Books for babes, and more SoCal beauty for those of you still suffering from the Alberta Clipper

children'sbookshelfToday’s post is a query from a reader about children’s books related to one’s field of history.

Dear Historiann,

I don’t know if this would interest you, but I’m stumped on my own. A colleague is having a baby, and another colleague is hosting a department shower. The host has requested that we each, in addition to any other gift, bring a book for the baby’s library. Specifically, something related to our field of history.

I think it is a lovely idea, but I have no idea if there are good, current children’s books in my field, which, broadly construed, is American Women’s History. Do you think your blog readers would have ideas?  

Would this interest me?  It’s been a subject that, for a number of mundane reasons, has been at the front of my mind for at least the last decade.

The books that occur to me are my sentimental favorites, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  (If you get these books, you must get the editions with the Garth Williams illustrations.  Full stop.)  I’d also recommend as a corrective to the anti-Native American racism in those books Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark Canoe.  These books are interesting because they’re about not just females, but little girls, and I think children are always interested in reading about other children’s experiences.

As I re-read the first book in Ingalls’s series over the past several years, it became something of a model for the book I wrote about Esther Wheelwright because of its focus on things close to the body that all children can relate to:  what they wear, what they eat, what they play, and where they sleep, etc.  In fact, I’m considering using both Little House in the Big Woods and Birchbark Canoe in my early American women’s history class the next time I teach it in an exploration of narrative and voice in writing girls’ histories.

Another book I remember fondly, although it also reflects a white, mid-twentieth century view of race, is Elizabeth George Speare’s The Calico Captive, which was based on the experiences of the Johnson family during the Seven Years’ War as described by Susannah Johnson in her captivity narrative.  (I have written here recently about the experiences of her little boy, Sylvanus, but the main character in Speare’s book is Johnson’s teenaged sister, not one of her children.)

Finally, I’ve found all of the American Girl series of books to be pretty well done–the ones I’m most familiar with are (perhaps unsurprisingly) Josephina, Caroline, and Felicity.  Their stories are written to a formula on the experiences of a year in the life of a ten year-old, but they offer rich details about material culture and the expectations of family and community life for the different girls.

For modern women’s history and for slightly older readers (i.e. tweens and younger teens), I would recommend the Aya series of graphic novels (Life in Yop City and Love in Yop City) for its fascinating stories about teenaged and young adult women in Ivory Coast in the 1970s.  There is also a wonderful graphic novel on the life of Margaret Sanger by Peter Bagge called Woman Rebel.  All of the titles mentioned in this paragraph are somewhat sexually explicit, so you might want to give the parent advance warning, but there’s nothing exploitative or sensastionalized about the representations of sex and its consequences from various women’s points of view.  (Because they reflect women’s points of view, they’re mostly about the consequences of sexual contact.)

Well, friends, any ideas?  I’m sure the writer would welcome any suggestions, either in an American women’s history vein or historical books for children more generally.  If you don’t have any ideas, you can gaze at these lovely photos of the passing scene here in California taken over the holidays.  I’m sure baby would love the car.  (Indeed, who wouldn’t?)


Poinsettia tree, San Diego, December 14, 2014

Vintage Cadillac parked at the Huntington Library and Gardens, January 7, 2015

Vintage Cadillac parked at the Huntington Library and Gardens, January 7, 2015

29 thoughts on “Books for babes, and more SoCal beauty for those of you still suffering from the Alberta Clipper

  1. I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of the American Girl books. Unfortunately, I liked them far more than my daughter did. The both of us hated Little House (although she was a bit young, not even reading yet, when we started them and it might have been different later). I had not read them growing up and I found having to edit out all the beatings and racial slurs stressful and she was freaked out by all the disasters I wasn’t editing. It turns out my kid has anxiety, so not a great fit.

    We never tried the Witch of Blackbird Pond though it came highly recommended.

    I am a big fan of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler although this is more of a book about what historians do rather than a time period (although I suppose at this point there are enough references to automats and other obscure things that it could count?).

    The Magic Treehouse books are not awful and there’s one for damn near every time period and place. The kids liked them more than I did. If I remember it correctly, the one on the SF Earthquake seemed very women’s history oriented as it takes place largely in a boarding house run by a widow and there’s lots of daily life stuff. There’s usually a strong nod to Jack and Annie having to do different things because of different constructions of gender.


  2. Wow, what a fabulous question! I think the Magic Treehouse books are good, as well as the Dear America series. Magic Treehouse is for pretty young readers, but I would like to know about any books for infants and toddlers that have historical subjects. A is for Abe Lincoln, B is for Betty Friedan, etc. Wouldn’t that be great?


  3. Great topic! I notice everything mentioned so far is aimed at a slightly older reader, but there are many many wonderful picture books as well.

    _When Jessie Came Across the Sea_ by Amy Hest is a beautifully illustrated story about a turn-of-the-century immigrant girl. It’s my daughter’s favorite read-aloud.

    _The Keeping Quilt_ by Patricia Polacco isn’t about a historical event per se, but tells the story of a quilt handed down over many generations of a Jewish-American family. It’s a wonderful book.

    _Samuel Eaton’s Day_ and _Sarah Morton’s Day_ are both photo-journalism style books that were made to tell the story (respectively) of a little kid at Plimoth Plantation. They’re historically accurate and kids love them.

    _Oxcart Man_ isn’t women’s history, but illustrates the 19th c family economy beautifully and is a lovely classic.

    Patricia Pingery has written a large series of illustrated historical board books for very young children (_The Story of the Declaration of Independence_, _The Story of Benjamin Franklin_, _The Story of Rosa Parks_, etc). They’re pretty simple, so don’t expect much historical nuance.


  4. Ok, from my own reading experience in the 1970s I LOVED Witch of Blackbird Pond, Mixed up files of Mrs. Basil…, and the Island of the Blue Dolphins. I’d also give a shoutout for Nancy Drew cause that’s historical now (if you get the older ones). And let’s face it, no matter the problems with the Nancy Drew books, generations of feminists were raised thinking that young women could make it in a “male profession” because of her. Several of the numbers between 35-49 were written with cold war themes and could make an interesting historical present if you can make it around all of the ethnic and racial stereotypes.


  5. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – early 20th century life among New York’s poor. For teenagers, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything – mid-20th century young women office workers


  6. I recommend the book, A Ladies Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabel Byrd. It is a story set in the 1880’s in Colorado. Isabell relates her journey thru Colorado during the winter in the area of Colorado known to fur trappers as South Park &Middle Park. She was a strong woman who traveled by herself on horseback. If you love horses or want a story about a woman who was truly remarkable, this is the one. It was written a long time ago but is still being printed and is generally found in the young readers section. However, I read the story as an ebook a few years ago and I am an older adult and enjoyed it immensely..


  7. My background is more in historical girls’ literature than in current girls’ literature, but a tween/teen might find the Sue Barton books (which are in print at Image Cascade, which has been publishing early- to mid-20th-century girls’ lit) interesting — like the Little House books, they are definitely of their time, but are interesting for their treatment of nursing education and settlement work (Sue meets Lillian Wald just as she’s beginning settlement work).

    I’m not familiar with all the books listed, but the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards site might be a good starting point.


  8. Reaching waaaay back into the mists of memory — Carol Brink’s “Caddie Woodlawn,” another book about a girl growing up in 19th C rural Wisconsin who’s even wilder than Laura. And for somewhat younger readers, “A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver,” (also by E. L. Konigsburg) which is not just about Eleanor of Aquitaine but narrated by her.


  9. I think very brand new infants (redundancy?) live pretty ahistorically, at least cognitively and experientially. At the shower stage, I’d be inclined to go with something more traditionally tactile or auditory, in trust that I’d maintain connection to the kid long enough to upgrade into more literary and content-oriented stuff in a few years. However, for a good take on basic disciplinary concepts like change over time, seasonality, and basic reasons to remain optimistic, there’s probably nothing better in the neonatal space than _Anna Bear’s First Winter_ by Roberta Edwards with (spectacularly cool) illustrations by Laura Lydecker (Random House, 1986).


  10. Thanks, everyone, for all of your suggestions. I am disappointed that so few people came over from Twitter to leave their suggestions here, so I’ve pulled together all of the direct replies I had from people there:

    I don’t get why they didn’t comment in the thread–this blog does not require registration so it’s not at all burdensome. I guess it’s a lesson to me about social media–it’s just easier and quicker not to read the full blog post, but rather just reply to the quick summary headline. Lesson learned. I’d rather have the conversation here because not everyone is on Twitter, and because we can have a conversation, not just exchange a sentence or two.

    I considered doing a Storify of the Tweets, but in signing up for my “free” Storify account I would apparently give Storify permission to “post Tweets for you,” which is NOT something I want anyone doing for me or burdening my followers with. But the conversation above seems to be a good way to get a sense of the rundown.


  11. My daughter also loved the “Little House” books in her grade-school years. She also enjoyed Barbara M. Walker’s “The Little House Cookbook,” which presents over 100 modern recipes for dishes mentioned in the Wilder books along with food and social history commentary that give context to the dishes and their place in the lives of the “Little House” characters.

    In an interesting coincidence, the stories of the “Little House” books—as the characters migrate from upstate NY to the wilds of the forest and later the open prairies— happens to mirror quite a bit of our own family history. This provoked a lot of discussion about how Ma and the girls must have felt when, every time they got settled down into a slightly more comfortable life, Pa gets the urge to pull up stakes and move on to the next new frontier. (The consensus was that Pa could be a bit of a jerk, and that perhaps his wanderlust was more than a little selfish and not at all considerate of Ma and the girls.)

    And one non-historical picture book made us laugh for years: Robert Munsch’s “The Paper Bag Princess.” Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia: “Princess Elizabeth plans on marrying Prince Ronald, who is practically perfect. However, a dragon arrives who destroys her kingdom, kidnaps Ronald, and burns all her clothes (rendering her naked) so that she has no choice but to wear a paper bag. Elizabeth follows the dragon and Ronald, and seeking to rescue her fiancé, challenges the dragon to burn forests with fire and to fly around the world. The dragon completes the tasks but after flying around the world a second time becomes tired and falls asleep. Elizabeth rescues Ronald, who is ungrateful and tells her to return when she looks more like a princess. Elizabeth calls Ronald out for his ungratefulness [“Ronald…you are a bum!”] and goes dancing off into the sunset.”


  12. Just want to second the All of a Kind Family books. As a kid growing up in NYC, I found them particularly fascinating. But they definitely opened the door to immigrant culture in the early 20th C.


  13. All of a Kind Family books by Sidney Taylor for Lower East Side NY.
    It’s out of print, but shouldn’t be: Never Jam Today

    The Mother Daughter Book club series each features a historical work of fiction from Jane Eyre to the Betsy Tacey series.

    Cherrie Jones reading Little House on the Prairie for the audio book is to die for.

    There is probably room on the shelves for graphic novels of U.S. women’s/girls lives for younger readers.


  14. Oh and another great book is Strawberry Girl. Another Newbery winner, which tells the story of poor farming family in Florida in the early 20th century through the eyes of one of the daughters.


  15. Oh yes, Betsy-Tacy — the early books aren’t as historically specific, but the high-school-and-beyond books are interesting for turn-of-the-century middle-class girlhood.

    Also, I haven’t read it yet, but Jacqueline Woodson’s new book Brown Girl Dreaming is supposed to be fabulous (just ordered it for the library).

    I have a one-year-old niece who’s very into books and being read to, so these suggestions are all fun to note.


  16. A beautifully illustrated book that I loved as a child is The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses. The Legend of the Bluebonnet is another good picture book based on Native folklore and with a girl protagonist.

    Other picture books, less historical perhaps but with adventuresome girls: Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, and Annie and the Wild Animals, by Jan Brett.


  17. For a child’s book from my own era of historical interest, how about the Little Maid books? There are 24 in the series, all written in the early twentieth century. I loved them when I was a child, and they invariably featured a girl engaged in some kind of heroic action during the revolutionary era.

    I also echo many of the suggestions above, especially All of a Kind Family and Elizabeth Speare’s books.


  18. Thanks to Historiann for posing the question and to everyone who answered. I was the one in need of a baby shower gift, and your suggestions tipped me off to an excellent picture book. Probably the most interesting thing for me in reading the responses was that nearly all the books people suggested were ones I read as a child fifty years ago. (Or, in the case of Never Jam Today, as a teenager forty years ago.) What does it say about the state of children’s books that, as women’s history has flourished among academics for several decades, the reading list for children has barely changed at all? Or is it simply a reflection of the demographics of Historiann’s readership?

    Thanks again for everyone’s help!


  19. Not American women’s history, but Jeannette Winter’s “Wangari’s Trees of Peace” is a beautiful, biographical picture book about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.


  20. I am currently visiting my 13 year old grand-daughter, and she and her parents recommend Chains by Laurie Halsey Anderson, set mostly in NYC in the American Revolution told from the perspective of an enslaved girl. There are several other books by her.

    As a child I read all the Little Maid of Old X books and the Twins books – the Dutch Twins, Volonial Twins, etc. they were staples of the small country libraries where we went in the summer.
    On the European side, and not about women, but two books I remember from 50 years ago are Marguerite De Angelis, The Door in the Wall (about a lame boy during the plague) and another called He Went with Marco Polo.


  21. I consulted on a different book by Laurie Halse Anderson on the American Revolution. She is good to work with, works hard to get the details right but also to tell stories in an accessible, compelling way, and doesn’t flinch at some very complicated and sometimes troubling details. Don’t know why I didn’t remember that. Can definitely recommend her oeuvre


  22. As a feminist scholar with a 4-year-old daughter, I give this LOTS of thought. Rosie Revere, Engineer is a wonderful picture book that simultaneously introduces the history of women’s WW II-era work and also encourages little girls to tinker and try to build things. It’s a fantastic book


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