Reading books together (or in some cases listening together) has been one of the most enjoyable parts of homeschooling my kids. We have particularly enjoyed books that combine true stories or those based in reality, with epic journeys and adventures. This meets a need we all share for exciting entertainment while simultaneously illustrating the immense variety and depth of the human experience across the globe and throughout history. I have compiled a list of ten nonfiction and historical fiction books that have stood out. They are in no particular order, are all appropriate for middle elementary to high school readers, and have all captured our imaginations in one way or the other.
Probably Erdrich’s most well-known book for younger readers, this incredible tale is appropriate for kids as young as 3rd grade and into high school. It is one of the most authentic and entertaining stories about Native Americans during the time of westward expansion written for this age group. Parents should know there is a serious tragedy in the latter part of the book, wherein the main character, a girl of about 10 named Omakayas, loses her baby brother, and many other family members, to smallpox. Though this is intense and difficult to navigate, Erdrich brings the story to a hopeful and inspirational conclusion by the end. Throughout the book there are countless anecdotal tales of how the Ojibwa people lived, gathering food and materials for shelter, making clothing and caring for their children. Told in her signature humorous yet profoundly honest style, the book makes you feel like you are living in the birchbark house with this immensely lovable family.
I had to include this one, although it is a sequel to The Birchbark House, which almost seems like cheating. However, it truly stands out as a fabulous read in its own right. In fact, our family probably enjoyed this one even more, perhaps because there is not quite as much tragedy and loss. The book is named after a porcupine that Omakayas’s little brother unwittingly adopts into the family and which provides laugh out loud comical relief throughout much of the story. Omakaya is coming of age and exploring all that holds for her, while her clan struggles to recover from the devastating epidemic of smallpox. They attempt to move to their summer grounds and encounter more white settlers with which they must contend and negotiate. Personable, surprising, adventurous and bittersweet. All you could want in a good story!
This book is solid entertainment, full of hilarious and incredible true-life tales of the author’s relationships with all sorts of animals, wild and domestic. A two-time Iditarod contestant and veteran horse packer and wilderness explorer, Gary has lived through adventures most of us could never dream of. His remarkable emotional connection with animals, combined with these unique experiences, results in a collection of stories which convey an intangible but immense sense of wonder and appreciation for the abundance of the planet. If you or your children want to be inspired about the intelligence and bravery of animals, the immensity of nature, or the immeasurable vastness of the human experience- this is a book to treasure!
When I checked this book out, I expected my kids to hum and haw through the whole thing. A story about desegregation in Arkansas, and how two girls maintained a precarious friendship on opposite sides of the line, I expected the story to be dry and somewhat inaccessible. The opposite was true, and my kids were captivated from start to finish, always eager to find out what would happen next. The author has conveyed the momentous historical events in a down to earth, a kid-friendly style that keeps the reader stay engaged and genuinely curious how things will turn out for the families involved and the country in general.
This story feels like a fantasy novel and is just as much fun, but when we finished it I realized how much of an impression it had made on both myself and my kids. Centering on an orphaned boy of about 12 who takes a trip to Ellis Island with his classmates and, after accidentally falling asleep, finds himself waking up in turn of the century Italy. Through his adventures, he establishes a meaningful relationship with his previously unknown ancestors and a deep appreciation for the trials that brought them to the U.S.
We discovered this book through a curriculum we dabble in, called Moving Beyond the Page. It is a tale of a girl and her uncles and cousins who embark on an epic trip across the Atlantic in a sailboat. Written in the style of travel logs, it provides an engagingly personal perspective of how life at sea affect the family dynamics, and how Sophie copes with the grief that has shaped her life. Anyone who knows this author will not be disappointed, it is another masterpiece of young literature.
I included this, for, although it is not written particularly for young adults, I recently read it for the second time and shared so many of the stories with my boys, I’m certain it would be a great read-aloud story for the whole family. The first half of the book is non stop jaw-dropping adventure as they trek across the barren mountains half dead. Upon reaching Lhasa it describes one of the most fascinating cultures on earth, and the authors very personal immersion into it. A true epic!
Here is a classic that truly deserves the title, and reads like an action movie. Well, an action movie with some admittedly outdated English. We read this together when my boys were ten, and though I often had to interpret the language, we all agreed that the author’s descriptive talents were impressive and worth the trouble. Not for the faint of heart, there are some brutal scenes, but in the end, the story is just as incredible and inspirational as you would hope for in such a timeless classic.
This delightful and unique book skilfully merges several challenging life concepts with a whimsical adventure story and the fresh, honest voice of the main character. Naomi Leon lives with her great grandmother and disabled younger brother in a trailer in a small California town. Their mother, who has been absent for many years, suddenly reappears and wants to claim them. Neither the shy and troubled Naomi nor her happy go lucky brother want to leave their great grandmother, so they decide to go a road trip to Mexico to find their father. Naomi’s journey to self-confidence, as well as the families ability to overcome multiple challenges, will inspire kids and parents alike, and it is all told with humor and directness that makes me want to read more.
I must confess that this is the only book on the list I have not read personally. I included it because my son was so affected by it, and he has given me a first-hand description. An Olympic runner is swept up into the events of WWII and becomes a pilot for the U.S. Army. When his plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean, he becomes stranded in the world’s largest wilderness area and must rely on incredible courage and ingenuity to survive. Starvation, dehydration, shark attacks and enemy fighters (sometimes all at once!), the story impressed on my son how resilient humans can be, and should be a favorite for any action/adventure lover.