A Gift Guide for Young Historians

The books that made scholars want to devote their future to examining the past.

Child and father reading together
In many cases, historians were most inspired by the stories that were also important to their parents, relatives, or friends.

Photo by Shutterstock/Everett Collection

As a middle-schooler, I was obsessed with a series of Time Life books called This Fabulous Century. Each volume covered a decade of 20th-century American history and was packed with photos, art, charts, and images from old newspapers. I used to open a few up on the floor, flipping quickly past the scary photo of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair and dwelling on the sections about college fads, Charlie Chaplin, and LBJ’s famous surgical scar.

This Fabulous Century is the source of my fascination with cultural history, which eventually led me to get a Ph.D. in American studies. (In retrospect, the books’ mix of photos and documents looks very much like the history blog I run for Slate, the Vault.) How can adults, looking to feed historical habits of mind, help kids they love get interested in thinking about the past? As gift-giving (and fireside-reading) season ramps up, I contacted some historians I admire and asked them what they remembered about their own youthful historical reading, hoping to reap some recommendations.

The main lesson I learned from their responses: Don’t confine younger readers to books that are meant “for kids,” or that are explicitly labeled “historical.” While some respondents remembered historically oriented kids’ books fondly, others cited adult nonfiction, memoir, and even collections of letters, all of which connected to their other interests in some way but weren’t explicitly billed as “kids’ history.” Still others came to historical interest sideways, finding history in encyclopedias or other “fact” books.

Among books that are actually meant for kids, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series scored several mentions. Megan Marshall, who read the books as a second-grader and later became a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer (Margaret Fuller: A New American Life), lauded Wilder’s “mastery of dramatic scene, character development, instruction on the minutia of daily life in the past, landscape description, cliff-hanger chapter endings,” all of which, she added, taught her “pretty much every skill a biographer needs.” Janet Davis, one of my dissertation advisers at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, loved the details: the crispy pig’s tail that the family eats, “wild animals, pets, and the family’s encounters with new technology.” (Just be ready to talk to young readers about the dated racial language and attitudes that pop up in some of the books.)

When picking other explicitly historical books for kids and young adults, look for stories that have rich period detail, like that pig’s tail. Victoria Cain, of Northeastern University and author (with Karen Rader) of Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century, called the Jean Fritz series on the American Revolution “a great example of how to write social history for everyone.” “Even as a second-grader,” Cain wrote, “I loved the details [Fritz] included: Sam Adams’ shaggy dog, Queue, snuffling around for plum cake, the portly, blue-eyed Adams trudging around the fishy docks of Boston, railing about the British.” (Here’s Fritz’s Early Thunder, which is still in print; other Fritz books are available used, if you search for them on Powell’s Books or Amazon.) I am too old to have had the pleasure of reading M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation at the correct early-high-school age (volume 1; volume 2), but that’s another example of historical fiction written for younger people that is richly evocative in its representation of the interiors, clothing, bodies, and landscapes of a previous time.

Now let’s leave the confines of historical books for kids and enter more counterintuitive territory. Consider getting your young reader some primary sources related to something they already like: a historical period, a country, or a writer. “I had a whole crazy rule about having to read everything written by a writer I loved, including things like collections of letters,” Jill Lepore, historian at Harvard University, staff writer for The New Yorker, and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, wrote. “I have a very strong memory of the day The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell finally arrived from interlibrary loan—I must have been about eleven. I remember reading it in my sister’s closet, which was a good place if you were looking for quiet, and to hide.”

Like letters, memoirs offer the thrill of a firsthand encounter with a voice from the past. Robin Fleming, of Boston College, author of Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 and a 2013 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, remembered reading I Married Adventure, by the explorer, photographer, and filmmaker Osa Johnson. Though, like the Little House series, the book’s racial attitudes merit some discussion, Fleming wrote that reading it “gave me a real sense that the world of the 1920s was entirely different from the world of the 1960s.” Tara Zahra, of the University of Chicago, remembered Emma Macalik Butterworth’s YA-grade memoir As the Waltz Was Ending, about a young ballerina with the Vienna State Opera who lived through World War II in Austria. (Zahra received a 2014 MacArthur “genius” grant, and has written about young people’s experiences in Europe after WWII in her book The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families After World War II.)

If memoirs have a taste of real life to them, encyclopedias offer the appeal of total knowledge, and a rudimentary experience of research. Kevin Birmingham’s family had a Random House Encyclopedia, published in 1983, and he recalled looking at it to sate his curiosity about random topics—“the Civil War or Knute Rockne.” Birmingham, instructor in the Harvard College Writing Program and author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, found himself skipping from entry to entry:

The investigation was never over, and after hopping along from one topic to the next you’d have to pause for a second to figure out how you got from Shiloh to Khufu and wonder if maybe they really were connected by one of history’s subterranean corridors and that you, as an eleven-year-old, had the great luck of discovering it.

For kids living in the age of tablets and smartphones, printed encyclopedias might seem like a strange choice. But the tactile nature of printed sets was important to the historians I queried; the encyclopedia, as it sat impressively on family bookshelves, offered the promise of authoritative knowledge, while remaining (unlike the Internet) reassuringly finite. Some companies still publish children’s encyclopedias in print (DK Publishing’s New Children’s Encyclopedia is well-reviewed), but a vintage set is also an intriguing option, even if entries on topics like genetics, space travel, or Bill Clinton are non-existent or out-of-date.

Some respondents remembered getting swept up in complete histories of a topic. Amy Offner, of the University of Pennsylvania, liked E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a narrative account of art history from its beginning through the middle of the 20th century. Jack Hamilton, of the University of Virginia (and Slate’s pop critic), remembered loving V.M. Hillyer’s A Child’s History of the World, which was first published in 1924. “It introduced me to the idea that history could be narrative,” Hamilton wrote. “When you’re a kid you’re so drawn to stories, and it was the first time I was aware that things from REAL LIFE could be made into stories.” While Hillyer’s work is now somewhat out-of-date, an alternative like Neil Grant’s Oxford Children’s History of the World might make a similar impression on a young mind.

Good explanatory books about technology and science often contain history in them, and more than one historian remembered coming to historical fascination through an initial interest in STEM. Peter Shulman, now a historian of technology at Case Western Reserve University (and author of the forthcoming book Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America) remembered being “obsessed” with David Macaulay’s Castle when he was 9 or 10. “It wasn’t just about a building, but the process of its construction. It was about why a thirteenth-century lord would want to build a castle at all,” Shulman explained. Dan Cohen, now a historian of science and the director of the Digital Public Library of America, liked Arkady Leokum’s Tell Me Why series, which mixed science, technology, and history. He remembered questions like, “Where did glasses come from? What’s the history of kites? How did water flow through Ancient Rome?” History told this way, Cohen said, was “more immediately engaging [than] more standard histories of countries or events.”

More than one historian remembered loving works of journalistic nonfiction while in middle and high school. In this vein, Erika Milam (of Princeton University, and author of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology) recommended Hedrick Smith’s The Russians, a journalistic account of Russian life in the early 1970s. Michael Gordin, also of Princeton (and author of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe), remembered Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men.

Matthew Pratt Guterl read his father’s copy of A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan’s biography of Vietnam-era Army adviser John Paul Vann. Guterl, professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University and author of Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe, wrote that his family, which had adopted a Vietnamese orphan, was very conscious of the ongoing legacy of the war. More than that, the book’s tale of moral struggle felt uniquely suited to Guterl’s own adolescent experience: 

[The book] beckoned to me for months before I actually had the courage to read it. The title was so damned enigmatic. And what I found, after opening it up, was a portrait of a man—and a nation at war—so broken, so troubling, so impossible to understand. Except, perhaps, to a teenager.

Yoni Appelbaum’s brother gave him J. Anthony Lukas’ book about busing and school desegregation in Boston, Common Ground, when he was in junior high. Appelbaum, now a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard (and a correspondent for the Atlantic), wrote that Lukas’ work offered “no easy answers, no satisfying resolutions, just the messy contradictions of actual lives.” Like Guterl, Appelbaum found connection in the book’s relevance to his surroundings; after growing up in Boston, he wrote, reading the book “changed the way I viewed my city, rendering the spatial geography of privilege disturbingly clear.” 

Here’s one final approach to historical gift giving, for the budget-conscious or connection-minded: Marcus Rediker, of the University of Pittsburgh (and author, most recently, of Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail), wrote that he remembered “not a history book but a story about a piece of history, which was as close to books as my Southern working-class family got.”

Rediker’s grandfather, Fred Robertson, “a Kentucky coal miner and master storyteller,” sat at the family’s kitchen table, “Lucky Strike cigarette in one hand and a cup of Maxwell House coffee in the other.” Rediker, 10 years old, listened as Robertson told the tale of a “vigilante hanging” in Beech Creek, Kentucky.

I’m not sure why the man was hanged, nor whether he was black or white. I don’t know if [my grandfather] told me. I do remember my mother entering the kitchen wondering whether I should be hearing this. My grandfather carried on, describing a wild and terrifying struggle, the crowd cheering as the legs of the man flailed and his eyes popped out. His sympathy was clearly with the victim, whose deadly ordeal he had made nightmarishly real.

Rediker’s tale reinforces a final lesson I learned from this exercise: In many cases, historians were most inspired by the stories that were also important to their parents, relatives, or friends. Give a kid a book this holiday season; then, give her some of your time to talk about it.   

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