The best books to bring American history alive for middle graders

Frances M. Wood Author Of Daughter of Madrugada
By Frances M. Wood

The Books I Picked & Why

Island of the Blue Dolphins

By Scott O’Dell

Book cover of Island of the Blue Dolphins

Why this book?

Sometimes the best historical novels are based on long-forgotten incidents. The Island of the Blue Dolphins exists, as once did the young woman who lived there all alone - the last living member of her tribe. This book shows how she created an existence rich in nature and the friendship of animals. Only fiction can truly describe her life, because by the time she was discovered by the Spanish, nobody remained who could speak her language.

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The Sherwood Ring

By Elizabeth Marie Pope

Book cover of The Sherwood Ring

Why this book?

I loved this book when I was young. It’s an account of the American Revolution, as told to an orphaned young woman by four friendly ghosts. Don’t expect guts, gore, or death - but rather clever captures and near-captures, the solving of a mystery, and a bit of romancing across enemy lines.

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The River Between Us

By Richard Peck

Book cover of The River Between Us

Why this book?

Lots of blood and guts in this book. It’s 1916, and Howard is learning what happened to his family back in 1861. That’s when a pair of young women stepped off a Mississippi River steamboat, and into a tiny town on the Illinois side. The townsfolk - noting the elegance of one girl, and the dark skin of the other - decide they are seeing a mistress and her slave, and go back to arguing about what really interests them: which of their boys are going to fight for the North? Which are going to fight for the South? The Pruitt family has the same concerns - and makes the same assumptions - as everybody else. But in wartime, everything can be turned upside down.

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Farewell to Manzanar

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, James D. Houston

Book cover of Farewell to Manzanar

Why this book?

In the early days of World War II, the U.S. government ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes and move into internment camps. Manzanar, one such camp, was a hastily built town of army barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Jeannie’s family - all twelve of them - was assigned a space of two rooms with no running water. Except for a baby niece, Jeannie was the youngest. She did a lot of normal things - went to school, laughed and quarreled with her slightly-older brother, learned how to twirl a baton. But even so, she could never forget: she was just a kid, an American Citizen; and she was in prison.

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The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Book cover of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963

Why this book?

This is one of the funniest, and saddest, books ever. When Kenny starts telling the story, it’s dead winter in Flint. Michigan. Cold enough to make your spit freeze. Momma, who grew up in Alabama, begins yearning for the South. By reputation, Momma’s momma is the strictest, meanest grandma ever. Kenny - who’s never met her - decides Grandma Sands must look like a troll. Dad and Momma decide that Grandma Sands is the perfect person to straighten out big brother Byron, who shows signs of turning into a juvenile delinquent. So... Join the Watsons. Get in their car (also known as the Brown Bomber), listen to the tires roll onto I-75, and imagine what’s going to happen when Byron meets his doom.

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