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Seminar on Lit for Youth: History & Geography

Watch the video, then read the page. 

History and geography are two areas of literature for youth that are also closely tied to the K-12 school curriculum. However like the other sections of the nonfiction collection, it's important to seek out ways to encourage leisure reading.

Whether it's reading about the Viking or imagining travel to Antarctica, history and geography can be fascinating subjects when engaging, information-rich books can be located.

try itTry It!
Explore the Notable Tradebooks for Young People from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and Children's Book Council (CBC). Explore the 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010 lists. You can also find older lists. Keep in mind that not all of the books are works of nonfiction.

The Research

As librarians work with educators, think about the wide range of topics associated with a particular unit.

According to Halvorsen, Alleman and Brugar (2013), many areas of social studies blur the lines between disciplines. For instance, when exploring environmental issues the disciplines of history, geography, economics, and political science as well as science are involved. It's easy for new social studies content to get lost, so it's important to focus attention on specific literacy and content area skills. Rather than introducing new content at the same time as a literacy skill. Consider teaching reading skills when reviewing prior knowledge or when reinforcing key ideas.

Kristen Bowers (2012) suggests the following questions when addressing the standards using texts that address historical topics:

Beyond building reading skills, it's essential that children develop historical understanding. Involve readers in activities such as making timelines and concept maps that will help them connect what they are reading to prior knowledge and new content.

Read Hinton, KaaVonia; Suh, Younghee; O’Hearn, Maria; & Colon-Brown, Lourdes (March 2015). Fostering habits of mind: A framework for reading historical nonfiction illustrated by the case of Hitler Youth. Voices from the Middle, 23(3), 38-44. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Desai, Christina M. (2014). The Columbus myth: power and ideology in picture books about Christopher Columbus. Children’s Literature in Education, 45, 179-196. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Read Turner, Thomas N., Broemmel, Amy D., Wooten, Deborah A. (2004). History through many eyes: ten strategies for building understanding of time concepts with historical picture books. Childhood Education, 81(1), 20-24. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Implications for Librarians

chisolmMake books come alive by helping youth connect books with the real world. Develop displays and activities centered on history and geography topics. For instance, a bulletin board containing photographs of locations around the United States that can be placed on a map along with books associated with regions on a table display nearby. Turn the library hall into an interactive timeline mural. Involve readers in adding book covers photos to the timeline that represent titles they have read.

Combine history with music by playing jazz, bluegrass, or classical music. For instance, connect The Old Chisholm Trail: A Cowboy Song by Rosalyn Schanzer with old cowboy music.

Capitalize on the diversity reflected in your school and neighborhoods. Feature books that reflect the cultural heritage of local families.

Focus on questions challenging youth to use informational books to dispel myths or solve problems. What would you wear on a trip to Africa? What would you take in a suitcase if you were traveling on a ship to America in the 1910s?

passenger on the pearlBook Spotlight

PASSENGER ON THE PEARL by Winifred Conkling tells the true story of Emily Edmonson’s flight from slavery. The work of nonfiction for youth is an authentic portrayal of the heartbreaking reality of slavery. Readers are immediately immersed in the story as Emily and her sibling’s attempt to escape on a ship called the Pearl. After their unsuccessful quest for freedom, the story continues to follow Emily’s life in slavery as well as the plight of the abolitionists who planned the escape. Ultimately, Emily and her sister are freed, educated, and became abolitionists themselves. They even develop a friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The book includes a variety of compelling primary source documents including photographs, paintings, manifests, and posters that dramatically visualize the story. Graphic elements including maps, a timeline, and a family tree that help orient readers. The source notes, bibliography, and index are helpful to young researchers.

Focused fact sheets interwoven into the story help readers understand the laws and practical threats to slaves seeking freedom in the mid 19th century.

Conkling does a masterful job merging the real-world story of Emily with background information about the time period and specific events associated with the famous failed escape. The combination creates both empathy for the runaway slaves as well as an understanding of the context of the escape.

The National Park Service Underground Railroad Map provides a map showing hundreds of locations related to the Underground Railroad.

To learn more about author Winifred Conkling, go to

After reading this wonderful book for youth, some teens might be interested in a more in-depth examination of the attempted escape and the aftermath. Read ESCAPE ON THE PEARL (2007) by Mary Kay Ricks, a work of nonfiction for adults.


storyHistory is full of exciting events, intriguing people, and exotic places. Whether individuals are standing up for injustice or citizens are rallying for freedom, books bring these people, places, and times alive for youth.

Start with short stories about history. The American Story: 100 True Tales from American History (2006) by Jennifer Armstrong explores 100 stories from US history. Ask students to write about the people, places, and times they find the most interesting. This will help guide them to other works of history.

The BookNotes Educators Guide that goes with The American Story provide lots of ideas for using the title.

Works of history are often organized chronologically.

Visions of the Alamo by Sherry Garland combines history and geography by exploring the same location at different points in time.


Below are a few recent examples:

Historical Picture Books

Picture book histories are often found in the "picture book" or "easy" section making them difficult to browse. Be sure that when youth are exploring topics that they can find these easily. Boxes for Katje (2003) by Candace Fleming is an example.


Primary Source Documents

playOne of the keys to connecting youth with history books is selecting works that relate to the lives of young people.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America (2005) by Karen Blumenthal is a winner on two fronts. First, the book explores history in a meaningful way by using examples such as girl's sports that relate directly to child experiences.

Second, the book uses young people as examples showing many illustrations that reflect young faces.

Read the law at the National Center for Education Statistics. To learn more, go to the Title IX website.

Look for ways to connect clusters of primary source documents with works of nonfiction. Let's use Child Labor and the Progressive Era as an example. Begin with famous photographs and the books Breaker Boys and Kids at Work. View child labor through the eyes of children with Brave Girl and Kids on Strike!. Finally, consider adding in a work of historical fiction such as Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson.

Combined with these works, bring in primary source documents associated with child labor:


Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition (2011) by Karen Blumenthal explores the turbulent times related to moonshine and prohibition. Like many history books, this one lends itself to connections with the Common Core and primary source reading. The Teaching With Document: The Volstead Act and Related Prohibition Documents provides a great starting point for this connection. Other collections include Alcohol, Temperance & Prohibition from Brown University, and Brewing and Prohibition from Wisconsin Historical Society. Click the page image below right to see the full-page with the historical photograph. According to The Horn Book review for Bootleg, “The scope is ambitious, but Blumenthal investigates various tangents with telling anecdotes, quotes, statistics, photographs, and illustrations without losing her focus on the bigger picture."


Look for history from a youth perspective. For instance, Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg (2013) by Tanya Anderson tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl during the Battle of Gettysburg. Incorporating diary entries, readers get to experience what it was like to live through this event. The book includes historical photos, documents, and even a Google Earth activity.



Book Clusters

Particularly with history topics, it's important for youth to gain multiple perspectives through examining a number of sources. Encourage readers to take this approach to research. For instance, a youth exploring the Plains Indians might explore both picture books and chapter books.

For struggling readers, look for adaptations of adult books. For instance, Saga of the Sioux is an adaptation of the adult book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee often read in high school classrooms.


For reluctant learners, seek out meaningful connections. A child who doesn't like history might be hooked with a connection to horses of the plains. Try The Horse and the Plains Indians.

Below are a few examples that show the variety of books that might be organized into a book cluster.


Diversity in History Studies

As you purchase materials, be sure that you consider diversity.

For instance, Kadir Nelson is known for his African American works including Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011) and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006).

heart moses

American History

When working with children or teachers, seek out quality anchor texts that can serve as the starting point for research. Work your way through the "awards lists" and you'll find lots of examples. Some of the best have received the Robert F. Sibert Information Book Medal from the American Library Association. Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929 (2002) by Karen Blumenthal is an example.

six dayshenry

Look for historical narrative that will bring history alike. For instance, Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad (2007) by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson is an engaging true story of a slave who mails himself to freedom. Winner of the Jane Addams Peace Award, Coretta Scott King Award and Caldecott Honor Book Award, it provides a great starting point when talking with young children about slavery.

It's likely that you already have a number of books on popular American history events like the Underground Railroad, the California gold rush, and the Manhattan Project. However, it's useful to have a quality series available that provide a common background and layout for students on a topic. Series often share the same reading level providing a nice starting point for reading groups.

Stories in American History by Enslow is an example of a narrative history series that could provide the shared experience for students. Each book is set up in short chapters that contain a mixture of photographs, paintings, drawings, and maps. The books are clear and easily accessible to students.


World History

Take some time to carefully examine a collection. Does it meet the diverse needs of students, teachers, and parents? Rather than selecting the newest, hottest, and best reviewed books, also look for quality works that fit specific needs in the collection. For instance, it's likely that you have lots of books on ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece.

Examine the K-12 curriculum. Match new materials with specific instructional needs. For instance, Life in the Early Islamic World is a new series by Crabtree specifically designed to meet the needs of middle school learners. The series includes topics such as The Role of Religion; Trade and Commerce; Arts and Culture; Science, Medicine and Math; Early Islamic Empires; and Government and Law.


Current Events and History

Young people often don't seen connections between history and their own life. Using recent events, can help youth better understand both current events and history.

trappedWhen recommending books like Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert (2011) by Marc Aronson, provide websites containing primary source materials from the event. These are easy to find for recent events such as this mining disaster.

Use some of these online resources to connect to this recent event.

Graphic History

A growing number of graphic novel-style books are available with a nonfiction history theme.

Journey into Mohawk Country by George O'Connor is based on the diary of Harmen Meyndertsz van de Bogaert. It's fun to compare the graphic history to the primary source document. The image below right shows a student comparison.


tryTry It!
Go to the Macmillan website and browse the Journey into Mohawk Country graphic history. Also check out the original diary at Google Book Preview.


Geography is often associated with atlas, but there are many other types of geography books for youth to explore. Look for unique takes on the atlas. National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas: Maps, Games, Activities, and More for Hours of Backseat Fun by Crispin Boyer is a wonderful way to make geography fun and relevant.


In Mapping Penny's World (2000) by Loreen Leedy, Lisa and her dog Penny make a variety of different types of maps including a floor plan, bike path, neighborhood map, and even a treasure map.


Read Wasta, Stephanie (2010). Be my neighbor: exploring sense of place through children's literature. The Social Studies, 101(5), 189-193. Notice how geographic strategies are applied to children's literature. Apply this approach to other books in the library that have geographical themes. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Keep in mind that many public domain and open access sources provide books for free. For instance, Philip's Atlas of World History published in 2007 is available through the Archive website.


Bowers, Kristen (March 14, 2012). Attacking the Common Core Standards Informational Texts - Part 2: Historical Context. SecondarySolutions. Available

Desai, Christina M. (2014). The Columbus myth: power and ideology in picture books about Christopher Columbus. Children’s Literature in Education, 45, 179-196. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Halvorsen, Anne-Lise, Alleman, Janet, & Brugar, Kristy (2013). Integration of literacy into social studies. In B.M. Taylor & N.K. Duke (eds), Handbook of Effective Literary Instruction: Research-Based Practice K-8. Guilford Press.

Hinton, KaaVonia; Suh, Younghee; O’Hearn, Maria; & Colon-Brown, Lourdes (March 2015). Fostering habits of mind: A framework for reading historical nonfiction illustrated by the case of Hitler Youth. Voices from the Middle, 23(3), 38-44. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Turner, Thomas N., Broemmel, Amy D., Wooten, Deborah A. (2004). History through many eyes: ten strategies for building understanding of time concepts with historical picture books. Childhood Education, 81(1), 20-24. Available

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