Many of you may not know that there is a new curriculum called Common Core being incorporated into many school systems across the country. The language arts section of this curriculum emphasizes students’ use of non-fiction texts to aid comprehension. Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot about the need for more high concept non-fiction titles for kids, and I am frequently asked by parents if I have any recommendations for them. As non-fiction is one of my favorite genres, I read in this area quite a bit, and have wanted to do a post on the topic for some time.
With the recent Columbus Day holiday, I thought a great way to introduce a non-fiction post would be to focus on United States history from the age of Columbus onwards. Here you will find some of my favorite American history non-fiction books for kids. Many of these are appropriate for upper elementary age and older; a few (where noted) are best left for kids 10 and up. Where quoted, book descriptions are from Goodreads.
Those Rebels, John & Tom by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
“John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were very different. John Adams was short and stout. Thomas Jefferson was tall and lean. John was argumentative and blunt. Tom was soft-spoken and polite. John sometimes got along with almost no one. Tom got along with just about everyone.
But these two very different gentlemen did have two things in common: They both cared deeply about the American colonies, and neither cared much for the British tyrant, King George.”
We’ve all seen the token biographies of the founding fathers, I love that this title takes such a different perspective. Those Rebels focuses not only on John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s political contributions, but their very real friendship with one another. The two men in this account seem much more relatable to a modern-day kid than some of the more traditional biographies – a great option for students studying the Revolutionary War.
Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of World War II by Amy Nathan
“The fascinating story of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft—the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. Although these pioneers were never allowed to fly in combat, they did fly in many essential wartime missions—some that the men didn't even want to take on. Through firsthand accounts, these women share their experiences as they test-fly newly repaired aircraft, drag banners behind their planes so male trainees can practice shooting moving targets, and ferry all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.”
I love this unique take on World War II on a topic we very rarely hear about: women pilots in the war. In addition to being an inspirational story, the book is truly action-packed, appealing to both girls and boys in its content. Kids won’t even realize they’re learning about World War II.
The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism and Treachery by Steve Sheinkin
“Most people know that Benedict Arnold was America’s first, most notorious traitor. Few know that he was also one of its greatest war heroes. This accessible biography introduces young readers to the real Arnold: reckless, heroic, and driven. Packed with first-person accounts, astonishing battle scenes, and surprising twists, this is a gripping and true adventure tale.”
This 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award-winning title is truly one of the most exciting historical books I’ve read. It’s easy to forget you’re reading non-fiction as you get caught up in Arnold’s adventures. This is a title sure to hook your reluctant reader. Due to some graphic content, I’d suggest this for ages 11 and up.
WITCHES! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer
“In the little colonial town of Salem Village, Massachusetts, two girls began to twitch, mumble, and contort their bodies into strange shapes. The doctor tried every remedy, but nothing cured the young Puritans. He grimly announced the dire diagnosis: the girls were bewitched! And then the accusations began. The riveting, true story of the victims, accused witches, crooked officials, and mass hysteria that turned a mysterious illness affecting two children into a witch hunt that took over a dozen people’s lives and ruined hundreds more unfolds in chilling detail in this young adult book by award-winning author and illustrator Rosalyn Schanzer.”
While I wouldn’t recommend this title for children under 10 years old, those kids who are ready to learn about the Salem Witch Trials, especially those who live in Massachusetts, will be riveted. This acclaimed title is great for readers learning about the Puritans in early Colonial America, and is the perfect book for those kids who “hate history.” I guarantee they will be enticed by this cover.
Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus by Peter Sis
“The 15th century comes alive in this splendidly original picture book about Christopher Columbus. The illustrations, executed in a variety of media, show scenes from the explorer's life as well as some imaginary creatures that populated the Europeans' picture of the outside world at that time. The details on each page invite individual readers to pay close attention, but the brief, clear text and framed illustrations lend themselves equally well to group sharing. Make room on your crowded Columbus shelf for this one.”
I’m a big fan of Peter Sis (who also wrote the award-winning The Wall: My Life Behind the Iron Curtain), and this title does not disappoint. It’s a great option for younger kids just learning about Columbus (ages 6-9), but what really makes the book are the incredible illustrations.
Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman
“A description of the boyhood, marriage, and young professional life of Abraham Lincoln includes his presidential years and also reflects on the latest scholarly thoughts about our Civil War president.”
It’s not often that a biography wins the Newbery Medal, but Lincoln: A Photobiography most certainly did. The collection of photos in this book makes it truly remarkable. It should be read not only by kids studying the president, but by any interested adults as well.
Discovering Black America: From the Age of Exploration to the Twenty-First Century by Linda Tarrant-Reid
“An unprecedented account of more than 400 years of African American history set against a background of American and global events. The book begins with a black sailor aboard the "Nina" with Christopher Columbus and continues through the colonial period, slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and civil rights to our current president in the White House. Including first-person narratives from diaries and journals, interviews, and archival images, "Discovering Black America" will give readers an intimate understanding of this extensive history. The book includes an index and bibliography.”
Tarrant-Reid does a remarkable job covering this extensive period of African-American history. I can’t think of another book for kids that is as thorough and complete as this piece of work. Lots of photos do a beautiful job supplementing the text. Please note that the content can be a bit deep for elementary school students, so I would reserve this title for ages 10 and up.
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