American-History-in-a-Box for Adults

Screen Shot 2018-09-17 at 12.28.31 PMWe don’t actually have a box for adults, but we did compile a list of books that will tell some of the story of United States history. There are so many wonderful books out there (and historians who can write so well) that it was hard to choose. We picked our favorites, though. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction, some give you lots of facts, and some just give you a feeling of what it must have been like to have lived through certain events. We have read all of them, and would appreciate any additional recommendations for books about our history that simply shouldn’t be missed.


1492: The Year the World Began, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

How our world changed in 1492.


1776, David McCullough

McCullough tells the story of our nation’s birth through the people, places, and ideas that helped form our country.

The Trees, Conrad Richter

The three books in this trilogy explore life as a settler in the Ohio Valley. The characters struggle to survive and thrive in often heartbreaking circumstances.

1800 – 1825

John Adams, David McCullough

This book looks at the time period and the men that shaped our country.

The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed

Gordon-Reed tells the story of Jefferson and the Hemingses from the point of view of the time period.

1826 – 1850

Killer Angels, Michael Shaara

This classic history of the Civil War is one of the best at vividly depicting the horror of this war and it’s impact on America.

Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin

A riveting look at Lincoln’s cabinet and his rise and term as president.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Dramatic, sweeping, and engaging, this classic novel looks at life in the South during the Civil War.

1851 – 1875

The Known World, Edward P. Jones

Slavery and it’s complex variations are explored in this heartbreaking novel.


Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

This Civil War story is about a lonely and dangerous journey home for a Confederate soldier.

The Big Oyster, History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky

Oysters and New York City were once deeply entwined. This book traces the rise and fall of that relationship while sharing great historical information.

1876 – 1900

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

A sweeping Western about people, places, and our Western history.

Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

The true story of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is intertwined with the story of a terrifying serial killer.

The Alienist, Caleb Carr

The search for a seriel killer allows for a close look at the Gilded Age in New York City.

1901 – 1925

Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson

Tales of life in small town America.

The Color Purple, Toni Morrison

This haunting story doesn’t reference particular events in history but gives a social context for people caught in a relentlessly unfair system.

1926 – 1950

The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown

A look at rowing, the Great Depression, and Hitler’s rise to power and the impact of the German Olympics in this gripping book set in the thirties.

Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand

This is a story of an unlikely champion and the time period in which he lived. Learn about the thirties and forties and life during the Great Depression.

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand

In 1943 Louis Zamperini’s flight went down during World War II. The story follows his incredible fight for survival when stranded at sea and then in a POW camp.

1951 – 1975

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Two sides of living in the South in the sixties are explored through the eyes of a variety of women. 

Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

Themes of racism, World War II and internment are explored as readers follow a gripping trial in Washington.

1976 – present

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler

Stories of the aftermath of the Vietnam War.


Bring History Alive at Home

We have compiled a list of activities to do at home as you talk about some of the major concepts in American History. You don’t need fancy classes or dense textbooks to share history, you just need context, discussion, and connection. Here are some of our suggestions:

Summer Activity #1: Discovery of America Read about Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America. Then, plan your own exploration. You can explore your neighborhood, park, or another area close to you. First, plan out your trip and pack the essentials (sunscreen, snacks, pen, paper, water, etc.) Then, create a map while you explore. Try to make three new discoveries and add them to the map (cool climbing trees, new playgrounds, awesome ice cream shops). After you finish your map, share it with a friend so they can retrace your steps.

Summer Activity #2: Colonialism Read about colonialism and what life was like for children in the new world. Then, try to live like a colonial family for a day. Don’t use any electricity. Make your meals from scratch (you can use appliances simply because they are safer), see if you can make some clothes using a needle and thread, clean the whole house (remember, no electricity) and then read by candlelight before going to bed. Of course, you won’t be able to use any technology and you will have to walk instead of using a car. Fold a piece of paper in half. On one side, list the things you did that a colonial child might have done. On the other side, list things you did that are possible because of modern conveniences. Discuss the differences, by candlelight, of course!

Summer Activity #3: Revolution Read about the American Revolution and then learn about why the tax system upset the colonists. You need a parent and hopefully some siblings to do this activity. Each child should have a cup full of candy. Your mom or dad will be the tax collector working for the king. Every time you do something fun, your parent will collect a tax (three or four pieces of candy each time) and put them on a plate in a central location. If you run out of your payment, you have to go to jail (you can design the jail if you like, but make sure it isn’t fun or nice!) Play this game all day and then discuss how it feels to have high taxes that don’t feel fair. Parents: if you can invite a bunch of kids over, this is a great way to play the game:

Summer Activity #5: American Indians. You could spend a full year learning about the first Americans because there were many tribes living in different geographical, cultural, and physical locations. They had different methods of gathering food and building shelters as well as different cultures and traditions. For this activity, pick an area or tribe that you want to learn more about, try to read some books, and do research online. Try to learn about daily life for this group of people. Then, get outside! Most native Americans made baskets for transporting and holding food, water, and other items. Can you figure out a way to make a basket using just what you find outside (sticks, mud, grass, leaves, etc.)? Do your best and then see if you can actually use it to transport anything! Finally, think about how it would be if you had to make all of your own bags and baskets! Connect to today: can you find a way to make your own bags or baskets to avoid using environmentally unfriendly items?

Summer Activity #6: Immigration. Can you find anyone in your family history who immigrated to the United States from another country? Summer is a great time to talk to relatives! Make a list of relatives that might know about your family history. Call them and ask them about those that came before you. See if you can make a family tree and include the dates your relatives were born, the dates they died, and where they came from. Share the final document with anyone who helped you on the project.

If possible, pick one family member who was an immigrant and do some research. You can talk to relatives, research reasons for immigration during that time period, and read books about immigration from that country. Why did your relative immigrate? How did it change their life? Would you have done the same thing?

Then, learn about what it is like for people to immigrate today. Ask your friends and parents to put you in touch with an immigrant and ask them why they came, what they think of the U.S., and any other questions you can think of. How might the experience of today connect with the experience your relatives might have had?

Summer Activity #7: The Civil War. There are so many great resources out there for learning about the Civil War. Read a few books. Watch a movie or two. Then, put it into action by making hard tack. Try to eat it for lunch (or only eat hard tack all day). Can you imagine getting by on this meal for days on end? While cold? Sick? Fighting a war?

Summer Activity #8: Industrialization Learn about industrialization in America here and then see if you can find a chore or job to “industrialize” in your home. Can you make tacos for dinner and create an assembly line with your family members to make them? Can you mechanize the way you make your bed? Can you invent a machine to sort the laundry?

Summer Activity #9 World War I: Read a book about World War I and then participate in an online graphic activity about trench warfare. Discuss the challenges of trench warfare for the average soldier with a family member.

Summer Activity #10 The Roaring Twenties: The roaring twenties were a time to celebrate for many Americans. Read about this time period and then learn how to dance the Charleston. If you can, host a “Roaring Twenties” party and encourage people to dress up as flappers while you dance the night (or afternoon) away!

Summer Activity #11 The Great Depression: After Black Friday, the Great Depression challenged the USA like never before. With one out of every four Americans unemployed, families struggled to feed, house, and clothe their families. Read about this time period and then write up a plan for what your family would do if everyone lost their jobs and couldn’t get another one for a year.

Summer Activity #12 World War II There is so much to learn about World War II but here we will focus on the home front. What was life like for those in the U.S. during the war? Look at these posters and then create one of your own.

Summer Activity #13 Civil Rights Our country is still working on civil rights, but we all should know about Martin Luther King, Jr., and his speech, “I have a Dream.” Watch the speech and then tell someone what it means to you.

Summer Activity #14 (Final) The Cold War Communism and Capitalism. What do those mean? Look up the terms and then look for references to these terms in a newspaper or on online news sources. See if you can learn a little bit about the relationship between Russia and the United States today by reading the news. Compare with how it was during the Cold War. Compare and contrast with a parent or friend.

Learning about States and Capitals

We are back at our favorite site for learning about the States and Capitals! Washington DC is tourist central and a quick stroll along the National Mall will bring you face to face with important and moving memorials as well as a variety of license plates on cars parked along the borders.

We print off a map with each state listed (see below) and mark each state off that we find with a highlighter. The goal, of course, is to highlight the entire map. You can play this game during road trips, of course, but we like to do it while visiting historical sites. It’s great to see that people from all over our country congregate around the sites important to our history and our country.

As a bonus, we like to imagine what the people are like who come to visit our nation’s capital. We look at a minivan and imagine a family from Oregon visiting and marveling not just at the sites, but at the heavy heat and humidity pressing down on us in August. We wonder if the pickup truck from Ohio brought a farmer curious to visit the American history museum and look at the old farm equipment. It is stereotyping, of course, but a good way to learn about the different states. We carry our state and capital flashcards that we buy on Amazon to learn a little about each state and to help us think about the people who live there. We talk about these points when thinking about each state:

  1. What is the geography like in each state?
  2. How does the geography affect the way people live (entertainment options, livelihoods, transportation options, etc.)
  3. What are some of the notable historical events from the state?
  4. Who are some famous people from this state?
  5. What are some tourist sites in the state and what would we visit first given the chance?

There are many ways to weave conversations about the geography of our country into our learning. Being a tourist and visiting touristy spots are wonderful jumping off points for these discussions.

Bringing American History Alive

GeoWashington (1)My children and I spent a few hours walking slowly down a shallow creek in Ohio looking for arrowheads. We didn’t find any, but we talked a lot about the people who lived in the quiet suburban area a long time ago. We talked about how they felt the same breezes, walked the same paths, endured the same weather. We thought about how our clothes were different (materials, production, quantity) but similar in that they had to protect the wearer from the cold in winter and the mosquitoes in summer. We all agreed that those are challenges we probably shared. We talked about food sources, building materials, and potential conflicts with other groups. We found plenty we might have had in common with our ancient ancestors, even though so much has changed.

Kids love imagining what life was like a long time ago. It helps to be outside, to touch and hold and walk among the sights and smells of the present and the past. History teachers love books, but they also love active experiences. Here are five things we do when we have a “home history” lesson.

1.) Get outside! After reading about a topic we get out there and imagine what it might have been like for the topic we have been studying. For instance, if we are studying a war, we might go out and assess terrain and how hills, valleys, and vegetation might impact decisions made during a battle.

2.) Re-enact! Does your child love drama? We like to write short plays about a topic we have just learned about and then produce them. We find props and costumes in the house and then put on the play. As the mom/teacher, I’m usually the only member of the audience, but we film it and send it to grandparents as proof that we did it!

3.) Create! After learning about a nomadic culture, we went outside and tried to create a weatherproof structure that would keep us safe from bears and marauders throughout the night. (Full disclosure: these were imaginary threats, we actually live in a very safe area). We gathered sticks, clay (from the creek), and long grasses and made a rudimentary hut. The kids had a blast a new appreciation of how hard it is to create a shelter!

5.) Art! Using a visual representation of what has been learned is a great way to remember and think about major concepts. Kids can make a cartoon strip, paint a picture, or work together on a mural. We try to add as many details as possible about our topic and then teach someone about the topic by explaining our creation.

5.) Cook! Almost every time period you might study has recipes that can be found and recreated in the home. We had a great time making recipes from some of the food we read about or spotted on the pages of picture books while studying colonial times. We were easily able to find recipes and cook up treats for ourselves. We tried to do as much of the work as possible by ourselves. Food is a great way to talk about what was available and why, who did the work and why, and what it took for people to remain nourished and healthy during a specific time period.

American history is such a great way to be active, outdoors, and creative. Read a few awesome books and then DO!