American History in Pictures by Kathie Johnson

First Books

American History in Pictures

by Kathie Johnson

The next area of children's books I plan to review is historical fiction. This is a great way to get kids interested in history itself. When children hear about people from a different time, they begin to wonder about their lives and what was happening around them. Since there is too much material to cover in one column, I am starting with fiction set in America and am limiting myself to picture books (which means more pictures than words).

Beginning with Native Americans, there is a nice series called Tales of the Native Americans by Neil and Ting Morris. Richly illustrated, each book introduces a child from a particular tribal culture. At the end are notes about that culture. For example, in Taku and the Fishing Canoe, a Haida boy and his sister from the northwest go out in a canoe and run into danger when a storm comes up.

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve has put together a nice collection of short poems from various Native American tribes, called Dancing Tepees. Thomas Locker has done a book with lovely paintings about Woodland Indians and what happens when settlers come—and when they leave again: The Land of the Gray Wolf.

Colonial Times & the Revolution

For Colonial times, a good starting place would be with any of the several books by Kate Waters, including On the Mayflower and Samuel Eaton's Day. The bright photographs used in these books were taken at Plymouth Plantation. Homespun Sarah, by Verla Kay, shows a family hard at work at the everyday activities that need to be done to supply the necessities of life, with a nice surprise at the end. A popular series set in colonial Nantucket, by Brinton Turkle, relates the adventures of a boy named Obadiah. In the first book, Thy Friend, Obadiah, Obadiah is befriended by a seagull that he has mixed feelings about. Arnold Lobel has written an amusing story about early New York (or New Amsterdam): On the Day Peter Stuyvesant Sailed into Town. It gives you an idea of what Manhattan Island looked like a long time ago.

For the American Revolution, Buttons for General Washington, by Peter and Connie Roop, tells the story of a boy who acts as a spy by using buttons with coded messages. Three I Can Read books fit here: Doreen Rappaport's The Boston Coffee Party, in which women confront a merchant hoarding coffee and sugar; Sally Walker's The 18 Penny Goose, about a girl whose family must leave their home ahead of a battle and who worries about her favorite goose left behind; and Janette Sebring Lowrey's Six Silver Spoons, the story of two girls who are on a journey to meet their mother with a precious gift and end up being confronted by British soldiers.

The Civil War & the Black Experience

For the Civil War, there is Cecil's Story, by George Ella Lyon, with lovely paintings by Peter Catalanotto. A boy imagines what is happening to his dad, who is off fighting, and remembers happy times with him. Ann Turner's Drummer Boy is a beautiful but difficult story about a boy who drums for the Union Army and sees many distressing things. Lucy's Cave, by Karen Winnick, tells the story of the Union attack on Vicksburg, Mississippi, and how the local people survived the siege by living in a cave.

There are some lovely books dealing with the African-American experience. In The Escape of Oney Judge, Emily Arnold McCully tells the story of a personal slave of Martha Washington's, who learns that there are free black people. Although she is treated kindly by Martha, her future is uncertain, and when given an opportunity, she escapes.

Most stories for this level are about the Underground Railroad. Under the Quilt of Night, by Deborah Hopkinson, tells of a young girl and her family escaping slavery by this means. F. N. Monjo has written The Drinking Gourd for the I Can Read series, which tells of a family who hides slaves under hay in their wagon. Tony Johnston's The Wagon tells of a slave family, including a boy who grows up during the Civil War and experiences emancipation.


Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.


more on childrens books from the online archives

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