I’ve had my issues with Story of the World, but the fact that there’s nothing quite like it for American history is a problem that seems to plague a lot of homeschoolers, who, like me, want to devote a full year or even two to the history of the United States. It’s much easier to find other resources like picture books, biographies, posters, games, flashcards and things like that for US History than it is for almost any topic in world history. Still, one needs some basic resources to start with. As I just went through trying to choose what we would use, I thought I’d provide what I found for others. We didn’t elect to use all of these by any means, but they’re all things I read at least samples of in my planning for the year and most of them more closely than that.
A History of US by Joy Hakim
Covers: From prehistory to the very recent past
Length: 11 volumes, each one about 150 pages, mostly text
Illustrations: Small illustrations on most pages of documentary evidence such as artifacts, cartoons, paintings and photos from the time period that enhances the text
Age Range: The intended audience is probably about grades 3-8, but this could be useful through high school and even for adults unfamiliar with American history.
Activities: The books include some review questions. There is a separate accompanying volume with tests and further activities.
Biases: Some people feel Hakim has a liberal bias, but the books are mostly neutral. They incorporate political, social and cultural history together.
Other thoughts: This series was a little too advanced for my boys and too detailed to do in one year besides. People are divided about Hakim’s narrative voice, which is strong throughout. She has a very conversational tone and asks questions as a part of the narrative. I like it, but I know others do not. I have seen a critique from the Textbook League posted a few times. I can’t speak to errors throughout the volumes, but I will say that I found it extremely disingenuous that their review implied it was about the series as a whole when in reality it only critiques a short introduction for a single volume, an introduction that attempts to summarize and purposefully overgeneralize the entirety of Western history to that point, which is very different from the detail in the texts as a whole.
The American Story by Jennifer Armstrong
Covers: European exploration to the present
Length: one volume of approximately 350 pages
Illustrations: Ink and watercolor illustrations line the edges of most pages
Age Range: Appropriate for grades K to 6
Biases: The book is clearly about individual people’s stories, but an effort to balance between “great men” like Benjamin Franklin and the inclusion of minorities, women and lesser known figures is good. There are some false stories repeated, such as about Paul Revere’s ride, so the book leans toward mythologizing moments in history, but from what I could tell most of the book is accurate.
Other thoughts: This book wouldn’t make a good standalone curriculum, but it covers a wide range of topics and perspectives, so despite any tendency toward glossing over difficult history, I think it makes a good supplement. Some of the figures and topics covered, such as Thaddeus Lowe or the rivalry between Hearst and Pulitzer are things you won’t find in most books.
Betsy Maestro’s American Story series
Covers: Prehistory to 1815, with new volumes being added every few years
Length: 7 volumes, each of which is a lengthy picture book that can be read in one to two sittings
Illustrations: Rich and detailed painted color illustrations are on every page
Age Range: Appropriate for preK, but detailed enough that children in upper elementary and even middle school would get something out of it
Biases: The books focus on political history and change more than social history. There is not a liberal or conservative bias.
Other thoughts: These are meaty enough to be the basis for an early elementary curriculum. We won’t be able to benefit, but I hope the authors will continue adding more volumes.
The Complete Book of US History
Covers: Prehistory to the present
Length: One volume of approximately 350 pages
Illustrations: Slightly rough ink and watercolor illustrations on most pages
Age Range: The cover says grades 3-5, but I think it could be used for slightly older or younger children without much problem
Activities: Each chapter includes some activities at the end, often independent research topics.
Biases: The book is pretty middle of the road and includes social and political history.
Other thoughts: Well, that cover sure is a turn off, but this is a pretty basic introduction. There’s not a very strong narrative voice and there’s not much to the activities, but it covers everything pretty fairly with decent maps and illustrations. It’s one of the better options out there.
The Drama of American History
Covers: Prehistory to the recent past
Length: 23 volumes of approximately 100 pages each
Illustrations: Documentary images are included throughout
Age Range: Appropriate for grade 4 and up. Like Hakim’s A History of US, this could be useful all the way up to adult readers unfamiliar with the topics.
Biases: These books present political and social history with all its ins and outs. From what little I was able to evaluate them, their primary bias seems to be to present topics from different viewpoints and cover them in depth.
Other thoughts: These are out of print and some volumes are criminally expensive considering it’s just a basic children’s history reference series. They’re a little too much for my kids now so while I’m interested in them, I didn’t go to too much trouble finding them at this stage. I wasn’t able to look at the majority of the series, so it’s difficult for me to assess it overall. There are lots of fans of these out there though and, while there’s a lot of volumes, many of which overlap different time periods, I appreciate that topics like immigration, urbanism, and Jim Crow get their own book as opposed to fitting into other volumes without ever getting the attention they deserve. This is a resource we’ll consider strongly when the kids are older, assuming they haven’t gone into the thousands of dollars by that point, which at this rate seems possible.
American History Stories by Mara Pratt
Covers: Viking exploration through Reconstruction
Length: 4 volumes of approximately 200 pages each
Illustrations: A few black and white illustrations are included
Age Range: Appropriate for K-6 and of possible use through grade 8
Biases: This is an older book, so racial biases are relatively evident throughout. The series focuses on the “great men” of American history. A Christian audience is assumed. The overall attitude on the books is conservative.
Other thoughts: This series was written about a century ago. The storytelling style is probably as close to Story of the World as anything you can find. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I had a serious cringe moment reading the very first page of the first volume, which is a summary of the entirety of First Peoples’ history. It lumps all Native Americans together in the worst way and talks about them in a way I know I couldn’t read to my children in good conscience. I read on to find that I liked the style of the books and they’re certainly not filled with hateful or racist ideas, but they focus almost exclusively on the individuals and the “great men” of history. The opening sections about the Civil War, for example manage to somehow talk about Lincoln’s childhood in detail, but mention slavery only in the briefest way. In fact, the way that slavery is ignored as a primary cause of the Civil War speaks volumes about the bias in this series. Still, I think the right person might have the patience to tweak these and use parts of this along with more modern resources. That person just isn’t me.
USKids History series from Brown Paper School Books
Covers: Prehistory through the Civil War
Length: 5 volumes which are each about 100 pages
Illustrations: Black and white pencil drawings are on most pages
Age Range: These could probably be useful in various ways to students K-8
Activities: Lots of hands on activities, such as handicrafts, cooking projects and other historical recreation activities are included.
Biases: The books are clearly focused on social history and what life was like for kids of the eras each volume covers. The overall attitude of the books is basically liberal, with a focus on different classes and minorities.
Other thoughts: These books probably aren’t quite enough for a standalone. Each one is about half project and handicraft ideas and half history, often told from the point of view of real or imagined children of the time period. They’re very different from most of the other books out there for this age so they’d work well with a more traditional resource. They were a happy discovery for me so I’m sure we’ll make use of them.
A Young Peoples’ History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Covers: European exploration to the present
Length: One volume of nearly 500 pages
Illustrations: A few black and white drawings and photographs from the time periods are included
Age Range: The intended audience is grades 7-12, but parts could easily be adapted for use for upper elementary school
Biases: Zinn’s liberal bias is well known. He comes at history from a socialist perspective and his agenda is to expose the history of the working class, minorities and women.
Other thoughts: I really love this book and I appreciate the trend it’s a part of – bringing popular adult nonfiction books out in “young readers” editions. It’s a little too mature for my kids this time, but we’ll absolutely be using it on our next go around. Zinn covers very important history in this book and gives a strong perspective that I think everyone should be challenged with. However, it would not make a good standalone resource. You’ve got to have something to balance Zinn’s take on events.
Elemental History’s Adventures in America
Covers: European exploration to Western expansion, skipping many topics in between
Length: One volume of about 150 pages for the parent/teacher that includes passages to read to the student as well as “living book” suggestions and activities
Age Range: Appropriate for grades preK to 3
Activities: In addition to review questions and various craft activites, there’s an accompanying student book with copywork exercises and other worksheets.
Biases: I haven’t read enough to say for sure, but the primary bias seems to be an attempt to give children a gentle introduction avoiding anything too controversial or unpleasant. The primary audience is kindergartners about to embark on a four year classical history cycle, so this is just meant as an introduction.
Other thoughts: This curriculum glosses over so many topics that I knew it wasn’t for us without reading much so I can’t give it a full assessment. The civil war is skipped entirely. However, from what I saw the quality looked good and the parent company, Elemental Science, is certainly gaining a solid reputation. This is probably exactly what a lot of people are looking for, just not us.