HUGE List of Great Living Books for American History For Elementary Kids

Are you looking for living books for American history for your elementary-aged kids? You've come to the right place!



We sat on the floor taking turns reading. My oldest daughter was five. And I had been excited when I bought the little American history textbook. It was short and succinct, and I thought it was a great little history reader.


I read my portion and stopped to let Kathryne read. She was an advanced reader, and the short passage was easy reading for her. While she read, I found myself staring off into the distance and not really listening.


And I realized that reading history from this little textbook was really… boring.


The lessons were just little disconnected snippets of American history. And the authors had tried to make the book readable to most young elementary aged children. So, it definitely wasn’t a very appealing book from a literary perspective. And, new homeschooling mom that I was, I thought there must be a better way to learn history.


Living books for American history

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Using Living Books for American History

And then I learned about literature-based learning. I read the works of educators like Charlotte Mason. And I found out that I didn’t have to buy textbooks!


Instead, I could buy real books, books that were well-written and interesting. I could read these books out loud to the kids until they were old enough to read them for themselves, so I didn’t have to search for books that were “on grade level.” Instead, I could read books that would give the kids something to think about, a story line to get excited about, and exciting elements that we could discuss after reading.


Over the years, we’ve found many great living books for American history. Most of them are fictional books that absorb us into a story, while we hardly realize that we’re also learning about history or science. Occasionally, we’ve also read nonfiction books that fit this description. They are much more than a textbook with disjointed information presented in a way that is supposed to be easy for children to read. Instead, they present information in a way that excites the kids- and me- and causes us to want to know more and more about the subject.


I realize that some homeschooling families love textbooks and are very content to use them to teach most subjects. It’s great that, as homeschoolers, we have the flexibility to do what works for us. But, if you are like me, and you think you’ll just go out of your mind if you have to listen to another first grade textbook lesson all about the American Indians, here are some living books you can use to teach American history instead.


I’ve divided the books into some common American history time periods that are covered in elementary school, realizing that I’m sure I’m not covering everything. I've also tried to include diverse voices in the books listed here. Some are definitely more traditional, while others present history from different perspectives.


Living Books for American History: Spine Books 


A “spine book” is a book that has a broad overview of the topic. It can be a textbook that reads like a living book or another nonfiction book. You can use the spine book to read through and hit the highlights. Then, as you come to time periods you want to learn more about, you can use some of the fiction and nonfiction living books in that category to dig deeper.

Using a spine book in this way will help you to plan out the time periods you want to spend more time on and help you find living books to fit. You can also use a resource like this awesome timeline from Animated Atlas to look at the highlights in American history and what else was happening in the world at the time.

Here are a few living spine books to start with.


A Young People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn


Beginning with a look at Christopher Columbus’s arrival through the eyes of the Arawak Indians, then leading the reader through the struggles for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and ending with the current protests against continued American imperialism, Zinn in the volumes of A Y
Young People’s History of the United States presents a radical new way of understanding America’s history. In so doing, he reminds readers that America’s true greatness is shaped by our dissident voices, not our military generals.




Going beyond the story of America as a country “discovered” by a few brave men in the “New World,” Indigenous human rights advocate Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reveals the roles that settler colonialism and policies of American Indian genocide played in forming our national identity. (This one is more appropriate for middle grade kids and older, but parts could be used as a read aloud spine for younger kids too.)





This magnificent treasury tells the story of America through 100 true tales. Some are tales of triumph—the midnight ride of Paul Revere, the Wright brothers taking to the air, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Some are tales of tragedy—the fate of the Donner Party, the great fire in Chicago, the eruption of Mount Saint Helens.




This stylish atlas features key moments of American history in an innovative format, with each die-cut spread building on the last as more states are added to the union, culminating in a modern-day map of America. From the 1700s through today — one layer at a time — it’s filled with dates, facts, and historical figures.

Literature-based American history


Living Books for American History: Exploration- Early America


Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac

In 1620, an English ship called the Mayflower landed on the shores inhabited by the Pokanoket, and it was Squanto who welcomed the newcomers and taught them how to survive. When a good harvest was gathered, the people feasted together--a tradition that continues almost four hundred years.

From the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to the first harsh winter to the delicious Thanksgiving feast, all the excitement and wonder of the Pilgrims' first year in America is captured in this vivid retelling for the youngest historians.

 Giles, Constance, and Damaris Hopkins are all passengers aboard the crowded Mayflower, journeying to the New World to start a new life. Things get a little more cramped when their baby brother Oceanus is born during the passage. However, when they arrive, there are even worse challenges to face as the Pilgrims are subjected to hunger, cold, and sickness that put their small colony in great danger. Thanks to the Native Americans, though, they might just be able to survive their first year in this strange land—and have a November harvest to celebrate for generations!

This biography for young readers tells of the adventurous life of Squanto, the Wampanoag Indian who befriended the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Squanto had traveled to London with some English explorers and was sold into slavery in Spain. He finally returned to America, where he befriended the Pilgrims when they landed.

The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh

In 1707, young Sarah Noble and her father traveled through the wilderness to build a new home for their family. “Keep up your courage, Sarah Noble,” her mother had said, but Sarah found that it was not always easy to feel brave inside. The dark woods were full of animals and Indians, too, and Sarah was only eight!

Told in a step-by-step account of the 24 hours leading up to the battles that sparked the American revolution, this picture book is sure to both inform and entertain.

On April 18th at 9:30 p.m. Paul Revere learned that the British Army was marching toward Lexington and Concord to arrest rebel leaders. At 5:20 the next morning, a shot rang out, and the American Revolution had begun. In less than 24 hours, a rebellious colony would be changed forever.

Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a picture book of the famous poem)

 

Longfellow's tribute to the famous revolutionary hero begins with the stirring cadence that American schoolchildren have committed to memory for over a century. Now, illustrator Ted Rand brings these vivid and beautiful lines to life as dramatically as the poet's immortal message inspires.”The clatter of hooves seems to echo in Rand's evocative paintings of that famed midnight ride….”

There are two sides to every story. Rosalyn Schanzer's engaging and wonderfully illustrated book brings to life both sides of the American Revolution. The narrative introduces anew the two enemies, both named George: George Washington, the man who freed the American colonies from the British, and George III, the British king who lost them. Two leaders on different sides of the Atlantic, yet with more in common than we sometimes acknowledge.
Could a snowball fight really have sparked the American Revolution? What made people get so steaming mad over the price of tea? And did it take a minuteman only a minute to join the fight? Step back into colonial America to find out about taxation without representation; why the British were called lobsters, the first-ever combat submarine, and whether Yankee doodles were really dandy!

 

Black Heroes of the American Revolution by Burke Davis



Crispus Attucks is known as the escaped slave whose freedom ended when he died in the Boston Massacre, but there are many other lesser-known black men and women who made enormous contributions to U.S. independence. Readers will discover Edward Hector, the brave wagoner of Brandywine; artilleryman and slave Austin Dabney; William Lee, the aide and closest companion of George Washington throughout the war; and many others.




With accurate historical information, this 48-page nonfiction picture book tells why and how the Constitution of the United States was created. A More Perfect Union includes a map and back matter with a table of dates and a summary of the Articles of the Constitution.

In 1789, George Washington became the first President of the United States. He has been called the father of our country for leading America through its early years. Washington also served in two major wars during his lifetime: the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. With over 100 black-and-white illustrations, Washington's fascinating story comes to life—revealing the real man, not just the face on the dollar bill!

George Washington Allen, a boy who never gives up until he finds out what he wants to know, is determined to learn all there is to know about his namesake, including what the first president ate for breakfast!
The period measured by the life of George Washington, 1732 to 1799, was one of revolution and change in many parts of the world as Enlightenment thinking took hold in the minds of men. Prolifically illustrated with intriguing line drawings and detailed timelines, Foster's telling of the life story of George Washington does justice to the man it celebrates.

Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith


 

The White House was created by many hands, several of them slaves', who will be remembered throughout history for their extraordinary feat. Many slaves were able to purchase their freedom after earning money from learning a trade through this work, which speaks to their unbelievable strength. The title reflects how this towering symbol of America was created by hand, human hands, working toward their freedom, brick by brick.

Living books for American history


Living Books for American History: Western Expansion-The Civil War


How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark by Rosalyn Schanzer


Appealing art and descriptive text bring Lewis and Clark alive for young adventurers. Carefully chosen text from Lewis and Clark's actual journals opens a fascinating window into this country's exciting history.

Born in the Rocky Mountains, Sacagawea was taken captive and held hundreds of miles away from home for years. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark came through her new village, Sacagawea was offered as a guide since the explorers were heading toward Shoshone territory, where she was from. Pregnant with her first child and the only woman on the expedition, she accompanied them through the frigid winter of 1804-05 and gave birth to her son as the group traveled west. Her knowledge of the land, interpretation skills, and diplomatic manner were of great use to the team and helped ensure a successful voyage.

This child-friendly narrative of Sacagawea's intrepid life contains memorable facts, history, and context, accompanied by elegant illustrations. Back matter includes a timeline, author's note, and bibliography.

The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve


Virginia's old coat is too small. The cold South Dakota wind blows across the Rosebud Indian Reservation, making her shiver as she walks to school. Virginia dreams of a new coat arriving in the Theast boxes--parcels of clothing from churches in The East. But, she knows she may not have a chance for a coat this year. Her father is the village Episcopal priest, so her family chooses last, and as Mama always says, The others need it more than we do. Generosity and unexpected joy remind Virginia of the importance of community within this story from the author s childhood.

With only a guidebook to show them the way, the Todd family sets out from their Arkansas home on a two thousand mile trek to claim uncharted Oregon Territory. Crossing rough terrain and encountering hostile people, the Todds show their true pioneering spirit. But as winter draws near, will the Todds have the strength to complete their journey? And if they make it, will Oregon fulfill their dreams?

Daily Life in a Covered Wagon by Paul Erickson

In 1853, the Larkin family loaded up their wagons and headed west, searching for a new life. But how did they do it? What did they eat? How did they survive sickness, and attacks from cattle thieves? Drawing on diaries and letters, and illustrated with photographs of actual object from the past, Daily Life in a Covered Wagon explores what life was really like on the wagon trail.


A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family by Barbara Greenwood

In an unusual blend of fiction and nonfiction, A Pioneer Sampler chronicles one year in the lives of the Robinson family. Illustrated historical notes enlarge on the social history and describe activities related to the stories, from churning butter to predicting the weather. Young readers are invited to try their hand at these tasks to experience a bit of pioneer life.


Rachel’s Journal: The Story of a Pioneer Girl by Marissa Moss

Traveling by covered wagon, young Rachel and her family follow the Oregon Trail from Illinois all the way to California. The terrain is rough, and the seven-month trip is filled with adventure. Rachel's own handwritten journal chronicles every detail and features cherished “pasted-in” mementos gathered along the way.


I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas


In the late 1880s, signs went up all around America: land was free in the Oklahoma territory. And it was free to everyone: Whites, Blacks, men, and women alike. All one needed to stake a claim was hope and courage, strength and perseverance. Thousands of pioneers, many of them African-Americans newly freed from being enslaved, headed west to carve out a new life in the Oklahoma soil.




In words and pictures, Gail Gibbons captures all the excitement and adventure of cowboy life. Her colorful watercolors re-create cowboys' clothing, equipment, and lifestyle, and the lively text includes descriptions of famous cowboys and cowgirls, as well as historical facts. True to Gail Gibbons's fine reputation as a nonfiction author for kids, Cowboys and Cowgirls will delight, excite, and inform any young buckaroo.


When a killing drought threatens the existence of the tribe, a courageous little Comanche girl sacrifices her most beloved possession--and the Great Spirit's answer results not only in much-needed rain, but a very special gift in return.

The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble

This is the story of a young Native American girl devoted to the care of her tribe's horses. With simple text and brilliant illustrations. Paul Goble tells how she eventually becomes one of them to forever run free.


If You Lived With the Indians of the Northwest Coast by Anna Kamma

This new addition to Scholastic's popular history series presents a child's eye view of a fascinating Native American culture.

The Indians who lived along the northern Pacific coast were different from any other Native Americans. They were fishermen, wood carvers, and builders of totem poles; they were a hierarchical society with noblemen, commoners, and slaves in which material wealth was greatly admired and sought after.

Gold Rush Fever: A Story of the Klondike, 1898 by Barbara Greenwood

The year is 1898. Over the last decade, North America has been ground down by a depression. Wages are low, jobs are scarce and people are getting desperate. Although Aunt Rachel isn't happy about 13-year-old Tim and his older brother, Roy, heading off to the Klondike Gold Rush, the possibility of striking it rich is hard to resist. Tim and Roy begin their trek to the Yukon filled with excitement. Little do they suspect the harsh realities they'll have to face: blinding snowstorms, raging rapids, backbreaking work and bitter disappointment. In this unique book, each chapter is followed with factual information, illustrations, and photographs of the people and places of the time. In addition, easy-to-do activities help bring the historical period to life.


Black Cowboy, Wild Horses by Julius Lester


Bob Lemmons is renowned for his ability to track wild horses. He rides his horse, Warrior, picks up the trail of mustangs, then runs with them day and night until they accept his presence. Bob and Warrior must then challenge the stallion for leadership of the wild herd. A victorious Bob leads the mustangs across the wide plains and for one last spectacular run before guiding them into the corral. Bob's job is done, but he dreams of galloping with Warrior forever to where the sky and land meet.




Henry Brown doesn't know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves' birthdays. All the time, he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday—his first day of freedom.

The Last Brother: a Civil War Tale by Trinka Hakes Noble

In July 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought outside the sleepy Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.  Though he is only 11 years old, Gabe is a bugler in the Union Army. He takes his responsibility very seriously; after all, there are over 60 different battle calls for buglers to learn. But what is even more important to Gabe is watching over his older brother Davy, who, as a foot soldier, is right in the thick of the fighting. Two of Gabe's older brothers have already perished, and he is not willing to lose the only one he has left. During those long days, Gabe meets another young bugler—one who fights for the other side. Suddenly, what was so definite and clear has become complicated by friendship and compassion. Does one have to choose between service to country, to kin or to a friend? As the cannons fire and the battle rages on, Gabe must do his duty while searching for a way to honor all that he holds dear.


Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport

From the time he was a young boy roaming the forests of the unsettled Midwest, Abraham Lincoln knew in his heart that slavery was deeply wrong. A voracious reader, Lincoln spent every spare moment of his days filling his mind with knowledge, from history to literature to mathematics, preparing himself to one day lead the country he loved towards greater equality and prosperity. Despite the obstacles he faced as a self-educated man from the back woods, Lincoln persevered in his political career, and his compassion and honesty gradually earned him the trust of many Americans. As president, he guided the nation through a long and bitter civil war and penned the document that would lead to the end of slavery in the United States.


Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford


In lyrical text, Carole Boston Weatherford describes Tubman's spiritual journey as she hears the voice of God guiding her north to freedom on that very first trip to escape the brutal practice of forced servitude. Tubman would make nineteen subsequent trips back south, never being caught, but none as profound as this first one. Courageous, compassionate, and deeply religious, Harriet Tubman, with her bravery and relentless pursuit of freedom, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeannette Winter

Winter's story begins with a peg-leg sailor who aids slaves on their escape on the Underground Railroad. While working for plantation owners, Peg Leg Joe teaches the slaves a song about the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper). A couple, their son, and two others make their escape by following the song's directions. Rich paintings interpret the strong story in a clean, primitive style enhanced by bold colors. The rhythmic compositions have an energetic presence that's compelling. A fine rendering of history in picture book format.


Living Books for American History:  The World Wars-Civil Rights


Rags: Hero Dog of WW1 by Margot Theis Raven


During World War I, while stationed overseas in France with the United States Army, Private James Donovan literally stumbles upon a small dog cowering on the streets of Paris. Named Rags for his disheveled appearance, the little stray quickly finds a home with Donovan and a place in his heart. Although the Army did not have an official canine division, Rags accompanies Donovan to the battlefield, making himself a useful companion delivering messages and providing a much-appreciated morale boost to the soldiers. News about Rags spreads, and soon the little dog's battlefield exploits become the stuff of legend. But during a fierce battle near the end of the war, both Rags and Donovan are wounded. Severely injured, Donovan is sent back to the United States. And the little dog with the big heart refuses to leave his best friend's side.

Kate Lied was eight years old when she wrote Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression, a family story told to her by her Aunt Dorothy. Potato won an award in a writing contest sponsored by Kate’s neighborhood bookstore, the Reading Reptile in Kansas City, Missouri. Now 17, Kate lives with her family in Kansas City.

Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp by Jerry Stanley

Illus. with photographs from the Dust Bowl era. This true story took place at the emergency farm-labor camp immortalized in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Ostracized as “dumb Okies,” the children of Dust Bowl migrant laborers went without school--until Superintendent Leo Hart and 50 Okie kids built their own school in a nearby field.


Rose’s Journal: The Story of a Girl in the Great Depression by Marissa Moss

On January 1, 1935, Rose Samuels bids good riddance to a dry, desolate year and begins a new one. The severe drought has left the fields too dry for crops and the farms are all failing. Times are tough, but with hope, love, and determination, Rose and her family manage to turn the year around.


Remember the Lusitania by Diana Preston

An account of the World War I German torpedo attack on and sinking of the passenger liner, the Lusitania, describing the experiences of some of those involved.

Voices of Pearl Harbor by Sherry Garland

December 7, 1941-the day a sleeping giant awoke. Japan's surprise attack devastated the American Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and forced the Americans into WWII. These moving accounts of the lives affected by the assault capture the scope of the day's emotions and repercussions. Viewpoints of both historical and imagined characters include the mother of a Japanese pilot, officials from both countries, and the grandchild of a WWII veteran.


Diana's White House Garden by Elisa Carbone

Diana Hopkins lived in a white house. THE White House.

World War II is in full force across the seas. It's 1943, President Roosevelt is in office, and Diana's father, Harry Hopkins, is his chief advisor. And Diana wants to be part of the war effort. After some well-intentioned missteps (her quarantine sign on her father's office door was not well-received), the President requests her help with his newest plan for the country's survival: Victory Gardens!


Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiah


When her family moved to the town of Westminster, California, young Sylvia Mendez was excited about enrolling in her neighborhood school. But she and her brothers were turned away and told they had to attend the Mexican school instead. Sylvia could not understand why—she was an American citizen who spoke perfect English. Why were the children of Mexican families forced to attend a separate school? Unable to get a satisfactory answer from the school board, the Mendez family decided to take matters into its own hands and organize a lawsuit.

In the end, the Mendez family’s efforts helped bring an end to segregated schooling in California in 1947, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation in schools across America.

Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford

There were signs all throughout town telling eight-year-old Connie where she could and could not go. But when Connie sees four young men take a stand for equal rights at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, she realizes that things may soon change. This event sparks a movement throughout her town and region. And while Connie is too young to march or give a speech, she helps her brother and sister make signs for the cause. Changes are coming to Connie’s town, but Connie just wants to sit at the lunch counter and eat a banana split like everyone else.


If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks by Faith Ringgold

A young girl named Marcie has a magical bus ride where the bus itself tells her the story of the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks. Because she was black, Rosa had to walk miles to a one-room schoolhouse while white children could take the bus, and as an adult, Rosa could only sit in the back.

But when the day came that Rosa refused to give up her seat, she helped set the wheels in motion for black people to sit where they wanted. Marcie learns all this and more, then gets a special surprise at the end of her trip!

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

The year is 1960, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her family have recently moved from Mississippi to New Orleans, searching for a better life. When a judge orders Ruby to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school, Ruby must face angry mobs of parents who refuse to send their children to school with her. Told with Robert Coles' powerful narrative and dramatically illustrated by George Ford, Ruby's story of courage, faith, and hope continues to resonate more than 60 years later.


My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Christine King Farris

Long before he became a world-famous dreamer, Martin Luther King Jr. was a little boy who played jokes and practiced the piano and made friends without considering race. But growing up in the segregated south of the 1930s taught young Martin a bitter lesson—little white children and little black children were not to play with one another. Martin decided then and there that something had to be done. And so, he began the journey that would change the course of American history.


Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

 

 Joe and John Henry are a lot alike. They both like shooting marbles, they both want to be firemen, and they both love to swim. But there’s one important way they're different: Joe is white, and John Henry is black, and in the South in 1964, that means John Henry isn’t allowed to do everything his best friend is. Then a law is passed that forbids segregation and opens the town pool to everyone. Joe and John Henry are so excited they race each other there…only to discover that it takes more than a new law to change people’s hearts.

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renee Watson


Born to parents who were both former slaves, Florence Mills knew at an early age that she loved to sing, and that her sweet, bird-like voice, resonated with those who heard her. Performing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway, where she inspired everyone from songwriters to playwrights. Yet with all her success, she knew firsthand how prejudice shaped her world and the world of those around her. As a result, Florence chose to support and promote works by her fellow black performers while heralding a call for their civil rights.

Living books for American history for elementary kids


Reading American history from great living books made the subject come alive for us. It opened the door for great conversations. And we all learned so much more than we would have from just reading a textbook. Living books made history an exciting subject that we all looked forward to. I hope these living books make American history a subject that you and your kids look forward to learning as well.


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