American History III by Kathie Johnson

First Books

American History III

by Kathie Johnson

In the past two columns, I've described good American historical fiction in picture books and in books for the young elementary child. Now let's look at books for the older child/better reader. There are so many, it's hard to know where to start, but I'll begin, as usual, with some series.


First, there is a long series of 48 books, called "The American Adventure," by a variety of authors. The series begins with the story of a family arriving in America on the Mayflower, and it ends with a book about soldiers returning from World War II. In between are stories set in periods that are often overlooked, such as Queen Anne's War (1702–1713), a cholera epidemic in Cincinnati (1832), and the Chicago World's Fair (1893).

Another series is "Dear America," which includes a subset called "My Name Is America." These books are all written in diary form; they range across history and include a good balance of boy and girl characters. A few of its many titles are: Cannons at Dawn (on the American Revolution); Love Thy Neighbor (which balances Cannons by giving a Tory outlook); The Journal of Jesse Smoke (about the Trail of Tears); The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow (the story of a Navajo girl in 1864); A Journey to the New World (on the Mayflower); and The Journal of Sean Sullivan (about building the transcontinental railroad).

Recommended Novelists

Several children's authors have specialized in writing historical novels. Scott O'Dell is best known for Island of the Blue Dolphins, his story of the survival of a California Native American girl set against the backdrop of Russian sealers. Sarah Bishop is another survival story, this one set in colonial New York at the start of the American Revolution. The King's Fifth tells the story of the mapmaker for the explorer Coronado. Streams to the River, River to the Sea is about Sacagawea and the Lewis and Clark expedition. There are several others, but these titles give an idea of O'Dell's breadth.

A more recent well-regarded writer is Ann Rinaldi, whose main characters are mainly teenage girls. She has written The Fifth of March, a story about the Boston Massacre, and A Ride into Morning, which tells the story of Tempe Wick, a girl who is struggling to survive on her own, but faces up to a mutiny by some Revolutionary soldiers in order to protect what little she has.

Rinaldi has also set a number of her books in Civil War times. In My Father's House is about a Southern family conflicted over the Civil War; Numbering All the Bones tells the story of a slave who is offered an opportunity to escape during the war; My Vicksburg features a girl who must make a difficult decision about a soldier during a Civil War battle; in The Last Silk Dress, teenage girls, eager to do something for the Confederacy, offer their silk dresses to be made into a spy balloon; and in Girl in Blue, yet another teenage girl, desperate to avoid an arranged marriage, dresses as a northern soldier and enters the war. Rinaldi has written many more books, but these give a flavor of her range.

Another current author who has come highly recommended to me is Laurie Halse Anderson, whose books all have single-word titles. Fever is set in 1793 Philadelphia, when disease runs rampant in what is at the time the U.S. capital. In Chains, a slave girl in New York City spies for the rebels in the Revolution. I was interested to see that this book won the Scott O'Dell (see above) award for historical fiction.

Some Classic Titles

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.

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