Tag Archives: history books

September (and some August) Books

Time for our monthly what’s everyone reading wrap up. Or, honestly, past time. Sometimes I get a little behind!

Audio Book
The Colossus Rises by Peter Lerangis

This is the first book of the Seven Wonders series, which is one of those “If you liked Percy Jackson, try this” sort of series. It’s about four kids who are the descendants of a long gone civilization, but who also carry a mysterious gene that may kill them. A mysterious institute is keeping them captive on a secret island. I wanted something that would be a fun, light car read so we gave it a try. There are some positive points, but mostly we were all very let down. The narration on the audio is fine, but the story is just a mess. There are so many details about this imaginary world of Atlantis, most of which didn’t make enough of an impression on us that we could keep them straight when we needed to. The main characters are mostly flat. There’s a lot of action, but some of it is pretty gross (the combat and mortal peril scenes were just a bit gruesome in places for no apparent reason). The reason that these four kids are being kept by this mysterious institute was simply not believable. It’s supposed to be a mystery, but it didn’t play very well. And finally, worst of all, the book ended mid-action. I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but this was just in the middle of stuff happening. I’ve been trying to teach the kids about how a good story can leave you asking questions, or leave itself open for a sequel, but it has to resolve something in order to be a finished story. This book resolved nothing. Overall, a big thumbs down.

Another Audio Book
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This series is billed as YA, but there’s not really anything in it that is inappropriate for younger readers. Since we are embarking on a steampunk unit of the kids’ choosing, I got this one on audio for us to enjoy. It’s a complex story in an alternate 1914, where Germany and its allies use “clanker” steam based technology including giant metal walkers, and Britain and its allies use Darwinist based technology by breeding impossible “beasties” that do their work for them. Just like in real history, the two sides are on the brink of war. In Austro-Hungary, Prince Alec flees with his tutors after his father, the archduke, was murdered. In England, Daryn Sharp, a young girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the military, embarks on a giant airship powered by a sort of floating, hydrogen belching whale. Obviously, the two meet for a giant adventure. The world building is so great in this steampunk adventure. The narration on the audiobook, by Alan Cumming, is also pretty excellent. While I really love this series, I have to admit the kids took forever to warm up to it, but by the time the two characters had met and the action had gotten moving, they were into it.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman

Both my boys really love stories about everyday kids, especially when they’re slightly funny or have just a slight touch of magical impossibility. This one fit the bill, and BalletBoy enjoyed it so much that he read it while it wasn’t evening reading time. That’s always a win. It’s the story of a boy who creates a machine to do his homework. Of course, when he shares the secret, that inevitably leads to trouble as the kids using it suddenly receive perfect scores all the time. The book cuts quickly between lots of different perspectives from different sorts of kids. Gutman is a funny writer and I suspect BalletBoy or Mushroom may pick up some other books by him in the near future.

Mushroom’s Light Reading Pile
Frank Einstein and the Anti-Mater Motor by Jon Scieszka
Planet Tad by Tim Carvell
Timmy Failure
 by Stephen Pastis

Mushroom tore through a bunch of light reading books this month, all of them in the same pictures and text mold a la the Wimpy Kid books. I didn’t read any of them so I can’t really evaluate them, but I can tell you he that none of them seem to have been standouts. He finished them all in rapid succession and is on to the sequel to Planet Tad, so I know he didn’t dislike them and in fact he chuckled while reading most of them, but I think they were little more than brain candy. He never wanted to excitedly discuss any of the stories with me the way he does with a more complex book. These are all below his reading level, but he skipped the whole Magic Treehouse chapter book series level so I can see that reading this stuff is probably helping his fluency, which can only be a positive for a slow reader like him. So even if he found them sort of meh, I suspect it was still good for his reading.

Graphic Novel
The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings

The boys got a pile of graphic novels for their birthday and this was one of them. It’s your standard orphan kids save the world in a slightly dystopian future sort of story. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art myself. The machines and future city have a cool look, but there was something unappealing to me about the character art. Sometimes I think the kids just like when a graphic novel is all color, honestly. The story felt a little uneven. Between a corporate plot and a futurist Dickensian orphanage, there’s a lot going on in the story. Still, Mushroom gave it a big thumbs up and BalletBoy started reading it as well. Getting enough graphic novels to satisfy the hungry middle grades reader is always a challenge.

School Reading
Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

This memoir about the Cultural Revolution in China was a pass back and forth read, with me reading parts aloud and then assigning other chapters. It tells the story of the author’s childhood during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, during which time her father was arrested, her grandmother became increasingly ill, she lost her place in school and experienced terrible bullying for her class status, and her best friend’s grandmother committed suicide. It’s a story told through the eyes of a child who can’t see why any of the terrible things around her are happening. I might have waited on it, but I knew that with putting history studies aside, we wouldn’t be back to this period for awhile and it’s a commonly read fifth grade book, so we dove in. Mushroom found it to be a compelling story, but BalletBoy, who is in a sensitive phase at the moment, found it extremely difficult. I think this type of oppression experienced in communist nations, which was so randomized, felt much more difficult to understand than oppression and conflict over differences of ideology. I think it’s an important book, but I think sixth or seventh grade might have been a better time to read it.

More School Reading
The Middle East: The History, the Cultures, the Conflicts, the Faiths by the editors of TIME Magazine

I had to really scour to find something to wrap up our history studies with a look at the Middle East, a part of the world, I’m sad to say we didn’t spend much time on after the Ottoman Empire. I wanted a resource that would be right for upper elementary and middle school and wasn’t too biased. In the end, I was pretty happy with this one. It’s a glossy book not necessarily intended for kids, but rather as an introduction for anyone. Most pages have color photos that take up the whole page with a short text. The book starts with a series of quick looks at the issues. Just a paragraph and an image worth discussing. Then there are some summaries of history and conflicts in the form of a chronology. Finally, there’s a section with brief questions. Can Israel be accepted? Can Iraq be stabilized? The book is, like any book about this region, already out of date at just a few years old. However, I liked both the opening images and the final questions sections a lot as discussion starters, so I definitely recommend it to others looking for a good overview resource. In the end, we weren’t able to finish reading the parts I wanted to read. BalletBoy, having heard just a little bit about the current conflicts in Gaza and then in Syria and Iraq, found it too distressing. The fact that these conflicts were ongoing and very present on the news made them much harder to learn about, even in an historical context without too many details.

Our Best Loved History Resources

As I explained (or, you know, shamelessly bragged out) in my last post, we finished all the history recently. I wanted to make a list of the big resources we loved most over the last five years.

Story of the World
This series of classical history books for elementary school often takes flack from all sides. To Christian homeschoolers, it’s not religious enough. To secular types, it’s too religious. I have to admit that I have been disillusioned with it at many points on our journey, in particular the way it began to feel disjointed and left out any inkling of social history to the point that even the social structure of the middle ages and the rise of towns was omitted. It stopped being our primary resource a long time ago, but it has stuck around as one of the only solid books with any level of worldwide scope and we have turned back to it again and again for individual chapters about topics that had precious few books for this age range. So while I’m critical of many aspects of this series, in the end, it has been extremely valuable for us.

Builders of the Old World
I so wish we had discovered this book a little sooner. And a part of me wishes we were embarking on a second history cycle now so we could use it again and really get more out of it. This vintage text covers the earliest civilizations through the dawn of the Enlightenment with solid writing and loads of social history. It really gives a sense of the sweep of history. It’s a solidly western civilizations perspective, so it can’t be the only resource since the history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia get only cursory attention, but for anyone looking for an old fashioned text without too much of the vintage text baggage that often comes with older books, this one is a real gem.

The American Story Series
This series of long form picture books by the Maestros is a real gem. They’re both in depth and accessible to younger children. The illustrations are rich and beautiful and the Maestros do such a good job of covering early American history. If only they would hurry up and make more! This series became our US history spine for the period that it covered. It’s perfect for doing American history for elementary schoolers.

Liberty’s Kids
This cartoon about a motley group of kids working for Benjamin Franklin’s printshop during the American Revolution is surprisingly good. Different perspectives are worked into the story lines and most of the major events and issues of the time are explored. It bends credulity a little for the imaginary heroes to have met every famous figure of the age and a few things seem to have been rearranged for the sake of the show’s chronology. Still, one of the best resources out there for American history.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles
This series, which is on Netflix streaming, first follows elementary aged Indy as he travels around the world with his parents and tutor, digging up Egyptian artifacts with Howard Carter, seeing Theodore Roosevelt on safari, and wandering the Russian countryside with Tolstoy. The second part follows a teenage Indy as he joins the Mexican Revolution, then the Belgian army, then becomes a spy for the French during World War I. The historical figures and locations covered will make a lot of parents even need to check their references. It’s a pretty amazing resource for studying the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Parents should note that there’s nothing inappropriate in the younger series, but teenage Indy flits from romance to romance and there are several scenes where sex is strongly implied. I was okay with it for my kids, but other parents may want to preview.

USKids History from Brown Paper Schoolbag
This series of history books, which goes through the end of the Civil War, is a really great supplementary resource. Each book includes projects and text which tells lesser known historical stories and snippets of historical fiction to help students picture the time period. They’re really focused on social history, but grounded in the details of individuals. They do a really good job of show diversity as well. This was one of my favorite resources for US history.

David Macaulay’s Buildings Series
These books are such a great, detailed look at architecture and building. I especially loved the Roman town one and the kids enjoyed the Castle one, for which we watched the animated video that was made for PBS many years ago. Reading the one about the Mill was also a fascinating little look at how industrialization changed over time. The drawings are so incredibly detailed and the stories that go along with each book helps it feel like a little slice of history, even though it’s a fiction.

David Adler’s A Picture Book Biography Series
These are mostly US history centric and there were so many great American history biographers and series that we used that it was hard to choose just one. However, the number of titles and the consistent quality of this series made it really valuable for us. The illustrations are a bit simple by today’s flashy picture book biography standards (that’s a funny sentence, but really, it’s true that there are a lot more stylized biographies out there now!) but I think their simplicity also made them more approachable. There was something almost magical about the text of these that I could never pinpoint that somehow helped the kids remember details better than from seemingly any other nonfiction resource.

History Activity Books
This one is a bit of a cheat, but it’s true that these were one of our most valuable resources. There are several different publishers of activity books for history. We especially liked three different series: the A Kid’s Guide series by Laurie Carlson, the Amazing Projects You Can Build Yourself series, and the Kaleidoscope Kids series. However, there are several others, including a second imprint by the Kid’s Guide series publisher that covers many more topics. One of the secret things about these books was that they usually had excellent, succinct text that covered their subjects. Often, having just read about ancient Greece in Story of the World or Leonardo da Vinci in an excellent picture book biography, we didn’t need that text. However, occasionally, such as for the Industrial Revolution, we really did. I think our all time favorite was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Projects You Can Build Yourself.

Field Trips
Another cheat, but there was no one field trip that really helped us. However, whenever there was a field trip available for a topic, we always took it. The year we did American history, we took dozens of field trips, taking advantage of life in Washington by seeing Lincoln’s cottage, Washington’s home, Jefferson’s home, Madison’s home, the battlefield at Manassas, and countless other spots. However, we’ve also used art museums, archaeological sites, historical re-enactments, and many other places. Actually being in a place that witnessed history, or seeing the real artifacts, or interacting with historical re-enactors all helped the kids much more than any book to remember and enjoy history.

Historical Fiction
My final cheat, but again there’s no one book that helped us in our history journey, but rather just consistently reading historical fiction helped us to see different perspectives, learn about everyday life in different times, and put ourselves into the time periods we studied. I know historical fiction has a bad rap in some quarters for often being not true to the time periods portrayed, and that’s definitely a consideration, but from Magic Treehouse to Number the Stars, historical fiction has made history go down easy here at the rowhouse and much of it has been great literature to boot.