I’ve always loved history. I remember how, during school, students would complain about how boring and dry it was, and (to be fair) most of the history textbooks that we used consisted mostly of long paragraphs with lists of names and dates. I would slog through those textbooks along with my classmates, but I had a secret weapon that my young peers did not have—a resource that totally transformed the stark retelling of events from those books into vibrant, interesting narratives that piqued my curiosity and imagination: my father. What I learned from him totally transformed my view of history and made me love it to this day. He taught me that history isn’t a timeline of names, places, and events like my teachers taught it. He showed me, instead, that history is a story. When I would come home from school with the dates and the names of the major players of an historical event I had to memorize, my father would fill in the details with tales of exciting battles, spies, adventures, and sometimes even legend. I would be riveted as he painted a picture with his words.
Now that I am a homeschool mom, I want to make history come alive for my boys the way that my father did for me. Instead of dry, boring textbooks, I have been strategically collecting history books that are dynamic and engaging–books that teach history the way I believe it should be taught—as a story. And some of my absolute favorite resources for these types of living history books are the biographies by Edgar and Ingri d’Aulaire.
The d’Auliares were immigrant artists in the mid-Twentieth Century. After publishing several books that captured some of the mythology and folklore of their native lands, they began writing and illustrating children’s books about some of the major figures from American history. There are seven biographies in total: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Leif the Lucky, Pocahontas, Benjamin Franklin, Buffalo Bill, and Columbus. Our family owns three of them so far, so this review covers George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Buffalo Bill, though I have also read Abraham Lincoln.
These books are absolutely beautiful. Oversized and full of vibrant full-color and black and white illustrations, the pages capture in detail the intricate artwork originally produced on giant lithograph stones. The images are a cross between realistic renderings and stereotypical caricatures, whose end result is utterly charming. The effect has a somewhat primitive, folk-art feel, which matches the text perfectly.
The text, written in narrative form, is utterly delightful. The d’Aulaires capture not only the major milestones of each person’s life, but also the legends that outlived them and helped make them into famous people that we study today. The historical figures come alive as the reader learns about the famous events that shaped them, and lesser-known biographical details. The d’Aulaires tell the stories of these famous people from American history, including all of the colorful folklore that has been passed down for generations. Rigid historians may take issue with some of the details portrayed in these books. (For example, although Washington does not chop down the cherry tree, they do paint an idyllic picture of his childhood and emphasize how he learned not to tell a lie.) Facts and myths are interwoven to provide a charming, culturally relevant introduction to these famous figures from American history to young readers. The books focus a lot on the childhoods and formative years of the subjects, making them especially engaging for early to middle elementary aged students, as they walk in the little shoes of these eventual giants of history. Questionable, upsetting, or disreputable details of each person’s life are omitted. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and Ben Franklin’s indiscretions are not covered, for example. Slavery is mentioned as a matter-of-fact without any explanation, and the treatment of Native Americans is typical of a 1950’s “cowboys vs Indians” narrative. In other words, these are traditional American stories that spark the imaginations of children while protecting and maintaining their innocence. And they also learn a lot about several important people in American history in the process!
I love these books as an introduction to important people in American history for young children. My boys are 7, 5, and 3 and they love to hear these books read aloud as they pore over the huge, colorful, and detailed illustrations. Although they were out of print for many years, Beautiful Feet Books has recently re-published these gems in paperback, so they are readily available and affordable as an addition to a home library.
(And good news! At the time of this posting, Beautiful Feet Books is offering a sale on all seven biographies! You can grab them for only $10 each, which is an absolute STEAL! Our family will be adding the other four that we are missing to our library this week!)