well lose its independence. Francis and his friends could only sit on a boat and observe the battle. For 25 hours they watched in awe. What Francis saw inspired him to write a poem that would become America’s national anthem! 

The Josefina Story Quilt by Eleanor Coerr: Faith’s family is heading west! It’s 1850, and it’s time to pack their covered wagon to prepare for the journey to California and a new life.

The Great Tulip Trade: Anna’s father gives her the most wonderful present for her birthday—eight beautiful tulips! But tulips in Holland in the 1600s are more precious than gold or jewels, and everyone who walks by the house wants to trade her for one!

Daniel’s Duck by Clyde Robert Bulla: Daniel is hurt when others laugh at his wood carving, until he learns that giving people pleasure takes a very special gift. 

The Long Way to a New Land by Joan Sandin: Here is a realistic account of the struggles of European immigrants in the 19th century.

The Long Way Westward by Joan Sandin: This story relates the experiences of two young brothers and their family, immigrants from Sweden, from their arrival in New York through the journey to their new home in Minnesota.

At Home in a New Land by Joan Sandin: Having moved from Sweden to his new home in Minnesota, Carl Erik must make great adjustments to live in his new environment, including learning English, building relationships with his Indian neighbors, and taking over as man of the house when his father is working far away from home.

Chang’s Paper Pony by Eleanor Coerr: In San Francisco during the 1850’s gold rush, Chang, the son of Chinese immigrants, wants a pony but cannot afford one until his friend Big Pete finds a solution.

Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express by Eleanor Coerr: A story about Buffalo Bill and his exploits as a pony express rider.

Davy Crockett: A Life on the Frontier by Stephen Krensky: People said that when Davy was born he weighed more than two hundred pounds! They also said he saved the world from a comet by grabbing its tail, twirling it around, and sending it back into the sky. These stories are just myths, but Davy did have an amazing life. Here is the real story of Davy Crockett, fearless soldier and leader who always stood up for what he believed in.

Wagon Wheels by Barbara Brenner: The Muldies’ story gives beginning readers a glimpse of homesteaders’ life and, specifically, an awareness of the Black groups in Kansas—and the boys’ impressive feats of coping make for…genuine human interest.

Snowshoe Thompson: This tale is based on the true story of a Scandinavian immigrant in the 1850s who braved the long and treacherous journey over the mountains on skis to deliver bags of mail that often weighed over 100 pounds. Snowshoe Thompson managed to become a legend of the gold rush days.

The Drinking Gourd by F. N. Monjo: The stars of the Big Dipper have led a runaway slave family to Deacon Fuller’s house, a stop on the Underground Railroad. Will Tommy Fuller be able to hide the runaways from a search party—or will the secret passengers be discovered and their hope for freedom destroyed?

Abe Lincoln’s Hat: Abe started out in life as an absent-minded frontier lawyer. How did he nudge his memory? He stuck letters, court notes, contracts, and even his checkbook in his trademark top hat. When he took off his hat, it was all there! 

Long, Tall Lincoln by Jennifer Dussling: Abraham Lincoln didn’t look like a president. He didn’t always act like a president, either—he liked to wrestle with his sons and tell jokes. But he always fought for fairness, freedom, and unity.

Harriet Tubman and the Freedom Train: Harriet Tubman was born a slave. But she always knew that someday she would be free. After realizing her dream, Harriet decided she had to help others find freedom, too. So she became a guide on the Underground Railroad. Little did this courageous woman know just how many people she would help.

Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter by Nadia L. Hohn: Harriet Tubman was a brave woman who was born enslaved in Maryland in the 1800s. After risking everything to escape from her slave master and be free, Harriet went on to lead many people to freedom on a journey known today as the Underground Railroad.

Take a Hike, Teddy Rooselvelt: About Theodore Roosevelt—America’s 26th President—and his efforts to protect our environment and establish national parks. Roosevelt battled asthma all his life, and the list of things he shouldn’t do was long. But when people told him “you can’t,” he set about proving them wrong. This book focuses on his inexhaustible enthusiasm and his commitment to preserving America’s natural resources.

Prairie School by Avi: It’s the 1880s, Noah works hard on the family farm and roams free on the Colorado prairie. One day his Aunt Dora arrives to give him some schooling. Noah doesn’t think he needs it. What use is reading on the prairie? But what Noah discovers will change his life forever.

First Flight: The Story of Tom Tate and the Wright Brothers by George Shea: When Tom Tate hears that Wilbur and Orville Wright are building a flying machine, he can’t wait to try it. Tom’s dad thinks it’s dangerous. Some people think the Wrights are crazy. Can Tom help the brothers get their dream off the ground?

Dust for Dinner by Ann Turner: This dramatic story about the dust bowl, set during the Great Depression and beautifully captured in Robert Barrett’s paintings, shows how one family stays together during difficult times.

Martin Luther King Jr.: A Peaceful Leader by Sarah Albee: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed it was possible to change the world with peaceful protest. His powerful words and actions helped the civil rights movement achieve many great changes. His incredible leadership is still remembered and celebrated today.

The Big Balloon Race by Eleanor Coerr: The thrills of Ariel’s first ride in a hydrogen balloon come to life in this story based on a real ballooning family of the late 1800’s.

Listen Up! Alexander Graham Bell’s Talking Machine: It’s 1876 and the whole country is celebrating the 100th birthday of the United States. The biggest party is in Philadelphia at the World’s Fair, where the latest and greatest inventions are on display for all to see. Alexander Graham Bell is headed to the fair to demonstrate his invention – a talking machine he calls the telephone.

The next books are “Level 4” and above, so they are a bit more challenging.

Prairie School: It’s the 1880s, Noah works hard on the family farm and roams free on the Colorado prairie. One day his Aunt Dora arrives to give him some schooling. Noah doesn’t think he needs it. What use is reading on the prairie? But what Noah discovers will change his life forever.

Escape North: The Story of Harriet Tubman: Harriet Tubman’s life–from her childhood in slavery to her years as a conductor on the Underground Railroad to her later work as a suffragette and as a spy in the Civil War. 

Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address: When it came time to honor all the soldiers who had died in the great battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln still took time to say a few words. Two hundred and seventy-one to be exact. Here is a true story about a great man and his famous speech.

First Flight: The Story of Tom Tate and the Wright Brothers: A twelve-year-old boy named Tom Tate meets Orville and Wilbur Wright and witnesses the invention of the airplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.

The Trail of Tears: In 1838, settlers moving west forced the great Cherokee Nation, and their chief John Ross, to leave their home land and travel 1,200 miles to Oklahoma. An epic story of friendship, war, hope, and betrayal.

Little Hawk’s New Name: Story of young Navajo boy who earns his new name from his experiences and bravery.

Buddy: The First Seeing Eye Dog: Buddy the German Shepard’s training at a school for police dogs in the late 1920s and his special relationship with the young Morris Frank, a blind man who trained Buddy to be the first seeing eye dog.

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer: At the age of three, Michaela DePrince found a photo of a ballerina that changed her life. She was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone at the time, but was soon adopted by a family and brought to America. Michaela never forgot the photo of the dancer she once saw, and quickly decided to make her dream of becoming a ballerina come true. She has been dancing ever since and is now a principal dancer in New York City.

Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter Roop: She had never had to keep the lights burning by herself. But many lives depended on the lighthouse, and Papa was depending on Abbie. This is the exciting true story of Abbie Burgess, who in 1856 single-handedly kept the lighthouse lamps lit during a tremendous storm off the coast of Maine.

I invested in these books for my children because they are lifelong, living treasures! I hope you choose some of these living history books for your own children!

Here is the link to the free printable: list for living history books for emergent readers!

“The only vital method of education appears that children should read worthy books.” – Charlotte Mason

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