My friend and fellow historian Michelle recently asked me to make a list of books I would recommend for James, a British kid (age 8) she knows who is interested in American history.
At first I was a bit flummoxed: As I often complain (watch this space: I will continue to do so) too many American history books for kids tend toward the sort of worthy, well-intended, and dreary books that kids don't care to read.
So I've come up with a few books that I do think will appeal not only to British kids with a budding interest in American history, but also to American kids.
Most of the these titles are easily available from Amazon's British branch, amazon.co.uk, so Michelle can save on shipping when she orders the books for delivery within the UK. J
Here's the list of books for Michelle. The links are to http://www.amazon.com/ (the American Amazon! Gosh, this gets complicated…)
- The Horrible History of the USA: As author Terry Deary likes to say, it's history with the boring bits left out. America is NOT the best entry in the series, and Deary is not a huge fan of American culture, so please, Appropriateness Nazis and nervous parents, don't say you weren't warned. However, my son, a thoroughly patriotic American, adores this book. What kid wouldn't be tickled to learn that George Washington owned slaves, and all about the Salem Witch Trials? Chances are, James already owns this, because British kids love Deary's books. So on to…
- You Wouldn't Want To Be an American Colonist! A Settlement You'd Rather Not Start. All the gruesome bits of the Jamestown fiasco are here in this British book, cheerfully depicted with cartoon illustrations: disease (although why yellow fever is fingered, and not malaria, is beyond me, but never mind: James will find out better from other sources), fighting between Indians and English (ditto for the omission of the Powhatans' political maneuvers around the English, which get left out, but, again, no big), cannibalism (kids love that and, no, they don't try it at home) and much more. Look, what they get wrong is pretty minor stuff. What they get right is terrific: They interest kids in some pretty specific historical topics, most of which are dealt with very poorly in American books. Also in the You Wouldn't Want…series: Live in a Wild West Town, American Pioneer, Sail With Christopher Columbus, Sail on the Mayflower, Civil War Soldier, Boston Tea Party, and more coming all the time.
- Thomas Coram: The Man Who Saved Children: Thomas Coram was an 18th century Englishman and sea captain who spent many years building ships in Massachusetts, before he got fed up with the locals and went home. In London, he managed to get enough support to build the Foundling Hospital, an orphanage for babies whose mothers simply couldn't afford to raise them. Coram was also one of the Trustees of the colony of Georgia, and I don't for one minute doubt that George Whitefield was inspired to found Bethesda Home for Boys by Coram's example. This is a fun book with lots of colorful illustrations and photos about Coram, his years in America, and the Hospital. A great example of Britain and America's "special relationship," and a lovely book that fascinated my son. Only hitch: This small-press book is hard to find, thanks to the stranglehold of Big Bad Book Corps., but the British Amazon.co.uk will source it for you.
- If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America: This is interesting, rather than fun, and I find the series to which it belongs a bit "school-y". But if James is already hooked on American history, the series, and this book in particular, might do the trick. Written in a question and answer format, the book is heavy on text, but still well-illustrated in color. My main complaints are that it could be livelier (always a problem, especially when dealing with a subject and format that doesn't loan itself to humor), and that it is ahistorical: The book doesn't give much idea of the differences in slave life over place and time, and this leaves readers with an unsatisfactory vagueness. Still, at least it's reasonably honest about slavery.
- Samuel Eaton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy: There was a Samuel Eaton on board the Mayflower, and this is a reasonable conjecture of what his life might have been like. Better, it focuses on a day that, while hardly out of the ordinary, marks a milestone in an otherwise rather quiet existence. We meet Samuel on his first full day of work in the fields, at age seven, and share his anxiety that he prove himself grown up in his father's eyes. Best of all, the book is illustrated with photos of costumed actors, shot at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Massachusetts. This gives the story a three-dimensional quality that my son commented made it seem real. On the downside, not much in the way of humor, and my son pronounced the book fair to middling. Still, a nice book that I catch myself revisiting from time to time.
Needless to say, this list is not exhaustive. I'm always on the look-out for genuinely enjoyable books on American history, fiction included, that don't preach, teach too obviously, or bore the socks off the reader. If you know of books that you think meet my criteria, please comment below.
Oh, and Michelle? Might want to suggest that James' parents take him to The American Museum in Britain, which is in a beautiful house on the outskirts of Bath. I'll review it soon.