The best children’s historical novels of the American prairie

Kathleen Wilford Author Of Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt
By Kathleen Wilford

Who am I?

I’m a former high-school and middle-school English teacher and a current instructor in the Writing Program at Rutgers University. I live in hilly New Jersey, but I’ve always been fascinated by the flat, treeless American prairie and the people who have lived there, from the Native American tribes of the Great Plains to the early homesteaders. I believe that to understand where we are, you need to understand where we’ve been, which is why I love to read and write historical fiction.

I wrote...

Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt

By Kathleen Wilford,

Book cover of Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt

What is my book about?

A sod house, a grand manor. A mystery, a matchmaking scheme. A tale of the prairie with humor and heart and a touch of romance.

Kansas, 1875. Twelve-year-old homesteader Cabby Potts is an outdoor kind of girl with an “intemperate tongue,” as her Ma puts it. When she’s forced to work as a housemaid at a grand English manor down the railroad line from her sod house, she’s desperate to escape but equally desperate to save her family’s struggling homestead. So, she plays matchmaker between her older sister and the rich young lord of the manor. When her impulsive scheme backfires, she must solve a mystery and use her voice to stand up for her family, a Native American friend, and an entire community threatened by land-grabbers.

The books I picked & why

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Moon Over Manifest

By Clare Vanderpool,

Book cover of Moon Over Manifest

Why this book?

I fell for this book because of the main character’s voice, which is earthy, believable, and funny. “Hard times are a penny for plenty,” Abilene says after hopping off the train in dusty Manifest, Kansas in 1936. “They call it a Depression, but I’d say it’s a downright rut and the whole country’s in it.” Carrying her daddy’s compass and not much else, Abilene boards with a preacher with a “jigsaw life” and seeks to discover her missing daddy’s past. Following her quest, I learned about things like bootlegging, the flu epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, xenophobia—and a bit about magic elixirs.  

The Prairie Thief

By Melissa Wiley, Erwin Madrid (illustrator),

Book cover of The Prairie Thief

Why this book?

Apparently I’m not the only kidlit author who loves both the American prairie and all things British. When her Pa is accused of thieving, young Louisa is taken in by his accusers, the appropriately named Smirch family. Sour, mean-spirited Mrs. Smirch looks forward to seeing Pa hang. Louisa solves the mystery of the stolen items when she meets a gruff but sensitive... well, I won’t say, but he’s one of the Wee Folk from the Auld Country, far from home on the Colorado plains. A cute and lively read with a satisfying conclusion.

May B.

By Caroline Starr Rose,

Book cover of May B.

Why this book?

This historical novel in verse brings the Kansas prairie alive in all its beauty and harshness. The story is tense with few light moments as young May B is stranded alone in a sod house as blizzards rage outside. She’s a realistic heroine, tempted to despair but ultimately finding hidden sources of strength. Oh, and she suffers from dyslexia. Sometimes I think novels in verse will be too artsy or literary, but they’re actually easy to read, right? Perfect for a struggling reader, perhaps one with dyslexia.

Prairie Lotus

By Linda Sue Park,

Book cover of Prairie Lotus

Why this book?

This book is a gentle but important reminder that notions of white superiority are intertwined with American pioneer history, something that enters into my book as well. I cringed at the casual racism the half-Chinese main character, Hanna, encounters, and cheered for her to find a home in Dakota Territory. Linda Sue Park intended this book as a “conversation” with the Little House books, and I think she succeeded in showing the pioneer story from the perspective of overlooked minorities.

Little House on the Prairie

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garth Williams (illustrator),

Book cover of Little House on the Prairie

Why this book?

If you’re a kid, read these books with adult guidance, since the characters express racist attitudes, especially toward Native Americans. But do read them. Labelled fiction, they’re closely based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s own experiences, and they’re the closest you’ll get to a first-hand account of pioneer life. The stories are sometimes harrowing but always absorbing, and the details are fascinating. I’ve read them many times, and they helped fuel my love for historical fiction

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Kansas, prairies, and the Great Plains?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Kansas, prairies, and the Great Plains.

Kansas Explore 19 books about Kansas
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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