Heroes of Liberty Blog

10 Classic Children’s Books To Teach American History You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Child sitting among a card filing system, reading a book
Child sitting among a card filing system, reading a book

One of the best ways to teach children about important periods in American history is through reading children’s literature set in those times. When told through the eyes of a compelling character, events stop being a boring list of names and dates. Instead, we, the reader, feel we are right there with the character as they witness the American colonies declaring independence, fight in the Civil War, settle the frontier, or experience the Great Depression.

The day to day details of life — how people talked, what they thought about the events taking place around them, even what they ate or did in their leisure time — have no place in textbooks, but make up the very fabric of character-driven stories, giving us a unique glimpse into the lives of others who lived in times very different from our own. That’s why we at Heroes of Liberty chose to write biographies of the men and women who made the world a freer, better place.

If you’re looking to expand your bookshelf and want to move beyond the well-known classics by Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls-Wilder, well, there’s plenty more out there that deserves to be better known. We’ve compiled a list of ten to get you started.

  • 1. Laddie: A True Blue Story, by Gene Stratton Porter (1913)
  • This semi-autobiographical story centers around ‘Little Sister’ and her older brother Laddie, whom she adores, and their life on a farm in Indiana. The story is infused with Christian values and a love of lifelong learning, as the family pulls together to share in each other's triumphs and disasters.

    What readers have said: “Stratton-Porter presents characters of honor, virtue, and faith through the innocent eyes of a child. The men are marked by the controlled strength of true manhood, and the women have a gracious but strong femininity that is rarely to be found in modern literature. I would venture to say that Laddie is a must-read for any homeschooling parent, or for anyone who values family and home.”

  • 2. Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)
  • Caddie Woodlawn is a red-haired wild tomboy of a girl - friends with Indians and unafraid to take on her brothers for a dare - which suits her just fine growing up as a pioneer on the Wisconsin frontier. Based on the true life of the author’s grandmother, if your children liked the Little House series, they’ll love this.

    What readers have said: “What stands out to me most is the sense of joy and love and togetherness in the Woodlawn family. Also, Caddie’s beautifully multi-faceted nature, wild and brave and adventurous yet also kind and feeling and introspective. The Wisconsin frontier also shines memorably; amazing how a book written in 1935, about life in the 1860s, can bring the beauty and feeling of that long ago so vibrantly into our 21st century imaginations.” 

  • 3. The Matchlock Gun, Walter D. Edmonds (1941)
  • Life in colonial New York State in 1756 is tough for Edward and his family; the French and Indians are a constant threat. When his father is called away upstate, Edward is left to protect his mother and sister Trudy, armed only with the old Spanish matchlock gun twice his size that his father had taught him how to use…

    What readers have said: “The culture and priorities of that particular moment in time shines brightly in this short, illustrated caption of a boy and his family settling in New America with the Indians, surrounded by fear of the unknown and misunderstood. I was captivated and enthralled.”

  • 4. Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes (1943)
  • Boston, 1775. The town is buzzing with revolutionary fervor. Johnny Tremain, an apprentice silversmith, finds himself crossing paths with Paul Revere, John Adams, and other greats of the revolutionary era in this gripping tale, Inspired by a real-life childhood friend of John Adams, Johnny Tremain brings history to life.

    What readers have said: “A tremendous contribution to children's literature. Forbes's engaging story reaps the benefit of her long dedication to the study of the period - every detail is just right. The descriptions are exceptionally vivid, but at no point does the reader feel overwhelmed with historical information without purpose. The writing is sophisticated and so is the emotional content. This is a masterwork for young readers.”

  • 5. Carry on Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham (1955)
  • The trust story of Nat Bowditch, who dreamed of going to Harvard and becoming a mathematician, but was instead taken out of school to work in his father’s barrel shop. Growing up around the tall ships of Salem, in time he became a merchant ship’s navigator, master, and captain. But his crowning achievement lay in his contribution to the art of navigation, which saved countless lives at sea.

    What readers have said: “The story of Nathaniel Bowditch inspires and challenges me to pursue my dreams with dedication and hard work, to do everything with excellence and passion, and to strive to be kind, patient, and loving towards everyone I meet, even when we all sometimes fail.”

  • 6. Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith (1957)
  • A rare book set in Kansas and Oklahoma during the Civil War, Rifles for Watie tells the story of Jeff Bussey, a Union volunteer, as he and his comrades go up against the Cherokee Indian Nation and their fearless leader, Stand Watie. This vividly drawn story introduces the reader to both the good and the bad of the Union and Confederate Armies alike, as the protagonist fights his way through the bloody war.

    What readers have said: “I thoroughly enjoyed the story and learned a lot about a part of the Civil War that goes underrepresented in literature - the western theater. Through his experiences, Jeff learns that war is much more complicated and a lot less romantic than he had imagined. He comes to care for people on both the Union and Confederate side of the conflict. We witness Jeff's innermost thoughts and feelings - and his struggle to make moral, upstanding choices - which he always does!” 

  • 7. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare (1958)
  • Katherine ‘Kit’ Tyler is a free spirit who loves her life on Barbados. But when her parents and then her grandfather die, Kit is forced to live with her Puritan cousins in Connecticut, where life is very different and Kit struggles to fit in. Set in the late 1600s, this book delves into the rich world colonial life, with all its tensions and difficulties.

    What readers have said: “This book got me into historical fiction which is the genre perhaps closest to my heart. The conflict between freedom and responsibility, between individual and family and community ring as clear today as they did when I first read this book as a kid.”

  • 8. Across Five Aprils, Irene Hunt (1964)
  • Another set in the Civil War, this time in Indiana, Across Five Aprils is the coming-of-age story of Jethro Creighton, who is just nine-years-old as the war looms. His brother Tom and cousin Ed, however, are of fighting age. As the armies of the North and South gather, the family is dragged into the conflict, testing loyalties and the bonds of family.

    What readers have said: “This is the only book I have read that captures the reality of the Civil War in a gripping, astounding story. This story does not choose a political side and push propaganda, like so many other stories and history textbooks do. Across Five Aprils shows the truth: that there was much more to the American Civil War.”

  • 9. Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse (1997)
  • Written in a free verse poetry style, and set during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl tragedy, Out of the Dust is a more challenging read, but a beautiful and rewarding one for children able to handle the emotional weight of its content. It follows Billy Jo

    What readers have said: “This book was so beautiful and well done. What a fantastic way to make the dust bowl real for readers. As a piece of historical fiction, it was incredible, but for me the best part was how the author was able to convey how people deal with sorrow and tragedy.”

  • 10. Moon over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool (2010)
  • When her father puts her on a train to Manifest, Kansas, so he can work the railroad, Abilane Tucker feels abandoned. But when she finds a cigar box full of mementos, Abilane falls into a spy-hunt that one by one lays bare the towns secrets — and her father’s role in them.

    What readers have said: “My only regret after finishing Moon Over Manifest is that I didn't read it while sitting on a gently swaying porch swing, sipping ice-cold lemonade, swatting away the occasional mosquito as a harmonica played and a steam engine sounded its passing in the distance. Reading this book is like stepping back in time, and as I came to the last lines, it was bittersweet to know that I was about to leave that world behind.”


    Bonus extra: Looking for more? Heroes of Liberty has you covered. Alexander Hamilton’s story is a great place to start. You might also want to check out Douglas MacArthur’s story, which serves as a vivid introduction to the Pacific theater of World War II, while Ronald Reagan’s story delves into the Cold War era.For the full set, head to our shop.

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