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

A not-to-miss book set in colonial times is The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare. The main character in this story comes to the Connecticut Colony from the Caribbean and befriends an elderly woman, leading to suspicion and false accusations. Another of my favorite books is Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham. It tells the story of Nathaniel (Nat) Bowditch, a real person who was a child during the American Revolution and lived through the turbulent times afterwards, as America was becoming a power to be reckoned with. A gifted mathematician, Nat educated himself, and his book on seamanship and navigation, first published in 1802, is still carried on American Navy vessels. Another classic book is Johnny Tremain, the story of an apprentice in Paul Revere's silversmith business in Boston during Revolutionary times.

Probably my favorite Civil War novel is Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It's told from the perspective of an Illinois farm family whose sons are fighting in different armies. The youngest son has to grow up fast to take their place at home. Two other authors who write often about the Civil War are G. Clifton Wisler (Mr. Lincoln's Drummer, Red Cap) and Patricia Beatty (Charley Skedaddle, Jayhawker).

My favorite book about the westward movement is Children on the Oregon Trail by A. Rutgers van der Loeff. This book (which has been published under other titles as well) is based on the true-life story of a 13-year-old boy who traveled west with his family in a wagon train. When his parents both die, he has to grow up quickly, and he makes the decision to leave the wagon train and take his younger brothers and sisters to Oregon, where his father had originally planned to go. To get there, they must cross difficult and dangerous territory.

Gary Paulson's "Tucket's Travels" series (available in individual volumes and in compilations) is a favorite of boys. Francis Tucket is a 14-year-old boy heading west in a wagon train when he is kidnapped by Pawnees. He has many adventures and encounters fascinating characters. Another good book for boys is Jason's Gold by Will Hobbs. This story etched in my mind what it must have been like to take part in the Alaskan Gold Rush. It features a 15-year-old boy who makes his way alone, but eventually encounters—and is helped by—Jack London.

Different Lives

There are many more books that could be mentioned, but this is a good list to get started on. In a world where older readers are often imbedded in the present and immersed in their electronic entertainments, good historical novels are of particular value. These young people need to take breaks from their phones and screens and live for a while alongside people their age who had very different lives. 

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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