The best books about American children and history

Who am I?

I’ve been writing, speaking, blogging, and tweeting about the history of American children and their childhoods for many decades. When I went to school—a long time ago—the subject did not come up, nor did I learn much in college or graduate school. I went out and dug up the story as did many of the authors I list here. I read many novels and autobiographies featuring childhood, and I looked at family portraits in museums with new eyes. Childhood history is fascinating and it is a lot of fun. And too, it is a great subject for book groups.


I wrote...

Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America Into the Twentieth Century

By Janet Golden,

Book cover of Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America Into the Twentieth Century

What is my book about?

Babies Made Us Modern analyzes the dramatic transformations in the lives of babies during the 20th century. I take my readers through the story of how babies shaped American society and culture. Babies led their families into the modern world, helping them to become more accepting of scientific medicine, and leading adults into consumer culture as parents and others shopped for baby items. Curiosity about babies led Americans to become open to new theories about human development and to welcome government programs and advice.

Babies weren’t just pathbreakers, they also kept families rooted in traditions, from religious celebrations to cultural practices, to folk medicine. This is also a story about diversity that explains how gender, race, region, class, and community shaped life in the nursery and was, in turn, shaped by the vulnerabilities of babies.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Brown Girl, Brownstones

Janet Golden Why did I love this book?

This coming-of-age novel set in the Great Depression and World War II Brooklyn has it all: girlhood, poverty, and cultural conflict between Barbadian immigrants and black Americans. The voice of the narrator, a young first-generation immigrant girl, is captivating. Although published in 1959, it is timeless and fresh today, you’ll ask yourself, “why isn’t this story going to became a major motion picture?”.

By Paule Marshall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brown Girl, Brownstones as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"An unforgettable novel, written with pride and anger, with rebellion and tears." — Herald Tribune Book Review"Passionate, compelling . . . an impressive accomplishment." — Saturday Review"Remarkable for its courage, its color, and its natural control." — The New Yorker
Selina's mother wants to stay in Brooklyn and earn enough money to buy a brownstone row house, but her father dreams only of returning to his island home. Torn between a romantic nostalgia for the past and a driving ambition for the future, Selina also faces the everyday burdens of poverty and racism. Written by and about an African-American woman,…


Book cover of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Janet Golden Why did I love this book?

Your schoolbooks left them out, but young people are American history makers and they have been so for over 300 years. Huck’s Raft presents the way children shaped the American experience and how their lives evolved over time. You’ll meet young people here from the seventeenth-century port cities to the nineteenth-century slave plantations to the Depression-era hobo camps and on to the end of the twentieth century. It’s history you need to know and will have fun learning.

By Steven Mintz,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Huck's Raft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Like Huck's raft, the experience of American childhood has been both adventurous and terrifying. For more than three centuries, adults have agonized over raising children while children have followed their own paths to development and expression. Now, Steven Mintz gives us the first comprehensive history of American childhood encompassing both the child's and the adult's tumultuous early years of life.

Underscoring diversity through time and across regions, Mintz traces the transformation of children from the sinful creatures perceived by Puritans to the productive workers of nineteenth-century farms and factories, from the cosseted cherubs of the Victorian era to the confident…


Book cover of Playing with History: American Identities and Children's Consumer Culture

Janet Golden Why did I love this book?

Toys! Dolls! Amusement Parks! They aren’t just playthings and play places; they are part of our national character and our consumer culture, as well as our private objects and experiences. Childhood is manufactured—created in our homes, communities, schools, and yes, by play. This book has a lot to say about our history but it is also a fun reminder of the things many of us grew up with or wish we had. It just might have you rooting through your attic or old photo books.

By Molly Rosner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Playing with History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since the advent of the American toy industry, children’s cultural products have attempted to teach and sell ideas of American identity. By examining cultural products geared towards teaching children American history, Playing With History highlights the changes and constancies in depictions of the American story and ideals of citizenship over the last one hundred years. This book examines political and ideological messages sold to children throughout the twentieth century, tracing the messages conveyed by racist toy banks, early governmental interventions meant to protect the toy industry, influences and pressures surrounding Cold War stories of the western frontier, the fractures visible…


Book cover of Teenagers: An American History

Janet Golden Why did I love this book?

This is a book about my life—growing up in the middle of the twentieth century. Bobby Soxers, juvenile delinquents, popular music, MTV, Freedom Riders, Anti-War protestors…it’s all here, along with much more. It isn’t about the good old days; this book takes us to the heart of the culture created decades ago and still influencing us today. We knew teenage life was complex and this book reveals just why that is the case. You’ll wish it came with a playlist.

By Grace Palladino,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Teenagers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nobody worried about teenagers" prior to the 1940s. In fact, as a culturally or economically defined entity they did not exist. But in the 50 years since the last world war, when the term was first coined, teenagers have had an enormous impact on American culture. They have reshaped our language, our music, our clothes. They have changed forever the way we respond to authority. They have become a 200 billion consumer group avidly courted by marketers. And they have changed our culture, which will never again treat their demographic group merely as young adults. Teenagers ranges widely across American…


Book cover of Children and Drug Safety: Balancing Risk and Protection in Twentieth-Century America

Janet Golden Why did I love this book?

The Covid-19 pandemic makes this book a must-read as the author, reminds us that so many medications prescribed for children have not received all the tests for safety necessary to protect them. Yes, we got the heroin out of teething syrups, and our bottles now have child safety caps. Fun fact: the author you will learn, was as they put it at the time, an aspirin poisoned child thanks to those good-tasting baby aspirin. Shocking reality: pediatric drug research and regulation often follows disasters rather than preventing them. That’s why we, fortunately, have to wait for full testing before those covid vaccines get into the arms of the young. This book is an eye-opener.

By Cynthia Connolly,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Children and Drug Safety as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Children and Drug Safety traces the development, use, and marketing of drugs for children in the twentieth century, a history that sits at the interface of the state, business, health care providers, parents, and children. This book illuminates the historical dimension of a clinical and policy issue with great contemporary significance-many of the drugs administered to children today have never been tested for safety and efficacy in the pediatric population.

Each chapter of Children and Drug Safety engages with major turning points in pediatric drug development; themes of children's risk, rights, protection and the evolving context of childhood; child-rearing; and…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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