How can I educate my kids with a balanced view of American History?
September 18, 2006 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I have a daughter who is 7, and I want to give her an even picture of American History.

I don't want it to be whitewashed patriotism, but I also don't want her to have a complete anti-American view either. Mostly I want her to be aware of the great flaws and accomplishments that have made up America. Bonus points if the books explain huge world concepts like imperialism, labor movements, communism, sweat shops, slavery in realistic but simple terms.

Anyone know of books appropriate for kids that can be balanced like this?
posted by visual mechanic to Education (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Um. Most US History books for jr. high-high school aged kids (relatively unbiasedly) and accurately portray the concepts you describe. Otherwise, I don't think I'd know about them.

Check for home-school supply places for history textbooks? They have pictures and charts!
posted by disillusioned at 7:26 PM on September 18, 2006

I don't think you're going to find what you want with any kind of formal textbook. History text books are a complete crock; between satisfying certain state book-acquisition committees and making sure that every single state gets mentioned approvingly and recent bowdlerization in other ways as well as decades of pressure from various interest groups, the story they tell bears only a passing resemblance to what really happened.

I think the only way you'd find anything reasonable is to rely on books for adults -- but that's probably too advanced for a 7 year old.

Regarding the American Revolution, here's my recommendation.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:33 PM on September 18, 2006

disillusioned writes "Most US History books for jr. high-high school aged kids (relatively unbiasedly) and accurately portray the concepts you describe."

It's been some years since high school, so maybe things have changed, but do they really cover stuff like the Philippine-American War, and US atrocities therein? I know they give some paragraphs to Nat Turner and maybe to Joe McCarthy, but what about Mitchell Palmer, the popularity of the Klan in the '20s (think Hugo Black), and the Pinkerton and other company men repressing miners? Vietnam and Nixon and Watergate were probably too recent to hit my Jr High texts in any great detail; are they covered in today's texts?

I've got a BA in American History, and I'll admit that the Philippine-American War is something that barely surfaced in my consciousness until a few years ago.
posted by orthogonality at 7:39 PM on September 18, 2006

Best answer: It's a little pricey, but I'd recommend this eleven-volume set by Joy Hakim.
posted by mattbucher at 7:40 PM on September 18, 2006

I think there's a risk when trying to educate your kids about American History that, in an effort to be politically correct and with the times you unfortunately saddle your kids with a complete distrust in the idea of Democracy in general because some of its codifiers were actually asses in real life.

What I would recommend is probably going to be shot down, but for a daughter that is still that young, I'd suggest some classical arch-type-of-American fiction like Johnny Tremain or Caddie Woodlawn. Young children can relate better to stories than technical concepts. When she gets older, you might want to recommend Catch-22 or 1984 to build up that healthy skepticism. If you can do this at around age 13 you'll be golden. :)

For more specific concepts, I'd actually suggest TV over books (forgive me father). Just my tupence.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:40 PM on September 18, 2006

Response by poster: I think there's a risk when trying to educate your kids about American History that, in an effort to be politically correct and with the times you unfortunately saddle your kids with a complete distrust in the idea of Democracy in general because some of its codifiers were actually asses in real life.

I agree, which is why I was asking for more balanced views. I'm not interested in just political correctness. I want her to be proud of what there is to be proud of, but aware that the nation is far from perfect. I know I could read A People's History of the United States, which I love. . . but I want something to balance those views out, or something with a more balanced view.
posted by visual mechanic at 7:48 PM on September 18, 2006

Seven years old?

Hmmmm . . . maybe you could relegate the textbooks to a secondary role, almost like a reference book, and focus on the primary texts -- political cartoons, speeches, war diaries, broadcasts, letters . . .

(For when she's older. I have no kids myself and don't know what seven year olds would like.)

And I'd like to echo what others have said about textbooks. Textbooks are so watered-down and usually not very helpful.

But I congratulate you for wanting to give your daughter a balanced perspective on American history.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:00 PM on September 18, 2006

I found "American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World" by David Stannard to be an interesting adult read.

It's totally inappropriate for her, but great for folks who harbor the fantasy that Europeans 'civilized' this place.

History is written by the victors, usually, so whitewash is the norm. This book explores the seedier aspects of a few centuries of rampant exploitation and genocide.

It makes it harder for me to look at those tiny patches of "Indian" reservations pepperred all over the USA and ignore what they represent.

Truly, I don't for a minute advocate it for your little daughter, but an awareness of the cost of our domination of the hemisphere seems a good thing to keep in mind when interpreting some of the various things that come up in ongoing discussions between you and your child.
posted by FauxScot at 8:09 PM on September 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about for a seven-year old but Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States seems like the perspective you're looking for. It is quite readable too. I think that if she's interested in reading it, it's possibly only a few years away.
posted by winston at 8:23 PM on September 18, 2006

The big thing to include is American Imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. The long US history of repeatedly occupying the Phillipines, for example. Particularly, though, the long history of the US using troops to support or even occupy Central American and South American countries, often at the behest of US-owned fruit growers. It is really this particular history that is most opposite to "guys in the white hats coming to the rescue" view of the US that dominates public school history courses and that, therefore, children most need to know along with all the good things.

But a lot of stuff you can tell them as additional information when they learn it in school.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:31 PM on September 18, 2006

Young children can relate better to stories than technical concepts.

I second this. Everything by Mark Twain.

And good job being a responsible parent and taking charge of her education - your kid doesn't know how lucky she is!
posted by wfrgms at 8:32 PM on September 18, 2006

One thing I remember my parents doing when they clearly didn't agree with things I was learning as an elementary schooler (obvious now, not then) was to point out that I'd be learning much more about X topic when I got older. They didn't whip out the Trail of Tears info, but they just kind of casually suggested that there may be more to this whole Native Americans v. settlers issue than my 4th grade textbook was letting on.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:37 PM on September 18, 2006

It's been some years since high school, so maybe things have changed, but do they really cover stuff like the Philippine-American War, and US atrocities therein?

Oh, man, yes, orthagonality. I graduated from a rural, conservative-area high school in 2004, and I can't tell you how long we spent learning about how horrible American forces were there (and in general). Vietnam, Nixon, and Watergate are covered in all the history texts I saw -- some books even had official stapled-in updates that covered the 2000 election. Teachers didn't usually get to the '70s or '80s unless they were really hurrying, though. The Cuban missile crisis, JFK assassination, and a ton on civil rights tend to be the last things that get covered, in my experience. Actually, civil rights tends to get covered twice, because it's all you do in February, and then you do it again when it comes up chronologically.

visual mechanic, I'd check out some standard texts. I know when I was in about second grade, we were already doing a ton on how horrible Columbus was. If you read through her textbooks, you may be pleasantly surprised by how up-to-date they are.

I don't think you'll find one perfect book, though. Probably you'll need, say, one book on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, one book on scientific discoveries of the period, and so on. Give her lots of separate conflicting sources, and encourage her to form her own opinions -- and don't be shocked if they're different from yours.

One easy way to get her interested in history is with fiction, like Caddie Woodlawn, the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, and so on. I know Ann Rinaldi is a big name in kids' historical fiction about America. If you go for stuff that was written awhile ago, like Mark Twain or Uncle Josh (Cal Stewart) or Robert W. Service, I think you'll both get more out of it if you read aloud to her, so she can ask questions as you go.
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:47 PM on September 18, 2006

Museums, especially some of the newer, well-designed interactive learning exhibits, can be great for this. Come up to Philly and take her to the National Constitution Center. Head down to DC and take her to the Newseum.

Latch on to whatever aspect of history fascinates her right now and help her develop an interest in critical reading on that topic (which will lead to interests in related topics...but I think most people have a jumping-off point that started them thinking.)
posted by desuetude at 8:54 PM on September 18, 2006

Best answer: I second the Hakim A History of US texts, though the reading level would be too high for most 7 year olds. I've used it in my classroom, and value it for precisely the balance between accomplishments and flaws you mention. It's well-written and readable (in some places it can even be read aloud), frequently conversational in tone.

The drawback of the texts is the coherence of the narrative - in order to make the presentation more compelling, there are many anecdotes and side trails, and kids have difficult separating the important historical trends from the window dressing. It's not so much "fluff" as it is an attempt to set the scene and provide context, but it can be distracting for learners trying to discern the main thread.

It does, however, treat complicated topics in a balanced and understandable way, and covers many things that were certainly not a part of my school history experience.

Assuming your daughter is not yet capable of reading history textbooks, I'd suggest starting with historical fiction. Try for a balance between simpler texts she can read on her own and more complex ones you read to her, and use both as a springboard for discussion. You can highlight the balance yourself in those discussions, asking questions and building their sense of complexity (that the world isn't divided into good guys and bad guys, that situations can be complicated). I'm blanking on good historical fiction because it's late, but Tituba of Salem Village is one example. The historical fiction will also let you build understanding of other times and places, so that they become more concrete in your daughter's mind.

Once your daughter is able to read (or be read) something like the Hakim texts, you can give that kind of history learning a whirl. Supplementing those texts with your own take on the narrative will keep it coherent. Use primary sources where you can - some of the language in primary sources can be hard for young people to parse.

Above all else, don't force it. The most important way you can teach your daughter about history is to talk with her about it, and if it becomes a chore the conversation stops or switches to "how many more minutes do I have to read?" If it's an adventure, if your daughter looks forward to the next field trip you and she take together to see some historical place, if she sees you care about it and wants to find out the next chapter in the grand "story" you're introducing her to, you'll stand a good chance of building not just a balanced view, but a lifelong interest in history.
posted by Chanther at 8:55 PM on September 18, 2006

I'll second booksandlibretti - I graduated high school in 2001, and had a reasonable sense of balance regarding the US, and I came out of a rather conservative Catholic school. (Should we assume your daughter is going to public school?)

Maybe I was a bit capricious, but I really enjoyed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee toward 7th or 8th grade. Kids are kids, but they tend to be able to understand more than adults really remember.
posted by wandering steve at 9:08 PM on September 18, 2006

The ancient method of teaching history to children is through biography. Look for illustrated books of famous historical figures, from Abe Lincoln to Ruby Bridges. Biography can teach character as well.

Some classics, like Johnny Tremain, are great. But others are tricky. I have been reading my 7-year-old Little House on the Prairie. He was fascinated by the rich texture of pioneer life. But I was appalled at the racist portrayals of Indians, to the point where I skipped over and bowdlerized some passages.

History is written by the victors, usually, so whitewash is the norm.

Oh nonsense.
posted by LarryC at 9:12 PM on September 18, 2006

One thing that is important to remember when augmenting your child's education, is that the child has to succeed in school, for personal and social reasons, as well as educational ones. Information you might present that is in sharp contrast to other information being presented as facts in the school's approved curriculum sets up a conflict for the child, that can work against them in school situations, if they regurgitate facts you taught them, that are in conflict with what the school expects them to retain.

School: "Columbus discovered America in 1492."
You: "Lief Erickson, and perhaps Eric the Red visited what we now call New England, in the 10th century."
Kid: "Vikings discovered America."
Grade: ???

Work with the curriculum your kid is being taught. Work on math, spelling, science, behavior and sports, as well as history. Around 7th and 8th grade, if you've done a good job by then, your kid will have a much greater capacity for resolving your opinions about history, with facts learned in school. But, the kid may just not care all that much.
posted by paulsc at 9:35 PM on September 18, 2006

A friend got to read A Peoples History of the United States in high school and it changed them forever. They got an entire schooling of the typical whitewashed history, then they got the opposite from the Peoples History (which stresses American atrocity and how the lower class fares in all our wars).

I'd say give them the Peoples History when they're old enough to judge it for themselves. I actually listened to the audio version, which is abridged and read by Matt Damon for some odd reason, but it was still quite compelling and worth giving a listen to (I wouldn't say it transformed me or that I'm suddenly a skeptic, but I had no idea about how bad the US' adventures in the Philippines and Vietnam were)
posted by mathowie at 9:51 PM on September 18, 2006

Your daughter may be a little young to fully understand the kind of nuance you wish to impart. She may accept that there is more than one side to any story, but she'll still want you to tell her which one is right.
posted by kindall at 10:13 PM on September 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Historical fiction, seconded. (By a senior history major in college, no less.)
Either have her read it on her own, or do it with her as a read-aloud.
Particularly the following --
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
Anything by Scott O'Dell - Island of the Blue Dolphins
The Black Pearl, Zia, My Name is Not Angelica (great! story of slavery in America)
- and then just let her roll along from there. Unless you're homeschooling her, don't make her read textbooks at home.

When she's older, like 8th grade-10th grade, throw her The American Pageant by Thomas Bailey and David Kennedy, the most recent edition that you can find. It's a good time, easy to read.
Don't Know Much About American History by Kenneth C. Davis is fun too.
posted by lilithim at 11:03 PM on September 18, 2006

This thread includes a number of history reccomendations.
posted by gsteff at 11:36 PM on September 18, 2006

My American History lecturer swore by the fact that everything in American History could be explained with reference to The Simpsons.

Example: the Civil War.
In the episode where Apu has his oral citizenship exam:

Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--
Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

posted by cholly at 1:30 AM on September 19, 2006

A great book for you would be Lies My Teacher Told Me which discusses myths and inaccuracies propagated by American school history textbooks. I'm sure it's not really accessible for a elementary or middle school child, but it could be helpful to you as you discuss the issues and think about what's brought up in the books she reads.
posted by grouse at 2:29 AM on September 19, 2006

I taught American History last year to high school juniors. I basicly taught a dumbed down version of Zinn's A People's History of the United States mixed in with my own knowledge of more current events. I made sure they read the first chapter about the Arawak.

Towards the end of the year, the kids were getting a bit too anti-patriotic. I overkilled it trying to balance the "old white man" stories they grew up on. The largely Republican class was sounding like a bunch of half-wit liberal intellectuals dismissing anything and everything as either genocidal or only helping the moneyed elite.

I did my best the last few weeks of class convincing them that every country has horrors in it's past. Every ethnicity, nation, and tribe is painted in historical blood and often the common people were as much to blame as the rulers. Their ancestors ran out a weaker people and stole their land. One people smit another. Every border has been outlined because of by war.

Zinn said it best when he said there is no use in being angered or moved by historical atrocities... we have only so much anger in us and we must focus it on the present to make a better future.
posted by trinarian at 3:38 AM on September 19, 2006

Best answer: look, all great suggestions here, but your question's keyword is "7 year old". she's way too young for most resources (all excellent) that have been mentioned here.

I'd use characters. Washington. Jefferson. Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt. FDR. Kennedy. and so forth. history through characters. use lots of anecdotes. no need to whitewash. tell her that Lincoln was a great man, but not the saint many historians say he was. mention FDR's greatness, but his flaws too (his ruthlessness, his thirst for a power that exceeded the presidency's) -- even the savior of the Republic was a deeply flawed man. same for LBJ -- he demolished segregation, finishing Lincoln's work, but he also sent Americans to slaughter in a war he knew he couldn't win.

tell her American history thru characters, ie thru President's lives. she'll love this. all American history, in a way, is the history of her Presidents.

when she's older (say, 12) she can start reading more advanced material. history is fun. make it fun, with lots of anecdotes.

and please, tell her that the cherry tree story is a legend -- better yet, it's a lie that tells a spiritual truth
posted by matteo at 4:03 AM on September 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Winston is right ... use Howard Zinn.
posted by R. Mutt at 5:02 AM on September 19, 2006

I remember around that age, perhaps older, reading Don't Know Much About History. In grade school we learned about robber barons and all the bad things that came with our country. I do not believe the glossy 1950s view of history is widely used at good schools anymore.
posted by geoff. at 5:50 AM on September 19, 2006

Best answer: Will everybody shut the fuck up about Howard Zinn? Jesus, any thread about history gets fifteen recommendations for Howard Zinn: "Well, those last fourteen guys said to read Zinn, but I'd better add my vote just to make sure!" Here, let me point out what the poster already said:

I know I could read A People's History of the United States, which I love. . . but I want something to balance those views out

OK? Also, remember this kid is seven years old. As usual, matteo is on the money: stories are far more effective than formal history at that age. Me, I'd emphasize the lives of people other than presidents, but as long as you're telling her good, human stories about history, she'll be intrigued and hopefully keep her interest no matter how school works to destroy it.
posted by languagehat at 6:07 AM on September 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Adbusters' Hope and Memory (Flash; slightly loud intro music) is a good Zinn-style timeline.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:39 AM on September 19, 2006

When I was seven, I really liked the story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and probably read about ten books about it.
But I had no friends. Maybe you don't want that for your daughter.
posted by klangklangston at 6:44 AM on September 19, 2006

One thing that is important to remember when augmenting your child's education, is that the child has to succeed in school, for personal and social reasons, as well as educational ones.

I got in trouble in 7th grade for questioning my teacher's statment that the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra was "an African American"

If your child goes to a public school, do not fool yourself into thinking she won't have to deal with this. Teachers generally aren't out to indoctrinate your kids, that assumes they know/care enough. Most of them are just idiots.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:47 AM on September 19, 2006

I got in trouble in 7th grade for questioning my teacher's statment that the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra was "an African American"

Wow. That's so mindbogglingly stupid your parents should have transferred you immediately and sued the school for malpractice.

posted by languagehat at 7:07 AM on September 19, 2006

I also think seven is probably too young to understand all of the complexities of our history.

The book I'd recommend is Alistair Cooke's America. It's not thorough, but it is a fairly well balanced, fairly easy read.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:19 AM on September 19, 2006

Best answer: I never could have planned this, but when my daughter was about 7 (she's almost 10 now), I took her out to the front porch to look at beautiful full moon. She loved being up past her bedtime, and something got me telling her my horribly mis-remembered version of Mark Twain's "Puddin' Head Wilson."

She asked questions about everything and I did my best to explain (the South, Mark Twain, crime, slavery).

Now, every once in a while, she'll ask to go out on the porch and hear an "olden days story." We've covered Julius Caesar through Martin Luther King (Junior).

Most of what I tell her is wrong, but the whole process is delightful. She asks questions, including lots of "but why," and I get to tax my memory coming up with historical tidbits and she gets to steer the story in any direction she chooses.

The same stories come up every once in a while, but she'll ask different questions and create her own version of what's right and wrong (which changes for her too).

I'm not trying to sound corny here, and I recognize that the main thrill for her is staying up late and the main thrill for me is just spending some quiet time on the porch with my darling daughter, but, in light of the current question, I think that it has been a great way for her to casually absorb a lot nuggets of history, in a completely low-stakes way, allowing her to mull and consider.

You might try turning the tables, too. Ask her what she already knows about a certain subject. The 7-year-old perspective might change your mind about some things!
posted by largecorp at 8:12 AM on September 19, 2006

all these book recommendations aside, the biggest hurdle is trying to explain/educate your daughter about historionics and the idea that history is completely subjective--i sure as hell had a problem grasping that when i was seven.
posted by markovitch at 8:26 AM on September 19, 2006

History is no more subjective than anything else is. Everything we know about everything is essentially knowledge about the past. History as a subject matter is somewhat more remote from immediate experience than other things, but it's not the case that it lies across some huge chasm.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:32 AM on September 19, 2006

This site covers all the reasons most people hate america. It could come in handy.
posted by chunking express at 8:45 AM on September 19, 2006

Response by poster: Hi all, thanks for the great suggestions.

To answer a couple of the questions and concerns. She's in a private school where the second session of the day is grammar / reading and history. She's having a very hard time with the length of the day, being a young 7, so we're just sending her to the first half and have decided that we can teach her these things on our own at home.

She already has been fascinated with slavery, labor unions and the labor movement (listening to music by Phil Ochs got her asking about that one), civil rights, on her own accord so I'm confident she will be able absorb some of the complexity based on her natural curiousity. It's not that I've felt ill-equipped so far, but I just want a collection of good source material for her as we learn this stuff together.

About the "school indoctrinates you" and getting a question wrong if it's asking about Columbus and she says "Vikings" concern. I agree, that's a valid worry.

I would hope that when learning all this we could also learn, "Most people think this, and this is why. . ." so she would know to ask the teacher whether the answer they are looking for is Columbus or the Vikings. (C'mon, what kind of teacher wouldn't be impressed by that question).
posted by visual mechanic at 9:10 AM on September 19, 2006

Lots of great suggestions here. I'll add in a little. This is obviously self-linking, but (I feel) totally appropriate.

I work for a publishing house (Peace Hill Press) whose core series is historical juvenile nonfiction — history as a narrative — called The Story of the World. It's written for students in grades 1–8 / ages 5–13. It tells world history, chronologically, in four volumes. Briefly, Volume 1 covers Ancient Times, Volume 2, The Middle Ages, Volume 3, Early Modern Times, and Volume 4, The Modern Age. It's written by a professor at William & Mary, who is now one volume in on a four-volume narrative history of the world for adults, to be published by W.W. Norton (development blog here).

Although I don't think the Story of the World is as progressive as you'd like, you might do well to consider it, either as a "spine" for study, or as supplemental reading. To give some relevant examples ...

Here's an excerpt of a review of Volume 3: The book doesn't pull any punches. For example in the very first chapter, while talking about all the gold and silver Spain was getting from the New World, we're shown the living conditions of young children working down in the mines. The book doesn't go into graphic detail, but it does mention the warts of history, times and places where evil things happened.

And an excerpt from a review of Volume 4: Be warned, in many ways this is a sad book, it focuses mainly on the wars, revolutions, and civil strife over the last 150 years. This is probably its biggest weakness. The book makes little mention of positive things that have happened over the last 150 years. Most of the discussions of changes in technology, business, or other areas of life have to do with how the changes affected war.

I'd be happy to e-mail you some PDFs of sample chapters, if you'd like. The "search inside the book" PDFs at Amazon are from a long time ago, and the production values have drastically improved.
posted by Alt F4 at 10:01 AM on September 19, 2006

When I was a young girl what I would really have loved is to learn more about women throughout American History. I would say that's the main problem with matteo's suggestion: all the presidents of the US (so far) have been men. So yes, teach her about Lincoln, but also teach her about Abigail Adams, or Harriet Tubman, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or the women's suffrage movement, etc. You may have to dig a little deeper to get the information, but if she can see women's contribution throughout the history of the US, she'll be more likely to see herself as an active citizen in the future.
posted by witchstone at 10:01 AM on September 19, 2006

Oh yeah, and consider the Cartoon History of the Universe. Totally awesome and worth reading, and can be enjoyed by anyone. Mostly global history, but worthwhile and even-handed. The author is better known as a historian than as an artist (I even ended up citing him in an academic paper without realizing who he was... Only later did I figure out "Oh, THAT Larry Gonnick!"), and the text is conversational and well-rendered. Fun for adults too.
posted by klangklangston at 10:40 AM on September 19, 2006

There's a glowing review of the Joy Hakim series in the New York Review of Books.
... The books, written by Joy Hakim, an independent writer and grandmother from Virginia, are a refreshing exception in the otherwise bleak textbook scene. A former schoolteacher and journalist, Hakim was appalled by the dullness of the textbooks she saw and decided she could do a better job herself. As she began writing her first book, she tested it on children at a local Virginia elementary school and she paid them to comment on her manuscript, marking passages that were interesting, dull, or unclear.

Even though she was only circulating computer printouts, other classes that were using regular textbooks began asking to use her book. While virtually all the other textbooks are written by committees in as neutral a tone as possible, and do little more than present a series of events, dates, and people, Hakim tried to make story-telling central to her work. Her books have a distinctive personal voice and are enjoyable to read. They have been praised by, among many others, cultural conservatives such as Lynne Cheney, back-to-basics educators such as Diane Ravitch, liberal teachers in inner-city schools, and prominent professional historians. ("I was impressed by the accuracy and the depth of her research," said James McPherson, a professor of American history at Princeton University.) And while Hakim's books contain more of the traditional subjects of American history than others, they also include more about women and minorities. In this respect, McPherson told me, "I thought her book did a good job of inclusiveness without being obtrusive."

It is not politics, however, that sets A History of US apart, it is its prose. Hakim believes in the value of narrative history for children. She was impressed by a study showing that children retained far more of what they read when the texts were written by professional writers rather than education specialists. Three pairs of writers—composition instructors, linguists, and Time-Life journalists—were all asked to rewrite the same passages from a widely used history textbook. The texts by the education specialists produced no improvement in students' comprehension, while students retained 40 percent more from the passages written by the two professional journalists.
The article ("The Betrayal of History," by Alexander Stille) also has some interesting comments about the current sad state of American history textbooks.
"In trying to avoid anything that might be offensive to either the left or the right, we were reduced to producing totally bland, middle-of-the-road pabulum," says one Macmillan/McGraw-Hill editor who, unsurprisingly, was not eager to be identified. ...

Many of the changes urged by this or that pressure group can be justified and defended, but the overall result is what has been aptly called a "conspiracy of good intentions"; the need to please or not offend every possible constituency has paralyzed textbook writers. Each paragraph is a carefully negotiated compromise, making it virtually impossible for a textbook to have a distinctive voice, not to mention humor, moral outrage, or evocative prose.

"It is a process that is destined to produce a dumbed-down product," says Byron Hollinshead, the head of American Historical Publications, and formerly president of American Heritage and Oxford University Press. "The Harvard Education Letter," he told me, "once compared textbooks to pet food. Pet food is not really concocted for pets, it's meant to appeal to pet owners. Textbooks are not written for children, they are written for textbook committees who flip through them to make sure they have the right ethnic balance and the proper buzz words."
posted by russilwvong at 11:43 AM on September 19, 2006

Best answer: When I was a year or two older than she is, I read Roll of Thunder, hear my cry and the sequel, Let the circle be unbroken - I was a white kid in 1980s Toronto, but I learned what it was like to be a black child in 1930s Mississippi. Though it is all understandable to a child, there is certainly no whitewashing of the history.

Novels are an excellent way into history - and they are much less politically frought than history books. As a child, I read novels about the Taiping rebellion (I liked it better than the reviewer), puppeteers and noble girls in pre-modern Japan (I really liked Katherine Patterson), medieval Britain (Ransom for a knight (1956), suprisingly accurate and not fantasy'd up), the American south, the American Civil War (albeit, a Canadian view). I also read The Winged Watchman, about the occupation of the Netherlands in the second world war, when I was 10. (I was obviously interested in many areas other than American history, but I loved historical novels). If you really wanted to turn it into a history lesson, in discussions you could ask your daughter to come up with ways that novels might not be completely accurate to history.

There are novels about slavery, about child labour, about poverty and colonisation, even for younger children (especially if your daughter is reading above what her grade would be).

If you ask around a good children's library or bookshop, you should be able to find hundreds of historical novels which really engage the issues of that history.
posted by jb at 6:26 AM on September 20, 2006

I have to add one more thing: I happened to be in my (nine year old) daughter's school library today and overheard the well-meaning librarian talking about discrimination in South Africa against the African-American people who live there.

I believe the correct term is "South African African-Americans."

Watch what they learn!
posted by largecorp at 3:46 PM on September 20, 2006

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