The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad

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Greenwood, Barbara (1998). The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Scholastic: New York.

While there are many excellent resources for teaching children about the Underground Railroad and slavery,  the majority are geared toward upper elementary readers, and can be overwhelming in their intensity. Those geared toward younger students are often well written fiction, but leave out much of the historical knowledge we want our kids to learn. If I had to pick only one title for literature based instruction on this subject for an audience of second through fourth graders, it would be The Last Safe House. Barbara Greenwood’s story of a young girl whose family is hiding an escaped slave is beautifully interwoven between chapters with descriptions about the African-American experience in the mid-nineteenth century.

Suitable as a one to two-week unit study, nearly all curriculum areas can easily be incorporated with this one title. Students will learn several of the code words used in the Underground Railroad such as parcel, conductor, and stations. A map of North America in 1856 depicts the major escape routes and which states were slave or free. The origin of slavery in America, with the captivity of men and women on the west coast of Africa is explained. Historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Ross, Levi Coffin, and Mary Ann Shadd are introduced. Detailed illustrations of cotton plantations are provided as are what the roles of African-Americans on these were. The implications of the invention of the cotton gin and Lincoln’s  Emancipation Proclamation are discussed. Science can be incorporated through the finding of Polaris (The North Star). Projects include a recipe for gingerbread cookies and instructions on making a lantern out of a tin can. Additional reading skills which can be taught with this resource include using a glossary, an index, and a bibliography.

Canadian Barbara Greenwood also collaborated with illustrator Heather Collins on A Pioneer Sampler, A Pioneer Christmas, and Gold Rush Fever.

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The King’s Equal

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Paterson, Katherine (1992). The King’s Equal. New York. Harpercollins.

“But you will not wear my crown until the day you marry a woman who is your equal in beauty and intelligence and wealth” qualifies a beloved old king, as he bestows a final blessing on his son (p.7). Prince Raphael is as arrogant and selfish a prince as there could ever be. Everyone in the kingdom fears the day he becomes ruler. Eager for the crown, Raphael threatens the councilors to find him a wife that matches his father’s requirements by the end of one year, or be thrown into the dungeon. Several princesses are found that can fulfill one of the criteria, but none all three.

But “in a far corner of the realm” there is a compassionate, humble, and lovely young woman working hard to keep herself and her goats alive, all the while maintaining a positive disposition. Her goodness extends even to a wolf, who turns out to be no ordinary animal. She shares the last of her bread with him- and finds each new day, enough grain miraculously has appeared in her jar to feed them all once again. The wolf encourages Rosamund to present herself as the wealthy, intelligent, and beautiful bride the prince has been looking for, knowing the king wasn’t the only parent to have bestowed a blessing.

“On the night that you were born, your mother lay dying. With her last words, she gave you a blessing. She said that you were to be a king’s equal.” (Paterson, p.34)

For the good of the kingdom, Rosamund resolves to try. An hour before midnight on the last day of the year, she asks the wisest of the councilors to take her to the prince.

“I must warn you,” he said, “the prince is a very hard man. If he does not accept you as his equal, I cannot promise that any of us will escape with our lives.” (Paterson, p.38)

The prince is astonished at her beauty and intelligence, but it is her “wealth” that is noteworthy, for it turns out Rosamund is richer than he:

“Then,” said Rosamund quietly, “perhaps you are poorer than I, for there is nothing I desire that I do not already possess.” (Paterson, p.44)

But can she be Raphael’s wife? Not yet.

“By your own words, my lord, you have declared me more than equal to you.” (p.45)

I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, but be assured that like all good fairytales, it does so happily.

Katherine Paterson spent her earliest years in China, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, and later married a minister. Miraculous provision of daily bread, a woman willing to risk her own life for her kingdom, and the values of humility, kindness, and goodness, all reflect her absorption of years of truth by hearing and teaching God’s word. Among her sixteen books for children she has won two Newbery Medals, two National Book Awards, the Hans Christian Anderson Medal, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. In addition, she is one of the handful of woman writers I am aware of who, while putting her family first, still wrote beautiful, worthwhile books for children. Speaking about her own writing career in Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children she shares the following:

“It might have happened sooner had I had a room of my own or fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.” (Gates of Excellence, p.3)

And I’m so glad they did, and that this mom-writer didn’t give up! Enjoy The King’s Equal as a family read-aloud. And then explore Katherine Paterson’s other wonderful titles.

The Mousehole Cat

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Barber, Antonia (1990). The Mousehole Cat. London: Walker Books.

(Reprinted in 1996 by Aladdin Paperbacks, a division of Simon & Schuster)

The Mousehole Cat, written by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Nicola Bayley, was inspired by an old Cornish legend. Mowzer the cat lives happily with her “pet”, Tom, who is “very well-behaved” (p.7). Not only does Tom keep her saucer full of cream, and the wood stove well stoked, but he passes his days “in the most useful way possible”: catching fish for Mowzer’s dinner (p.7). When the villagers of Mousehole are unable to send out their fishing boats, it appears the children will go hungry and just before Christmas. Tom, whose children are grown, and parents long gone, decides that he’s the most logical choice to risk his life to bring back fish for the village. Mowzer chooses to join him:

“For he was only a man, she thought, and men were like mice in the paws of the Great Storm-Cat” (p.14).

Listening to the Great Storm-Cat’s wailing, she imagines him to be lonely, “endlessly hunting the men-mice in the deeps of darkness, and never returning to the rosy glow of a red-hot fire” (p.18). To comfort him, she serenades him with her singing… and it works. While they are still in for a tumultuous ride, Mowzer and Tom will return home a boat laden with fish.

Back in the village the townspeople realize what Tom is doing for them and they wait:

“All day they had watched and waited, staring out into the cloud-wracked sea, but they could see no sign of him. And when night fell, the women went home and set candles in all their windows and every man lit his lantern and went down to the harbor walls.” (p.26)

I love the illustrations in this book. The paintings tell the story so beautifully that once they’ve heard it, younger children can relive the adventure simply by looking at them. Rarely does a picture book combine such lyrical prose with so natural a rising climax. Its simple story of valor and loyalty is sure to enthrall the five to eight year olds it is marketed for. It is no surprise that it holds the honors of being both an ALA Notable Children’s Book and Booklist Editor’s Choice in 1990. The Mousehole Cat is sure to live in reader’s and listener’s memories for years to come.

 

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great

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Morris, Gerald (2008). The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great. Houghton Mifflin: New York.

How do you introduce a modern-day ten-year old, who isn’t all that keen on reading to begin with, to the legends of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot? For starters, take thirty minutes and the read them Gerald Morris’ The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great while they follow along in a copy of their own. (Or give Dad the opportunity. He will love narrating these humorous chapters in an English dialect he didn’t know he had!) Offer your kids their first tastes of Camelot, King Arthur, and the Lady of Shalott; of armour, tournaments, and “recreants”; of rescuing damsels in distress and dragon slaying. And all the while you’ll be able to reinforce the importance of afternoon naps and keeping one’s armor shiny!

This title is a perfect read aloud for grades one and up, and an excellent reader for fourth graders. Kudos to Gerald Morris for this little gem of a book.

A Grain of Rice

Pittman, Helena Clare (1996). A Grain of Rice. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

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Humble farmer Pong Lo longs to marry the beautiful Princess Chang Wu, and the feeling is mutual. Unfortunately the Emperor finds the request outrageous,

“Prince!” shrieked the Emperor. “A peasant cannot be a prince! A prince must come from noble blood!” His moustache twitched madly.  (Pittman, p.4)

With his daughter’s coaxing, the Emperor concedes to the farmer’s working in the palace. The clever, cheerful, and hardworking Pong Lo more than proves himself- but it is still not enough to become the son-in-law to the highest in the land. When her father invites all of the young nobles of China in hopes of finding a suitable match for the princess, Chang Wu becomes gravely ill in her sorrow over not marrying Pong Lo.

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“With no hope of marrying Pong Lo she grew sadder and sadder until at last she only stayed in bed. Her black eyes lost their sparkle and her cheeks became pale.” (Pittman, p.20)

With his knowledge of herbs Pong Lo creates a potion to save the princess. He tells the Emperor, “It will cure the disease if the heart is willing. But you must tell the Princess that it comes from me.” The Emperor promises the farmer anything he wants if his daughter lives, but when her health is restored, and Pong Lo again requests her hand in marriage, the Emperor still will not budge. And so the clever Pong Lo requests… a grain of rice.

“But if His Majesty insists, he may double the amount every day for a hundred days.” (Pittman, p.32)

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And a lesson in multiplication is born! Pong Lo becomes the richest person in the land, and deemed acceptable to provide for the Princess Chang Wu.

A Grain of Rice is a simple, humorous story incorporating some wonderful character qualities, while making mathematics meaningful at the same time. Reading level is 4.0, but this title is very appropriate as a read aloud for early elementary students, and just plain fun for the entire family to listen to. I would recommend it as one resource for learning about Asian cultures to use with six and seven year olds, while older siblings are enjoying Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble

Dalgliesh, Alice (1952). The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

Dalgliesh, Alice (1954). The Courage of Sarah Noble. New York: Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

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Rarely are two of my favorite books for an age level by the same author, but Newbery honor books The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh are the exception.

In The Bears on Hemlock Mountain eight year old Jonathan isn’t so sure about going over the hill to fetch an iron pot from his aunt, as it is early spring:

 

“Me?” said Jonathan. “All alone? They say there are bears on Hemlock Mountain.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” said his mother. “Many’s the time I’ve been over Hemlock Mountain and not a bear did I see.”

.                                                                                               (Dalgliesh, p. 15)

 

And I’m sure you can guess what happens…

This book is just plain fun to read. Based on a Pennsylvania “tall tale”, it depicts early American culture with humor and charm, and rewards both ingenuity and bravery. With unforgettable rhythm, Jonathan and his mother keep up their courage by telling themselves, “THERE are NO BEARS ON HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN, NO BEARS, NO BEARS AT ALL”, over and over, until young listeners are reciting this along with the story. Simple, and full of faith, I never tire of reading this to my kids.

The Courage of Sarah Noble is based on the true account of an eight year old girl who came with her father into the Connecticut wilderness in 1707. Far from her mother and her large family of brothers and sisters, Sarah must face fears of wild animals, Indians, and being separated from those she loves. In just fifty-five pages Alice Dalgliesh shows young readers that “To be afraid and to be brave is the best courage of all,” (Dalgliesh, p.36).

I love how this third person narrative shows not only a child’s perspective, but a loving father’s as well. And I especially appreciate the way it shows the love of a Christian home by contrast of another:

 

“Soon we shall have a fine house like Mistress Robinson’s.”

“No,” said Sarah. “Like our own.”

“And why not like Mistress Robinsons?”

“Because there is no love in that house,” said Sarah.

“You are too wise for your years.”

(Dalgliesh, p. 14)

 

Both The Bears on Hemlock Mountain and The Courage of Sarah Noble are sure to continue inspiring Christian families for years to come.

 

 

Emily Dickinson

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“There is no frigate like a book                                                                                                                                To take us lands away,                                                                                                                                            Nor any coursers like a page                                                                                                                                     Of prancing poetry.”  Emily Dickinson

Poetry is an often overlooked genre in homeschool literature and in children’s literature in general. One of my favorite collections is the Poetry for Young People series published by Sterling Children’s Books. Originally copyrighted in 1994, their 2014 editions now include no less than twenty-two well-known poets to learn about. I have chosen Emily Dickinson because there are a number of excellent fiction and non-fiction resources readily available to create a beautiful family unit study.

The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires is told by the character of “Emmaline”, a mouse who has taken up residence in Emily’s room. Through an exchange of poems between herself and Emily Dickinson, we learn about events in Emily’s life, and develop a picture of her as a person. This book is an excellent read aloud for ages six and up, although I would say my upper elementary aged kids have appreciated it the most.

Author Eileen Spinelli’s Another Day as Emily is a fun read for fourth through sixth graders- especially for girls with younger brothers! Written in non-rhyming poetry it is a way to demonstrate that not all poems need to rhyme. Also, it’s short enough to assign as an independent read on top of other programs.

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For preschoolers and lower elementary students my first choice in picture books would be Marty Rhodes Figley’s Emily and Carlo. Carlo was Emily’s Newfoundland, and her constant companion as she explored the meadows around her New England home. One other picture book about this well-known poet is Michael Bedard’s Emily, which takes the perspective of a little girl who lives on her street.

Jane Yolen writes in couplets, taking the voices of Emily, and others in her life in The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson. All of the books provide historical information and could be utilized to gather facts for a biographical assignment. Poetry for Young People’s Emily Dickinson provides definitions of less familiar words used in her poems and makes an excellent framework for the other titles.

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Bedard, Michael (1992). Emily. New York, New York: Doubleday Book for Young Readers.

Bolin, Frances Schoonmaker (editor)(2014). Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson. New York, NY: 2014

Figley, Marty Rhodes (2012). Emily and Carlo. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Spinelli, Eileen (2015). Another Day as Emily. New York, NY: Yearling.

Spires, Elizabeth (1999). The Mouse of Amherst. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Yolen, Jane (2012). The Emily Sonnets. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.

The Valentine Cat

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Bulla, Clyde Robert (1959). The Valentine Cat. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, Inc.

One of the blessings of having half a dozen kids is that you get to enjoy certain read alouds time and time again. The Valentine Cat by Clyde Robert Bulla is one of my favorite holiday traditions, and I’m sharing this post in advance in hopes that you may be able to get your hands on a copy before February 14th.

When Tell, who makes his living as a shoemaker’s assistant, takes in a half-starved, little cat with a white heart marking his black head, it not only brings companionship to his lonely evenings, but awakens the painter he once was. Brushing off his old paints he covers the walls of his flat with paintings of the cat playing and exploring. One day the cat is stolen by the local chimney sweep, Ketch, who hides him and uses him as a “magic broom” to clean tight spots in chimneys. Word of his cleaning success reaches the palace, and he is called to sweep out a chimney for the red room, where Princess Florinda is excitedly planning a Valentine’s Day party.

While completing the assignment, the evil chimney sweep slips on the snow covered roof. Down the chimney plops the cat, terrifying the palace staff below. Princess Florinda gets a new pet- until the Valentine Cat escapes during the holiday parade, and finds his way home to Tell. The guards are just about to arrest the humble Tell for stealing the royal feline when the princess notices the paintings, and defends his innocence:

“I believe him,” said the princess. “It’s plain to see the cat once lived here. There are pictures of him all over the walls.” She said again, “What a beautiful room!” She asked, “Could you paint my room like this?” (Bulla, p.50)

And so Tell finds himself living in the palace, doing what he loves best, and reunited with the stray he had found. Good is rewarded, evil is punished, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Clyde Robert Bulla wrote more than fifty books for young readers, among them A Lion to Guard Us, Viking Adventure, The Sword in the Tree, and Daniel’s Duck. His titles also include several excellent historical fiction resources for young readers.

The Cinderellas

With more than five hundred international variations, and dating as far back as the ninth century (with the Chinese story of Yeh-Shen), the story of a patient, kind, and unfairly treated young woman being rewarded for her goodness, has been told in many ways. Here in the states we know her as “Cinderella”, but many a name has been given to this beloved fairytale heroine. The following are just three of the many versions that have been shared around the globe.

Kongi and Potgi

Han, Oki S.(1996). Kongi and Potgi: A Cinderella Story from Korea. New York , NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.

In Kongi and Potgi young Kongi is forced by her mean stepmother to do all the work that would normally be shared  by her daughter Potgi and herself, in addition to her own chores. Nobly, Kongi never complains. When the announcement is made that the prince is seeking a bride, and a grand ball is to occur, Doki gives Kongi near impossible tasks to prevent her from attending and being competition for Potgi. As often seen in Asian fairy-tales, animals come to the aid of our heroine: an ox helps her to hoe the land on the hillside, a toad plugs a water jug with a hole in it, and sparrows remove the kernels of rice from their shells. A rainbow in the sky brings angels, who dress her in the finest silk, and four men come down with a sedan chair in which to carry her. In this Korean version, the glass slipper is a jewel-like one.

What I love about this version is that not only do we see Kongi’s patient, humble character, as we do in all of the Cinderellas, but we also see her forgiveness:

“At the wedding reception Doki and Potgi could barely look at the bride, for they were ashamed of the way they had treated her. But Kongi welcomed them warmly and forgave their unkindness. Her father could not have been more proud.” (Han, p.32)

As indeed our Heavenly Father is when we ourselves forgive others.

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Cendrillon

San Souci, Robert D. (1998). Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Cendrillon is an adaptation of a traditional Creole version of Cinderella told in first person narrative by our character’s godmother. When the widowed father remarries it is to a “cold woman, and puffed up proud” (San Souci, p.7). A new daughter, Vitaline, is born and spoiled, while Cendrillon is given work that leaves her hands red and blistered, is barely fed, and sleeps on a hard pallet. The stepmother’s refusal to allow her to go to a birthday party for Paul Thibault, who Cendrillon likes, brings her to tears, and the godmother promises to find a way for her to attend.

Reminiscent of the Disney version, the stepmother and sister make demands of our heroine the minute they leave for the event. The godmother uses a wand of mahogany to turn a breadfoot into a coach, agoutis (animals like guinea pigs) into carriage horses, field lizards into footmen, and an opossum into a coachman. Cendrillon’s sky blue velvet dress is accompanied by a matching turban, jewelry, and pink slippers. Her godmother chaperones her and enjoys chocolate sherbert until the midnight chimes toll.

One cannot help but love Cendrillon’s godmother, her devoted advocate with a most unique personality. “If you cut off those big toes,” she calls out as Vitaline is trying to fit into the slipper, “it would be a fine fit.” (San Souci, p.35). And one cannot help but love Cendrillon, who refuses the offer to be dressed elegantly once again for the prince, in favor of him seeing her as she truly is. This version is beautifully rich and I can’t imagine reading it with anything but a Creole dialect to add flavor to the wonderful illustrations.

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Adelita

De Paola, Tomie (2004). Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story. New York, NY: Puffin Books.

Tomie de Paola’s fairy godmother in Adelita is the young lady’s nurse, Esperanza, who has been with the Mercado family since before she was born. Esperanza perceives the coldness of her future stepmother, Dona Micaela, and her daughters, Valentina and Dulce, even before the wedding takes place. As in all of the Cinderellas our heroine never complains, in spite of the clear favoritism that is being shown. She has, after all, Esperanza, and “Because she knew Esperanza loved her, Adelita’s heart stayed as warm as the fire in the hearth.” (De Paola, p.10).

When Adelita’s father dies, the stepmother no longer needs to conceal her jealousy, and moves her up into the attic. One day, as Adelita is helping Esperanza in the kitchen, the cruel stepmother fires Esperanza. At this Adelita does begin to despair. An invitation arrives for a party at the ranch of the Gordilla’s in honor of their son Javier’s homecoming. After the stepmother and sisters leave for the party Esperanza, having dreamt of Adelita’s not being allowed to go, arrives. Finding a beautiful dress in Adelita’s mother’s old trunk, she dresses her, braiding flowers and ribbons into her hair.

Javier takes one look at Adelita and falls in love with her. “Adelita’s heart was full as well and all the meanness she had suffered over the years began to melt.” (DePaola, p.20). There are no glass slippers in this version, but rather her mother’s rebozo (shawl), hanging out of her window, leads Javier to Adelita’s door. Ad you can probably guess, this couple lives happily ever after as well.

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The Cinderellas can be wonderful family read-alouds for a couple of weeks, enjoyed by older and younger members alike. They lend themselves readily to discussions of character, and of good overcoming evil. They can also be used to teach literary comparisons and analysis, (as kids talk about similarities and differences between the stories), cultural awareness as they are exposed to storytelling, artwork, and descriptions of celebrations and places around the world, and geography as they locate the settings of the tales on maps and globes. Nothing complicated: just the joy of reading shared between parents and siblings using stories they will recollect for years to come.

 

The I Can Read History Books

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Looking for an informal way to teach American history with six, seven, and eight year olds? The I Can Read series, home to the Little Bear and Frog and Toad books, is wonderful source of engaging, easy to read stories about our country’s earliest years. Beginning in 1635 with Roger Williams founding of the colony of Providence,  and continuing through the early twentieth century, historical fiction written from a child’s viewpoint is extremely well presented.

We learn the history of things we may have never given much consideration to: the origin of skis in Snowshoe Thompson, nineteenth century hot air ballooning in The Big Balloon Race, the race to find dinosaur fossils in Dinosaur Hunter, and traveling libraries in Clara and the Bookwagon. There are lessons in emigration and immigration (The Long Way to a New Land, The Long Way Westward), westward expansion (Prairie Friends, The Josefina Story Quilt, Wagon Wheels), and well known historical figures (First Flight: The Story of Tom Tate and the Wright Brothers). In Clipper Ship we see young Meg and Jamie homeschooled (or should I say shipschooled?) and the amazing experiences they have as they sail with their captain parents around Cape Horn, journeying from New York to California. (Do you suppose using a telescope, chronometer, and sextant would count as technology class credit?)

Each book has it’s own entertaining twist to it. Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express includes notes to William Cody’s mother at the end of each chapter assuring her that “nothing much happens”, which the reader knows otherwise (Coerr, 1995). In The One Bad Thing About Father Teddy Roosevelt’s son describes how “Being President can practically ruin your whole life” (Monjo,1987). In Hill of Fire a Mexican farmer laments, “Nothing ever happens,”- until he witnesses the formation of a volcano right before his eyes (Lewis, 1971).

While this is not a specifically Christian collection of titles, the time period in which the stories are set was one where faith in God, imploring Him for protection, and adherence to higher laws, were the norm. Consequently you find parents encouraging their children to trust in God (Finding Providence), pray for safety (Indian Summer, Clipper Ship), and choosing to do what is right even when disobedience to man’s laws require it (The Drinking Gourd). In addition, you find resourcefulness, courage, wisdom, and a strong commitment to family. Other I Can Read historical titles include The Boston Coffee Party (not a typo!), The Battle for St. Michael’s, Sam the Minuteman, George, The Drummer Boy, The 18 Penny Goose, Six Silver Spoons (think Revolutionary War for all of these), Little Runner of the LonghouseSmall Wolf, Three Names, The Pig War, Snorri and the Strangers, Long, Tall Lincoln, How Far, Felipe?, and Chang’s Paper Pony. The I Can Read books also include some science titles including A Nest of Wood Ducks, Hidden Animals, Ants are Fun, and Greg’s Microscope, to name a few.

Written for grades two to four, these books make excellent read alouds for first graders, and shared or independent reads for second through fourth. The author’s note pages describe historical accounts and provide contexts following each story. The aforementioned titles have been published by HarperCollins, in various years, over the past quarter of a century. All are currently available on amazon.com.