Tag Archives: Story of the World

US History Options

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 StoryThe 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

Activities: none

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

Activities: None

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.

Activities: none

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

Activities: None

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

Activities: None

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

Illustrations: none

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.

Finally up to the Sistine Chapel

We’re still at it with history this summer.  I had hoped we’d be finished by now.  We made much better time with the ancients than with these complicated medieval people, I tell you.

The other thing that happened to stall us is that it turns out there are more good books about the Renaissance than any other historical topic EVER.

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration.  But truly, we struggled through to find books about the Mongols, the Samurai, the building of the Cathedrals, the Crusades, the Islamic Empire and all the other things we’ve studied this year.  There were always a few books, but never a wealth of them.  However, when I first went to the library to gather our Renaissance books, I staggered under the weight of what I checked out.  And it wasn’t even half of what they offered.  Usually we clean them out on any given topic.  The ones I pictured up above don’t even begin to represent everything we found.

We’re always big fans of Diane Stanley’s in depth picture book biographies, so we’ve enjoyed both her one about Michelangelo and her one about Leonardo da Vinci.  Da Vinci had a huge section in the biographies area.  We checked out and enjoyed more than half a dozen books about him.  However, the one we liked best was Beautiful Dreamer by Robert Byrd.  The Art for Children books, which we found several of for the Renaissance, were very useful with some great thoughts about the art, but the quality of the images was very dated, which was disappointing.  For me, though, the best discovery has been the picture book biographies of Leonard Everett Fisher.  His black and white images on stark white backgrounds are striking and interesting.  The books are exactly the right length to read aloud in one sitting yet feel like one has read something with some meat to it.  I especially like that in the two books we read of his, Gutenberg and Prince Henry the Navigator, he focuses on fitting the figure into historical context.

For this section, we’ve ditched Story of the World pretty much entirely in favor of Builders of the Old World, which I felt did a much better job of laying out the Renaissance, Reformation and Age of Exploration together.  I also bit the bullet and did something I haven’t done in quite awhile – I read a Magic Treehouse book, specifically Monday with a Mad Genius about Leonardo da Vinci, aloud.  It wasn’t so bad either.  The kids loved it, of course.  I was reminded that they really are decent little books as long as you don’t read more than one back to back (because if you do that, you’ll be tempted to turn all the repetitive plot elements into a drinking game).

We’ve also gotten back to projects.  Here are the kids under tables to paint their Sistine ceiling.

However, the best project book we found was Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Inventions You Can Build Yourself by Maxine Anderson.  This book is excellent fun.  So far we played with perspective by building perspectographs.  You can see that below.  However, we’re most excited to build the water walking shoes and test them out when we go south in a couple of weeks.  I just need to get to the hardware store and buy the materials.  I expect they’ll be a hoot.

You know,our lovely wooden table makes everything look very orange in our dining room photos.  I swear, it’s not that orange in real life.

Reassessing Story of the World

It’s spring and we’re getting closer to the end of our second year with Susan Wise Bauer’s popular history series Story of the World.  I have to start this by saying that last year I was practically a Story of the World evangelist.  We loved doing the first volume, which is about ancient history.  I never bought the accompanying activity guide, but we read multitudes of picture books and books of myths.  We also did many excellent craft projects.  Most memorably, we made a real model Roman road out of carefully gathered pebbles and a model aqueduct out of paper towel rolls.

I saw flaws in the book.  I felt like it flew from different types of storytelling too quickly, taking kids from myths, to history, to “imagine you were there.”  I could also easily see the biases, but I didn’t feel they were any worse than any other source.  It was all things I was willing to work around.

But here’s the thing.  Ancient history, while it’s fun and interesting, is not really my area of expertise.  I majored in history, but I never did much about ancient civilizations.  On the other hand, medieval history is something I know a little more about.  Now that we’re on to history I know more about, I’ve been more and more disenchanted with Story of the World.

I think my first mistake was to buy the Activity Guide.  On a couple of occasions, it has given me a good book suggestion or two.  However, overall, I’ve found better books on my own and the craft projects are frankly lame.  Again, a few of them are great ideas.  However, there’s far too much color tab A and cut out slot B sort of non-crafts for my taste.  I don’t think anything that involves scissors, photocopying and some crayons can actually be termed a “craft.”  Things like that make me respect a resource a lot less too.

Cutting this out and coloring it is not a real craft project in my opinion.
Designing and building a castle with stuff out of the recycling bin (and a green cardboard from the craft store) is a real craft.

My issues with the Activity Guide are just a side note to my discomfort with the text.  The question of emphasis has been gnawing at me since we wrapped up the middle ages.  All the things covered in the book are interesting and important.  The topics for medieval Europe cover the beginnings of nations with Clovis, Charles the Hammer and Charlemagne.  The book covers the beginnings of England and the Norse invasion.  England, not surprisingly, gets heavy play in general, as Richard the Lionhearted, the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War, and even Robin Hood are all discussed.  The Crusades and the Black Plague both get a reasonable treatment.  There’s a broad look at many of the things kids associate with the Middle Ages, including castles, knights and monks.  In fact, the chapter on knights takes the opportunity to hop across the globe and compare knights with samurai.  As with all the volumes of Story of the World, the emphasis is on the western world, but there’s a concerted effort to broaden kids’ horizons, so China, Japan, Korea, India, Africa, the Americas and even Australia get at least small sections.  Some topics that are usually skipped over in history surveys, such as the rise of Russia, also get their due.

But what about the things that aren’t there?  Well, that’s where I keep hitting a wall.  Some of the things which I think are vitally important to understanding medieval Europe are completely left out.  She leaves out the guilds, the cathedrals, the Peasants’ revolts, and the founding of the universities, just to name a few.  But it’s more than any specific thing.  After all, we supplement with a number of things (check out our shelf of supplements below).  We read the section in Gombrich’s A Little History of the World about the guilds and the rise of medieval towns.  We read the section in Gertrude Hartman’s The Builders of the Old World about the peasants’ revolts (that was really detailed too).  Any history book has to make choices and leave some things out.  Gombrich’s history barely even covers China or India.

  

However, it’s more than just specific things left out.  Story of the World simply never emphasizes the class structure of the medieval world.  It never emphasizes the move toward nations or toward towns and cities.  It never really delves into the struggle between the church and monarchs over authority.  When these things are covered, they’re just part of stories of the “great men” and not highlighted as part of a greater trend or story.

I think for a lot of the truly classical homeschoolers, who really adhere to the idea of the logic stage being for straightforward memorization, this makes a lot of sense.  They would say that no matter what the overarching analysis or synthesis, it doesn’t have a place in the logic stage.  I’ve borrowed a lot from classical homeschoolers.  I agree that young kids are like sponges and that memorization has a place for elementary school.  However, I don’t accept the idea that young kids can begin to ask questions and think more deeply about what they learn.  But even if I were going to simply give them the stories without any sense of trends or rudimentary analysis at all, presenting Robin Hood and not Wat Tyler is still a choice and represents a perspective, one with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

I think of history at this age as being in part for fun and in part to introduce kids to these ideas so that it’s easier to go into depth later because there’s a vague sense of the flow of history already in them.  They have at least a sense of the names and stories.  Story of the World absolutely provides that.  However, some of the most important elements of that sense of the flow of history feel like they’re missing to me as I work through the text further with my kids.  I don’t personally expect that Mushroom and BalletBoy will revisit ancient or medieval history in 5th and 6th grade remembering names and details.  The best I feel like I can hope for is that they still enjoy history and have a sense of what it’s about and how the world has changed over time.  In that sense I’ve begun to wonder if Story of the World has educational goals that can mesh with my own.

We’re planning on taking a year off from world history to do a year focused on American history (and probably Africa as well since we’re planning a big trip in the spring).  When I first started envisioning a year of history without a spine as perfectly tailored to elementary age homeschoolers as Story of the World is, I was a little sad.  Now, I’m looking forward to taking a break from it and finding our own way.

Our Ten Favorite Books With the Middle Ages

I’ve been pretty remiss in blogging about our history journey this year, but I may catch up with a few forthcoming posts.  We’re about to wrap up our study of medieval Europe, loosely using Story of the World as our spine.  Just so you know, we’ve covered the Dark Ages, the rise of Islam, the Vikings and the whole medieval period.  However, we haven’t ventured to India, China, Japan or Africa quite yet.  That’s for the rest of the year.  I did a post at the end of last year about our favorite books about the Ancients, so here’s our favorites about the Middle Ages.  Our method of choosing books is mostly just to show up at the library and see what’s there, so they may not be the best books, but they’re the ones we’ve enjoyed most.

Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford
I just adored the book design on this one so much.  The illustrations are so intricate.  The style reflects the artistic knotwork of the Anglo-Saxons, which ties them to the story.  And, of course, the story is retold well, with just enough detail.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Michael Morpurgo
I winced at several of the scenes where the wife tries to lure poor Gawain to her bed, but the kids adored this lushly illustrated book and found the whole thing fascinating.  I don’t think they understood those parts at all.  Instead, they were focused on the strange goriness of the tale and the twists and turns that Gawain’s fortune goes through.  We read a number of various Arthurian books, but the kids clearly liked this one the best.

Muhammad by Demi
Of course Demi’s lovely entry into her biographies about the world’s great religious figures has to make my list.  The kids were fascinated by the gold illustrations and especially by the fact that Muhammad himself is shown only in gold.  The story is an excellent introduction to the subject of Muhammad’s life for young children.

The Arabian Nights by Neil Philip
We read a number of different versions of the various tales from the Arabian Nights, but this version was our favorite.  The illustrations are brightly colorful, with touches of gold.  The stories were lengthy enough to feel meaty and there was quite a lot of them included as well.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire
I have recently learned that some people don’t really appreciate the D’Aulaires’ artistic style.  I hope you’re not one of those people because I would have to bite my thumb at you with vigor!  The kids liked the weirdness of the stories.  I liked the introduction in this new edition by Michael Chabon, who is the subject of my literary crush.  We also really enjoyed the D’Aulaires’ book Leif the Lucky.

Castle by David MacCauley
We both read the book and watched the video version that MacCauley made in the 1980’s for PBS.  Together, they were an excellent pair.  The kids were fascinated by garderobes.  It was the same with MacCauley’s book about the Roman town last year when they spotted every instance of Roman toilets.  MacCauley’s Cathedral was another favorite read.  The video version of that seems to be unavailable, however someone has enterprisingly uploaded it here.

The Canterbury Tales retold by Marcia Williams
I’m not completely keen on Williams’s various retellings.  We did her Odyssey last year and have used some of her Shakespeare tales as well.  However, her irreverent, comic book style meshed so perfectly with the bawdiness of Chaucer’s stories that this worked really well.  I had a longer retelling out from the library as well, but we ended up liking this one more.

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz
I resisted this book for a long time.  I mean, an inaccessible reader’s theater book in verse winning the Newbery award?  When I read it awhile back, I didn’t think much of it.  However, when I read it aloud to the kids, we loved it and speaking the words do make the story come to life.  The spot the connections between the stories games were especially fun to play.  It gave such an amazing introduction to so many aspects of medieval life.

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman
We reread a number of fairy tales for this unit because they seem to have their roots in folk stories of the middle ages.  I think this one was our favorite.  We had read it many times before, but I love Hyman’s illustrations, with their little borders.  I also love how matter of factly she tells this somewhat gory tale.  There’s something almost disturbing about how, after nearly dying for having left the path, the girl remembers that at least she said please and thank you.

Robin Hood by Paul Cresswick
I put this one on very hesitantly, but the kids loved it and they especially enjoyed the Robin Hood story in general.  The library didn’t have the version I really wanted of Robin Hood, so we read several others and the kids certainly gravitated to this one.  On the positive side, it was just the right length and the N.C. Wyeth illustrations are lushly beautiful.  I’m a huge fan of the elder Wyeth’s illustrations in general.  On the negative side, the version we had was a condensed book, something that I usually abhor.  Plus, it contains a very strange plot twist.  In this version, Richard the Lionheart goes away on Crusade while his father is still alive, something that is historically false and seemingly an unnecessary change to the story.

 

Bayeux Tapestry

I want to get back to blogging some of our lovely history projects and things for the year.  We’re loosely using the second volume of Story of the World. We had an especially good time with the Vikings, but we moved on to the Normans and have gotten into the middle ages properly now.  That meant time for some fake stained glass.

Now that we’re onto William the Conquerer, that rhyme with all the kings of England has been stuck in my head…  “Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste, Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three…”

Anyway, to make our Bayeux Tapestry, we used some heat transfer crayons I had and a scrap of fabric from my fabric bin.  Mushroom colored Edward the Confessor’s funeral as well as the arrival of the comet.  BalletBoy did William sailing across the channel and Harold getting hit in the eye with that arrow.  We enhanced it a little with some fabric markers.  Then, to finish it off, I let the kids pick a special stitch from my sewing machine to sew a border on the top and bottom.  I helped them operate the machine.

By the way, we found excellent resources for the Norman invasion online.  If you don’t already know the BBC Schools site, then it’s always a wealth of information.  We’ve used the Primary History section before, and we really liked all the resources about the Norman invasion and the Anglo-Saxons.  However, nothing topped this video I stumbled across on Youtube.  It’s just…  well, it’s pretty excellent.

In the Scriptorium

Since we learned about the monks who kept a sliver of Roman learning alive after the fall of Rome, I decided we should make books.  Making books is a former hobby of mine, so this was fun for me.  We used one of the projects from the book Making Books that Fly, Fold, Wrap, Hide, Pop Up, Twist, and Turn.  I have a couple of books about bookbinding, but even though this one is for kids, it’s my favorite.  The projects are spelled out very clearly with photos and drawings.  The materials are simple.  Even though the book tries to dictate a purpose for each kind of project, you can easily imagine different ways to adapt each project, as I did to make our books when we imagined being in the monastery.

First, I cut two pieces of cardboard for each kid that was just slightly larger than a piece of standard paper folded in half.  The kids chose two colors to create the color.  The first color was wrapped over the cardboard.  We cut a triangle off the corners so it would glue down flat and neat.  Then the second color was used for the spine.  The kids cut that paper in half lengthwise then, leaving a space between the front and back covers, glued it on and folded it over to the inside.  You can see BalletBoy showing off his cover with a pink spine from the inside and the outside.

Next, we folded a small stack of standard paper in half.  With my help, we used an awl to punch five holes in the fold.  I helped the kids use dental floss to sew up the pages.

To finish the book, the kids choose two end papers.  They glued one side to the inside of the cover and the other side to the folio on the front cover then the back, attaching the folio to the cover.

Finally, I had the kids copy just one sentence from the bible.  I went with the 23rd Psalm.  Not my favorite bible verse, but I thought it made sense for kids.  I showed them how to make an illuminated letter and let them use the gold Sharpies, at great risk to my dining room table since they leak.  Then I let them use my calligraphy markers to write the bible verse.  They were impressed that the monks had to copy the whole thing, over and over again.  Also that the books were chained to the walls to protect them.  I told them if we had as many books as we do now back in the dark ages, we’d be bajillionaires.  If only it were the dark ages, kids.  I’d love to be able to make millions just by selling off the books.

After we finished our project, I told them they could do whatever they wanted with the books.  Mushroom immediately rewrote his bible verse in a blasphemous way.  It was very unintentional, so I find this pretty funny.  If you don’t, apologies.  The kid really didn’t know what he was doing when he inserted his own name in there.  Then he used the remaining pages to write a story about his beloved bath toys: Mary and the Frog.  The kids have been plotting out Mary and the Frog’s website empire for years, but apparently for now a book will do.

The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons

So we’ve started back up with Story of the World Vol. 2, which covers the dark ages to the end of the Renaissance.

We studied a bit of the Celts.  I used to have a complete obsession with all things Celtic, around about the middle school years.  Or all things Welsh, to be more precise.  I was such a strange kid.  They don’t get their full due here, but that’s okay.  To celebrate their most well-known artistic motif, the kids made Celtic knot patterns.  I got the idea from this book I have from back when I was still really into that sort of thing:

Here’s BalletBoy working on his:

And here’s the finished product from Mushroom:

If you look at Mushroom’s, you can also see a bit of his rendering of Grendel.  After the Celts came the Anglo-Saxons and they brought us a certain burly hero by the name of Beowulf.  By the way, check out this cool map slide show of how Britain went from Roman to Celtic to Anglo-Saxon.  Well, back to Beowulf.  I admit that I sort of hated this book in high school when I read it.  It was just so gory and so weird.  As heroes go, Beowulf was even less sympathetic to me that Gilgamesh.  The only thing I understood about it was why someone would write a book from the point of view of Grendel, because at least he seemed to dislike Beowulf as much as I did.  There are two excellent picture book versions of Beowulf, both of which came out in the last few years.  In that way that picture books have, they brought out the best aspects of the story and distilled them for us.  I can’t say I’m like rah, mead halls, or anything, but that’s okay.  I don’t have to love every piece of mythology out there.

The simpler version is The Hero Beowulf by Eric Kimmel, which has brightly colored illustrations and a very short text.  It’s not bad at all.  However, I give the crown to the wonderful Beowulf: A Hero’s Tale Retold by James Rumford.  This version has a much more complete version of the story, though still without being too long.  The first and last pages allude to the way the original text begins and ends with grand language about heroics and bravery.  The art style seems influenced by graphic novels.  The pictures have a very green and gray color scheme.  Pictures are in a box with images of the dragon that ends Beowulf’s life hidden behind them, which gives us a nice sense of foreshadowing through the art.

Our Ten Favorite Books with Story of the World

I can’t believe we’re nearly finished with all our curricular things for the year.  We didn’t have a specific program for most things, including math and reading, so there’s a sense that they just continue slightly less formally over the summer.  However, the Handwriting Without Tears workbooks are all filled out and we’re about to read about the destruction of the Roman Empire in Story of the World, wrapping that all up.

So, reflecting back on a year of ancient history, where we read dozens and dozens of books from the library, here’s the best ten books we read along with Story of the World. They’re mostly in chronological order.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degan

Having a picture book in the style of The Magic Schoolbus made both kids super excited.  There was another title about ancient China that they enjoyed as well.

Gilgamesh the King by Ludmila Zeman

This is a longish picture book that’s part of a trilogy.  It has beautiful artwork and tells the story of the Epic of Gilgamesh for kids.  This was one of the first books that got us strongly into picture book versions of mythology.

Rama and the Demon King by Jessica Souhami

This is an older picture book version of the Ramayana, with gorgeous old-fashioned cut-out illustrations.  It somehow manages to get all the important bits of the story into just a few pages.

Buddha by Demi

Demi is one of my favorite illustrators and her book The Empty Pot is Mushroom’s very favorite book ever.  This picture book sums up the most important parts of the life of the Buddha, as well as the most important aspects of Buddhism.  The kids especially got excited about gold illustrations.

The Magic Treehouse: Day of the Dragon King by Mary Pope Osborne

I have very mixed feelings about the Magic Treehouse series.  On the one hand, the kids are gaga for them and the history in them is mostly decent, at least for the early elementary set.  On the other hand, the writing is so repetitive and simple.  I have nixed reading them aloud anymore, but they’re allowed for trips as books on CD and I’m hoping that when they start reading chapter length books, they’ll get into them.  Still, this one was a gem for getting the kids to understand China’s first emperor and it made for an especially exciting connection when the Terra Cotta Warriors came to DC.

The Magical Monkey King by Ji-Li Jiang

Okay, so this one is sort of cheating.  While the Monkey King has been around since ancient times in folk tales, he’s really more of a medieval era story.  Still, this little chapter book by the author of the memoir Red Scarf Girl was so compelling and cute.  The kids were running about playing Monkey King for weeks.

Island of the Minotaur by Sheldon Oberman

This was probably my very favorite of all the books we discovered this year.  There should be more extended picture books like this because they’re so perfect for this age group, with both lots of text and lots of colorful pictures.  I liked the style of the artwork and the way in which the entire Minotaur cycle was presented, tying in so many different pieces of Greek mythology.

Tales from the Odyssey by Mary Pope Osborne

I love the way that Mary Pope Osborne made the story chronological and emphasized the exciting, adventurous bits.  On the other hand, it would have been ten times better if there had just been some pictures.  We had to take another children’s version out of the library primarily for the pictures.

Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld

When I went in search of a chapter book about Rome, this is what I turned up with and we all (me, the kids and the husband) enjoyed it as a bedtime read.  The writing style certainly reflects the period in which it was written, more than half a century ago.  However, the mystery was fun and the details about Roman life made an impact on the kids.

Rome: In Spectacular Cross-Section by Stephen Biestry

Both Mushroom and BalletBoy like stories much more than straight non-fiction (in case you couldn’t tell from this list so far!).  This oversized picture book, which combined incredibly detailed architectural illustrations (sort of like David Macauley) with a simple story of a boy and his father, was a great compromise between fiction and straight historical detail.  For whatever reason, it just clicked with them and we read it several times.