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The 5 Best American Historical Fiction Books to Read Aloud to Your Kids

Stories of adventure, war, poverty, success, perseverance, and American exceptionalism

by
Paula Bolyard

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August 19, 2013 - 9:00 am
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Jim Trelease, author of the The Read-Aloud Handbook, shares four important reasons for reading aloud to children:

• Conditions the child to associate reading with pleasure;

• Creates background knowledge;

• Builds “book” vocabulary;

• Provides a reading role model.

The Department of Education reported back in 1983 that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children” and said it was important that reading aloud continue throughout all the grades.

Whether your kids are in preschool or high school, whether they are homeschooled or attend public school, reading aloud is important for a child’s development. In these days when electronic and digital media pervade nearly every area of our lives, reading together as a family can provide an oasis and a joyful refuge from the daily deluge of smart phones, the internet, TV, and video games.

Our family especially enjoyed historical fiction as our boys were growing up. While we did read textbook-style narratives of history to get an overview, it was while reading historical fiction that the stories of our American heritage came to life for our children — stories of adventure, war, poverty, success, perseverance, and American exceptionalism.

I’ve listed below a few of our family’s favorites. Though not all are perfectly historically accurate on every point, they give an excellent sense of the times and the historical events. Moreover, the powerful stories will make history three-dimensional as your family is transported to another time and place a few chapters at a time. Though some of these books are written at a level kids in grades 5-8 can read for themselves, they’re so inspiring and educational that you should read them together.

1. Johnny Tremain — Esther Hoskins Forbes

Johnny Tremain is a 14-year-old silversmith apprentice in Boston in 1773. A tragic accident leaves him with a deformed hand and inadvertently plunges him into the intrigue and excitement of the early stages of the American Revolution. He meets famous Boston patriots and witnesses the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington. You’ll love Johnny’s courage and determination and root for him chapter after chapter as the Revolution unfolds.

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All Comments   (15)
All Comments   (15)
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46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, Paula, for the link to Imprimis. The speech is brilliant and insightful. I recommend it highly. Ms. Gurdon's comments on the structure of YA novels i.e., a kind of submersion in the main character's experience with no distancing was interesting. The contents of some of these novels sounds much worse than when my children were young. Roger Scrotun on the modern artistic impulse to destroy beauty is something I have long felt. NB Hornbook is a very old, respected magazine on children's literature. Unless it has changed in the last ten years, its reviewers never criticize the worst values and behavior in YA books. Hornbook is a window into the minds of children's book sellers and librarians.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
I read "Across Five Aprils" as a child. I LOVED it. As it was at least 45 years ago, I think I might read it again.
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Frances in Tokyo
Thanks for the wonderful recommendations and it's great to find others who love children's books. I'm 65 and I just finished Inkheart and Inkspell by Cornelia Funke.

I would like to discuss not individual books, but how to encourage reading.

Educators are continually suggesting ways to create avid readers, but miss some important ones. 1. Be a reader yourself. If your children see that reading is an important part of your life they will value it. 2. Discuss what you've read at the dinner table. Even when it is above your children's level of understanding, they will learn how reading can enrich your mind and heart.
3. Subscribe to a newspaper and discuss its contents. (Yes, there are people who have never subscribed to one). If you can afford it, subscribe to magazines, whether news or such as National Geographic. There are wonderful children's magazines that specialize in science, history, or culture. There are some for small children. There are excellent faith based magazines for children of all ages and denominations. 3) Use books (or the internet) as knowledge resources. "I wonder why leaves turn red? When was the first train built? What did Pocahontas do after she went to England? How many bones in the body?" You can run to resources all day long.

What if you are not much of a reader, but a doer. You would rather do something physical or with your hands. Enrich your child's life with those interests, but perhaps support them with books that explore your interest or teach it's history and development. Or how about biographies of people of distinction in your fields of interest.

Use idle times to share a book or story: 1) long car rides 2) curling up after an exciting Christmas Day or perhaps one of exhausting activity. 3) reading to a sick child.

And don't forget regular trips to the library and browsing books stores especially second hand ones.

Mrs. Bolyard: My 4 children are aged 26-35, but I have long been concerned about values portrayed in Young Adult literature which is aimed at about 12 years and up. But of course, bright children start reading these earlier. Some of these books now incorporate sex, incest, homosexuality, adult murder and crime scenarios in them. I have never seen anyone address this issue.

Finally, as your children mature continue to read some of their books. My children knew that I enjoyed children's literature so they didn't think I was spying--when I was!

46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Great suggestions, Frances. On the subject of YA literature, check out the latest edition of Hillsdale Imprimus for the transcript of a great speech on the topic by Meghan Cox Gurdon, the Childrens Book Reviewer for the WSJ. She shares your concerns and argues that we can do much better!

http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis.asp
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
I enjoyed this post very much. I knew and loved all of these books (except the Nathaniel Bowditch one) growing up in the late 60s-early 70s.

Not a criticism--but it amused me very much to see the delightful Miracles on Maple Hill mentioned here, next to Johnny Tremain and Across Five Aprils, especially.

Miracles is a well-written family novel, from the younger sister's point of view. The sadness and despair of the father is told with restraint; I know I largely missed it on my first readings (but have never forgotten the family of mice in the drawer), and was struck by it very much on rereading it as an adult.

I would not have put it in the category of American historical fiction, but it's wonderful to see it included for any reason.

I would mention some other historical novels that older children might enjoy reading with a parent: Calico Captive, by Elizabeth George Speare, about settlers captured by Indians and taken ultimately to French Canada during the French and Indian War; The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by the same author, about colonials in Connecticut (and Puritans vs. free-thinkers and Quakers);and Constance by Patricia Clapp (about one young girl on the Mayflower and the start of the Plymouth Colony). These books were all written well before the dumbing-down of children's lit started, so they still have long narrative descriptions (one of the best features in the Little House books, by the way) and aren't reduced to snappy, clever one-liners among characters (like TV sit-com characters). It's hard not to read these and feel drawn in to the characters' lives.

Ah--remembering books one loved as a child! The pleasures of these books come flooding back. Thanks for this topic!

I also remember a lowlier sort of book, but if you could find it in a used bookstore, your younger kids might love it. How many times I read and reread a book called "You Were There--With Abraham Lincoln in the White House," by (I think) Earle Schenk Meyers, told from Tad Lincoln's point of view. Wonderful, hilarious hijinks--and then the death of Willie... As I recall, the assassination of Lincoln is only sketched out at the end, but then, we knew so much about that already. The flavor of the man, in a child-appropriate way, seemed to me to come through in this book. I think there was a whole series of these "We Were There" titles (my brother had some, I believe), but this is the one that meant a great deal to me in 2nd-3rd grade.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks for your comment, None, and for your additional suggestions. We also loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond! I'm not sure there is a strict definition of historical fiction that would exclude "Miracles" from the genre. I included it because it gives a sense of the post-WW II period and depicts a side of the war we don't often see -- men who returned home with what we would now call PTST. That generation dealt with it much differently than the current generation.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for this list! I'm going to get the books I haven't read yet. We read out loud to our children and saw our kid's grades go from "B's" to "A's" in English, math, and science. Something about listening and absorbing a story made a huge difference academically. Plus when you read to your children they see you enjoying a book and that helps them develop a love of reading too.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes, Paula! My Mom read Johnny Tremain to me when I was a kid in the '60s, and it helped start me on the road to appreciating history and the American Revolution. I also had a little book which was intended for smaller children to read called Sam the Minuteman, and I enjoyed it too. I believe it was by someone with the last name of Buckley. It packed a lot of power into a few pages and pictures.

Our family also had a nicely-illustrated book from American Heritage magazine which was a history of the American Revolution, published in the 1950's. I forget the exact title--my copy is packed away now, and a quick Google search didn't bring up the exact edition I had, but I can assure you that the 1950's edition of it is a great resource for children as well as adults. The pictures, many of which were from the 1700's originally, really sucked me in and kept me fascinated--lots of portraits, battle scenes, 18th-century cartoons, photos and drawings of uniforms, etc. I read the whole book when I grew older, and it moved me a great deal. The old American Heritage and National Geographic magazine issues have many great treasures, with lots of pictures that can attract children.

And, my Mom read Sidney Lanier's The Boys' King Arthur to me. Its not strictly considered historical fiction, but it was a good introduction to the Arthurian legends, and it got me very interested in knighthood, chivalry and the Middle Ages. Some older movies such as "Knights of the Round Table" with Robert Taylor helped spur my interest also. Movies like that don't portray the reality of the Middle Ages, and they weren't intended to do that, but they still give some idea of the passions and beliefs and ideals that were held by some people of the time.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's amazing how a wonderful book can stay with you your entire life. My 5th grade teacher read "Where the Red Fern Grows" to our class. During the sad part she was sobbing and had to hand the book off to a student to finish the chapter. If I think about that too much the scene still makes me cry.

My kids both love history as a result of reading great historical fiction. It encouraged them to dig deeper and want to learn beyond the stories in the books.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you! Edgehopper! My kid is reading HTurtledove for grownups, right now. I think the Christmas book list just got longer!

And, good grief, this list shows exactly what has gone wretchedly, terribly, awfully wrong in publishing. Each of those books is over 50 years old. Contemporary books for boys: Wimpy Kids. and books for girls.

Oh- the company went bankrupt, but the Great Illustrated Classics- hardbounds, cheaper than dirt- are the books my husband read to my kids, night after night. It was funny as all get out, having them play " Moby Dick" at the park, and have the other parents thinking we'd read the whole door-stopper, in the original. Each GIC is redacted- so the sentences remain the same that the author wrote- with every other page a compelling black and white drawing. 273 pages, each one. A chapter is usually about ten minutes.

48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd suggest some young adult alternate history as well, in the form of Harry Turtledove's Crosstime Traffic novels. Three of the six are set in some form of the US, and only one (The Disunited States of America, set in an alternate where the Constitution was never ratified and the U.S. fell apart in the early 1800s) focuses on an event better described as American rather than World history, but they're still excellent. The 5th book in the series, The Gladiator, set in an Italy where communism wins the Cold War, is one of the best attacks on communism you'll find in YA fiction.

(The other 4 are:

Gunpowder Empire - where Rome never fell.
Curious Notions - where Imperial Germany won WWI and proceeded to take over the world.
In High Places - where the Black Death killed 80% rather than 30% of Europe, and the industrial revolution never happened in a Muslim-dominated world.
The Valley-Westside War - set in L.A. where a massive nuclear exchange in 1967 bombed the world back to Renaissance-era tech, and the US dissolved into medieval fiefdoms.)
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good list, Paula, and I'm very glad to see the "Little House" series is NOT on the list! :D

Oh, they're okay, but overrated.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
I loved the "Little House" books growing up and read them to my kids, but they're not in the same category, IMO, as some of the more "substantive" kids lit I listed above. And now, there's apparently a big controversy about whether or not daughter Rose was a "true" libertarian and to what extent she edited the books to fit her political views. Interesting to think about and always a good caution when reading anyone's take on history.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
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