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


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.


2. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch — Jean Lee Latham

Jean Lee Latham’s 1955 Newbery award winner fictionalizes the true story of Nathaniel “Nat” Bowditch. Though denied a Harvard education, as an apprenticed bookkeeper he discovered a talent for math and complicated calculations. The book is set in Salem, Massachusetts, shortly after the American Revolution. Nat revolutionizes the world of maritime navigation. Bowditch wrote a book that is still a standard among mariners. The black and white illustrations enhance the charm of the book and will have your kids looking over your shoulder as you read to them.

3. Across Five Aprils — Irene Hunt

Jethro Creighton is 9 years old when the Civil War breaks out. The southern Illinois farm boy sees most of his male relatives go off to fight for both the North and the South. When his father falls ill, Jethro takes responsibility for the family farm and encounters a myriad of hardships and adventures. This book will have you on the edge of your seat as the Civil War unwinds and then drags on. We listened to the audio book on a cross-country car trip and found ourselves sitting in the car at rest stops because we wanted to see what happened next!


4. Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers – Ralph Moody

Little Britches was first released in 1950 and, along with the other books in the series, has been in print continuously since then. It’s the autobiographical tale of a young boy whose family moves to a Colorado ranch in 1906. After his father’s death, Ralph becomes the Man of the Family (the title of the second book in the series). Life on the ranch is exciting, dangerous, and complicated. Landowners battle over water rights and go to extreme lengths to supply their farms and ranches.

5. Miracles on Maple Hill — Virginia Sorensen

This 1957 Newbery winner tells the story of a father who returned home from World War II a broken man, detached from his family. His wife decides the family needs to spend some extended time at Grandma’s country house. Dad slowly regains his physical and mental health as winter turns to spring and the family witnesses a series of small miracles. The description of maple sugaring is fascinating — it will make you want to run out and hang buckets on your maple trees this spring!

Reading historical fiction not only teaches your children about the facts of history, but teaches them to love and enjoy it. Rather than reading dreary textbooks that do little more than recite dates and events in order, historical fiction personalizes the stories and puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Textbooks do have their place, but supplement them with vibrant, living historical fiction — and enjoy history together as a family!