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Living History Diaries for Kids

During my preteen and teen years, I was obsessed with "who lives, who dies, who tells your story" (although Hamilton hadn't been written yet).  When I was around 11 or 12, the asthma doctor told myself and my parents that I would probably not live into adulthood.  My lungs were so bad that any illness or irritant could be the thing from which I never recovered.  Tough words for a doctor to tell their patient, very difficult words to hear, and heartbreaking for a parent.

From that moment on, I was obsessed with telling my own story, and reading other stories about girls my age who had also dealt with difficult things.  I loved the "Dear America" series for that reason.  It was historical fiction about lives in the past, who had overcome adversities and survived them (or not).  I remember also being a bit obsessed with Anne Frank, even addressing an entire diary/journal to her at one point.

I've been wanting to blog about the "Dear America" series for many years, but I was trying to wait for a time when it made sense to my audience and matched my content.  I meant to highlight them when we were studying US History last year with Notgrass Publishing, but I just didn't get it done.  I seem to be doing a lot of book lists lately, so this seems like as good of a time as any.

I'm classifying the "Dear America" series as "living history books," because of how that term is defined in Charlotte Mason homeschooling.  According to the Simply Charlotte Mason website, a "living book" is one written in narrative or conversational style.  Typically, the definition applies to nonfiction books, but most fiction books also qualify.  As books that teach about a particular people and time period as well as provide a decent story, I think the "Dear America" series qualifies.

I've arranged the books (I found 43) in historical order to make finding them for a particular time period easiest.  These are only the "Dear America" books, which are written from a female perspective.  They're written for preteens, and cover some pretty heavy subjects about sickness and death.  Parental oversight is recommended.  Perhaps these would even make a good family read-aloud (although the journal format might get tedious).

In my research, I also found that there are a few other book series that would have been good to include.  The "Dear Canada" series features girls from Canadian history, which looks very interesting since I don't know much about Canadian history.  The "My Name is America," books are written about boys in American history.  I was actually very torn about not including the boy books because I've never seen a list with all the boys and girls journals together and think it would be an interesting perspective to mix them up.  Maybe in a future post?

Also, these books at 20 to 25 years old now, which means their classics, right?  Just kidding.  I wanted to write about them because they had such a big impact on my childhood and my understanding on American history.  I'm not including them because they're amazing pieces of literature (the majority is not).  I've included Amazon links to the books for your convenience- just click the colored text to read more and buy the book.  Let's finally dive in!

1609- Our Strange New Land (Jamestown)

Lizzie travels from England to the New World with her family and works to build the first permanent settlement there.  She learns many lessons from the strange new land and its native inhabitants.  Since the main protagonist is only nine years old, the content of this first journal should be acceptable for most kids ages 7-10.  For adults wanting to learn more about this time period, a book like "A Land as God Made It" would be a good start.

1620- Journey to the New World (Pilgrims)

I remember reading this book a lot as a preteen.  The story follows Remembrance Patience (got to love Pilgrim names) as she travels by the Mayflower to the New World and endures the tragedies and triumphs of her community.  Something like half of the Pilgrims died their first year in the colony, so there is a lot of death in this book, including some close to the author.  For this reason, I would only recommend the book for 10 and up.  For younger kids, the book, "If You Sailed on the Mayflower," would be a better choice.

1691- I Walk in Dread (Salem Witch Trials)

Oh, no!  A woman who can read!  Can we burn her?  When Temperance's abilities to understand the written word are met with fear and hostility, will she survive the panic of the Witch Trial years?  It does feature domestic abuse (although I don't know how graphically), so I don't think it's appropriate for younger kids.  For older kids and adults, "The Crucible" is a classic look at this time period.

1763- Look to the Hills (Slavery)

American history doesn't often talk about the French or the slaves they had in the New World.  Lozette is an orphaned slave, who lived through the French and Indian War.  Since this time period is often skipped in American history, this book would be a good addition to your library, focusing as it does on divided loyalties and some of the issues that become very important later in history.  For an adult novel on the French and Indian War, as well as the years that follow, I recommend "My Name is Resolute."

1763- Standing in the Light (White Captive)

In the aftermath of the event of the previous book comes this story about a white Quaker girl, Caty, getting captured by a Native American tribe in retaliation for the war crimes of the French and Indian War.  She is rescued; although, she struggles to readjust to white culture and life.  Adults might enjoy the novel, "The Flight of the Sparrows," which has a similar premise.

1774- Love Thy Neighbor (American Revolution- Tory)

To be a Tory during the American Revolution was to align oneself with loyalty instead of rebellion, but it often put you at odds with your neighbors.  Prudence is feeling the pinch as she realizes that her friends are all choosing a different side.  For a unique look at American history, try this novel for 9-12 year olds.

1777- The Winter of the Red Snow (American Revolution)

I remember this book from my childhood as well.  Abigail is an 11 year old girl whose life is uprooted by the Revolutionary War.  The "red snow" is literally bloody footprints from the soldiers who don't have good shoes, so if that type of topic isn't something you want your kids knowing about, you might want to skip it.  For adults, there are several books and novels about Valley Forge if you want to learn more.

1779- Cannons at Dawn (American Revolution)

"Boom!  Goes the cannons!"  In this sequence to "The Winter of the Red Snow," Abby's family can no longer pretend the war isn't happening.  The journal follows her family's involvement with the Continental Army and how the war effected ordinary families.  I'm currently reading, "My Dear Hamilton," which is a historical fiction novel about Alexander Hamilton's wife, Eliza, and gives a different perspective about those times.

1836- The Line in the Sand (The Alamo)

This book focuses on the history of Texas from it's beginnings as a colony through their independence from Mexico. Twelve year old, Lucinda, tells us her story and reminds us to "Remember the Alamo!" and the 13 hour siege that occurred there.  I find it very interesting that Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson both became famous because of this war.  Adults might enjoy the novel, "Line of Glory," which covers the lives of four people from different perspectives and motivations.

1846- Valley of the Moon (California Statehood)

Thirteen year old orphan, Rosa, and her brother are servants at a Rancho during the final days of Mexican's rule of California.  The story talks about the conflict and politics between Californians, Mexicans, Americans, and Indians and the battles over who would control the fertile land.  I wasn't able to find an adult novel suggestion, so if you know one, leave it in the comments!

1847- So Far From Home (Irish Mill Worker)

I remember reading this book many times as well.  I was fascinated as a preteen by the idea of a young girl leaving her family home to live in a factory town boardinghouse and work for her own money.  Although the adult novel for this subject covers a slightly different time period, "Daughter of the Loom" refers to the same mill town.

1847- Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie (Oregon Trail)

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was obsessed with the Oregon Trail.  A huge part of my fervor was this novel, which I read many times.  Thirteen year old Hettie records the joys and triumphs of the journey (including death- parents be warned).  For some reason, Christian fiction and romance tend to abound regarding this subject for some reason, but I found an even better recommendation for adults- a real diary from an 1842 pioneer!

1848- All the Stars in the Sky (Santa Fe Trail)

In a slightly different pioneer account, this novel covers Florrie's journey across the Great Plains and down into New Mexico.  This is a part of history that is often ignored in novels, so I'm glad that the book talks about that region of the USA.  For the adults, I found another historical pioneer journal- Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico- which was written in 1946 and talks about life during that time period.

1849- Seeds of Hope (California Gold Rush)

Instead of going overland on the trails, Susanna and her family go by ship around the Cape Horn to settle in California.  I have not read this novel, but "Daughter of Joy" looks like a very interesting read (and series) about Chinese-Americans during the Gold Rush and beyond.

1859- A Picture of Freedom (Slavery)

You know we had to come back to slavery in America before we could get to the Civil War.  This journal was kept by twelve year old Clotee, a slave who knows how to read and write.  With themes related to the Fugitive Slave Act and other slave codes, it gently introduces young readers to the horrors of the time period.  For adults, I highly recommend reading, "The Problem of Slavery in Christian America," a nonfiction look at how the entire country benefited from slavery and why the roots of it weren't solved by war.

1861- A Light in the Storm (Civil War- North)

Right away, I feel the need to point out that this book talks about the dissolution of a marriage torn apart by the politics of the Civil War.  Fifteen year old Amelia is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper in Delaware, and deals with the storms of war.  Another novel about a family divided is "Across Five Aprils," which I read in eighth grade and really liked.

1864- When Will This Cruel War be Over (Civil War- South)

It's really hard to write a book about the South without being too sympathetic to slave owners.  Emma is a fourteen year old daughter of a slaveholder who bemoans her deprivations and talks about how the "well-treated" slaves shouldn't run away.  It reminds of me of "Gone with the Wind."  When I was a young adult, I loved "The Candle in the Darkness," which expresses the confusing and torn allegiances many people faced during the war and also talks about the war from a Southern perspective.  For a nonfiction look at life during slavery and how Southern women had their own power in the system, check out "They were Her Property."

1864- The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow (Navajo)

I am ashamed to admit that I didn't know about this part of US history before I did this blog post.  The book talks about the "Long Walk" that the US Government (Lincoln) forced the Navajo to take from Arizona to a New Mexico reservation.  It was their own "Trail of Tears" and a form at genocide (up to 1/5 of the tribe died).  The "Indians" had to be moved to make room for settlers like the ones in this "Chasm Creek" novel.  Our hands are stained with blood.

1865- I Thought My Soul Would Rise Up and Fly (Emancipation)

The Civil War is now over, but the slaves aren't sure what to do with their freedom.  For Patsy, emancipation means she can finally go to school.  This a triumphant story of a woman who didn't let her past hold her down and went onto become a teacher.   Adults may wish to read the book that Sojourner Truth wrote about herself.

1868- The Great Railroad Race (Transcontinental Railroad

As the daughter of a newspaper man, Libby knows a good story when she hears one.  She kept her diary about the railroad and all that went into such a huge engineering undertaking.  From the dirt and confusion of the camps to the romance of being surrounded by so many men, this book provides a good cultural and historical context to the time period.  A new book about this time period has just been published, which looks very interesting- "Chinese Brothers, American Sons."

1871- Down the Rabbit Hole (Chicago Fire)

It all started with a cow kicking over a lantern.  Except that this book starts with the death of the protagonist's parents, a move to Chicago, a murder mystery, and finally a big fire.  It also features her little brother, who has Down's syndrome, which is certainly unique.  For adults who want to learn more about the Windy City, grab the "History of Chicago" book.

1873- Land of the Buffalo Bones (Minnesota Frontier)

Mary's family is seeking religious freedom to practice their Baptist brand of Christianity, so they move to Minnesota.  They immigrated from England, so the story takes place on the ocean and on the prairie.  Mary learns that life in her new home isn't as amazing as she had hoped.  Adults who wish to learn more about immigrants settling in Minnesota, check out a book about it by clicking on the colored text.

1880- Behind the Masks (Wild West)

Ooo!  Another murder mystery!  And a ghost story!  Set in the wild west of California, Angelina must figure out what happened to her father, take care of her sick mother, and deal with a ghost.  There are, of course, thousands of adult books and novels about the West, but people who are interested in learning the history should try "Dreams of El Dorado."

1880- My Heart is on the Ground (Souix Indian School)

This book has been labeled the most racist of all the Dear America books.  Oops.  The story tells of Nannie, a Lakota girl who is forcibly removed from her home on the Great Plains and brought to the "Indian" school in Pennsylvania.  Many people say that it's racist because the stripping of culture and replacement with another culture is looked at in the book as a good thing.  Although it's not specifically about the Indian Schools, I highly recommend "The Other Slavery," which is a nonfiction account of how Native people were treated throughout American history.

1881- My Face to the Wind (Prairie Life)

This book is set in Nebraska, and features another young, female teacher.  Oh, and did I mention that she's 14!  Despite many of the adults being against her, the children disrespecting her, the hardships of prairie life, and many other things, Sarah survives them all.  For adults interested in the history of prairie schoolhouses, I recommend you look at "One Room," a collection of stories about teaching in them.

1883- West to the Land of Plenty (Westward Expansion to Idaho
An Italian immigrant family travels across the USA by train and wagon to get to Idaho, and the daughter, Theresa, documents it all in her diary.  Complete with pioneer troubles like sicknesses, trouble with outlaw, weather, and Native American relationships, Theresa comes out an even stronger, even more independent than she was when she started.  She is just one of the millions of "Italian Immigrants who Made America Home" (click to read more about them).

1896- A Coal Miner's Bride (Mail Order Brides)

This is absolutely the most controversial of all the Dear America books!  A thirteen year old (!!!) marries a coal miner and gains a few step-children.  The focus of the book is more on the dangers of the coal mine and not about the relationship between the child-bride and her husband at all.  I really enjoyed the novel "Coal River" for an adult look at coal mining, trade unions, and company stores.

1903- Dreams in the Golden Country (Immigrant Life in NYC)

Zipporah is a 12 year old living with her family in New York City at the turn of the century.  She struggles with the immigrant culture of her past, while getting more deeply swept away by the excitement of the fast-paced culture around her.  I'm super obsessed with life in NYC during the Gilded Age, and I remember reading this book as a kids too.  I just bought a book called "97 Orchard," which is a look at five different families who all lived in the same tenement building.

1906- A City Tossed and Broken (San Francisco Earthquake)

A young serving girl is left as the sole survivor of the family she worked for after the San Francisco earthquake leveled the town.  She takes their money, starts a new life as an heiress, and rebuilds her life as the city rebuilds.  Younger readers might enjoy the Magic Treehouse book, "Earthquake in the Early Morning," while adults might enjoy "Earthquake at Dawn," about two female photographers.

1909- Hear My Sorrow (Factory Life/ Triangle Shirtwaist Fire)

Newly arrived in NYC from Italy, Angela and her family must figure out how to survive in the Lower East Side.  When family troubles require her to quit school and start working, she gets caught up in the labor union movement, strikes against factory workers, and fires.  For adults, "A Fall of Marigolds" presents a fiction account of the fire in relationship to September 11.

1912- Voyage on the Great Titanic

If you came of age in the late 1990's like I did, then you know all about the Titanic.  For today's generation, there's this Dear America book to introduce them to the tragedy.  Margaret is a young companion to a wealthy America woman, who takes her on the big ship.  Adults may like "The Girl Who Came Home," which is a story of 3rd class Irish immigrants.

1917- A Time for Courage (Suffragettes)

Votes for Women!  Thirteen year old Kathleen joins her mom and sister, as well as thousands of other women, in the picket line to demand a constitutional amendment.  The story touches on the violence women faced in their protest, the Jim Crow laws of the South, World War 1, and Wilson's presidency.  Adults should grab "The Women's Crusade" book to read more about the subject themselves.

1917- When Christmas Comes Again (World War One)

Simone is the oldest of the Dear America writers at 17, she's also one of the few who doesn't live with her family during the time period of the book.  After the US declared war on Germany, the call goes out for volunteer women (girls) to work as switchboard operators overseas.  Simone jumps at the opportunity and does her part in the war.  For adults, I recommend "The Wild Rose," the third book in a lovely Gilded Age series.

1918- Like the Willow Tree (Spanish Flu)

This year (2020), there has been a lot of talk about the Spanish Flu and this book was newly released to help modern kids relate to history.  When Lydia (age 11) and her older brother are orphaned by the flu, they go to live with their uncle in a Shaker community.  The book is as much about the Shaker beliefs and lifestyle as it is about the events and aftermath of World War 1 and the Spanish Flu pandemic.  The Shakers are known today for their minimalist style of furniture making, but they also had some interesting beliefs about relationships.  For adults who want to dive deeper into this subject, "The Four Seasons of Shaker Life" would be a good place to start.

1919- Color Me Dark (The Great Migration North)

An African American family joins many others, who left the South to find better opportunities in the big cities of the North.  According to a review I read, this is the darkest of the Dear America books, so parents need to be cautious about when and how they introduce to to their children.  It features heavy racism, a lynching, and the KKK.  "The Warmth of Other Suns" talks about the migration from an adult perspective and compares it to other migrations throughout history.

1932- Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (School of the Blind)

Introduce kids to Braille with this historical diary written by both the protagonist and her sister.  Readers can learn some of the ways that blind people cope with their challenges and a few of the events of the era.

1932- Christmas After All (Great Depression)

Set in Indianapolis, Indiana, Minnie talks about her family's struggles during the Great Depression and the deprivations they faced.  As Christmas approaches, she worries that the holiday won't be special any more.  Thanks to her family, she learns that it is Christmas after all.  Adults might enjoy "Sold on a Monday."

1935- Survival in the Storm (Dust Bowl)

Twelve year old Grace writes about her experiences in the Texas dust bowl including kneading bread in a drawer, constantly cleaning, and wearing flour sack dresses.  The most remarkable thing about this book though is that the author was only 15 when it was published!  So cool!  For adults, I recommend the novel, "The Grapes of Wrath."

1938- One Eye Laughing, One Eye Weeping (Jewish Immigration)

This journal begins in Hitler's Europe with the events surrounding the Holocaust, before Julie (age 11) immigrants alone to the USA.  Parental warning- book contains discussion of violence and the suicide of one character.  Although it's not an immigration story, I really enjoyed "The Plum Tree," but there are a lot of really well-written WWII novels available.

1941- Early Sunday Morning (Pearl Harbor)

It's a day that has lived in infamy, the day that the Japanese airplanes attacked the military base at Pearl Harbor.  The book goes through the events of the attack and the aftermath.  Although I haven't read it, "To Wake the Giant" sounds like a very interesting novel about the history.

1941- The Fences Between Us (World War 2)

After the events of Pearl Harbor, Kirby's life turns upside down, as her family follows their friends to the Japanese Interment Camps.  The book explores a infamous part of our history from the perspective of both a white girl and a Japanese-American girl, bringing up many issues of kindness, compassion, fear, immigration, national security, and more.  For older teens and adults, I recommend one of my favorite books, "The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," which also covers the Interment.

1941- My Secret War (World War 2)

Thirteen year old Maddie does what she can for the war effort whether it's collecting scrap metal or calling the FBI.  It's an interesting look at the ways kids were involved in the war and how it impacted their lives.  Adults might enjoy "Lilac Girls" or "China Dolls," both which talk about three women during the war.

1954- With the Might of Angels (Civil Rights)

When the Supreme Court rules against segregated schools, twelve year old Dawnie is the first in her community to go to an all white school.  Confronting the issues of racism and the Jim Crow laws right  on the nose, this book is a great introduction to the time period.  Adults should read "The New Jim Crow" to look at how our current laws are unfairly skewed to punish African Americans more than whites for the same crimes.

1969- Where Have All the Flowers Gone (Vietnam)

The period of the late 60's and early 70's were a time of turmoil in the the USA.  The war in Vietnam raged, while Civil Rights, Hippies, and war protests dominated the domestic scene.  Most history books end just before this time period, so this diary is particularly important.  There are many parts of this era that I could focus on for the adult book recommendation, but I chose "Butterfly Yellow," which features Vietnamese refugee children and their paths from their home country to their new one.

Oh, my!  This is the longest blog post I've ever written!  It took absolutely forever and every time I thought I was done, I found another Dear America book to add to the list.  Did I miss any others?  Comment below!

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