Episode 63: Back to School-Focus on History and Social Studies

In this continuation of our Back-to-School series, we look at several great books and resources for helping our children love geography, history, and social studies. 

Books Discussed in This Episode:


Welcome to “Books that Spark,” a podcast for parents and caregivers, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion, leading to teachable moments with our kids. This week, we continue with our back-to-school topics, and we’re going to talk about history, social studies, and geography. There are some really wonderful picture books about geography, especially, and many about biographies for historical figures and ones that tell us about our heritage and the history of America, as well as world history.

I want to start by talking about this great alphabet book, and this is written by one of the authors that we mentioned who has a birthday in August, and that is Arthur Yorinks, and it’s illustrated by Adrian Yorinks and the letter art is by Jeanyee Wong, and it’s called The Alphabet Atlas, and it’s just beautiful. I bought a used copy of this book, and it happens to have been signed by the author, which I just love. It was published in 1999, so it may be a little bit difficult to find. It’s just an introduction to geography. It’s something that would peak children’s interest to want to learn more about geography. In this book it goes through the alphabet and with each letter of the alphabet names one of the countries and gives a few interesting facts about that country. But what makes this book super special to me is the artwork. The artwork on each page is a quilt that represents that country. And then the letter of the alphabet is made to match the quilt. And so each one ethnically reflects the culture of the country it’s describing. So that’s really fun. For instance, D. D is for Denmark, and it says, “Denmark, a farming country, is made up of over 400 islands.” This one was interesting: N for New Zealand. “New Zealand is home to about three and a half million people and almost 50 million sheep.” The artwork is beautiful, and like I said, it’s a great introduction to geography, and they have a link you can go to, to see the countries on the world map and kind of figure out where they belong.

If you want more detail on geography, one of the books I really like is the Smithsonian Children’s Illustrated Atlas, which is published by DK and the Smithsonian Institute. And this book has a lot of detail, a lot of fun facts for children, and is more of an actual Atlas. But even when I was very young, I loved just looking at real atlases that showed the maps. And, of course, we need to get an updated one because those things do change as different countries take over other countries or change their names or whatever. There’s always changes. So when we’re actually studying a real Atlas, we need to get an updated version of it, or look online.

Another really good book for giving your children just a short look at geography and culture and something fun to peak their interest a little more, there’s two books I want to recommend. One is This Is How We Do It: One Day In the Lives of Seven Kids Around the World written by Matt Lamothe. And it has children from seven different countries, and it shows where they live, how they get to school, what they do at school, what they eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even the types of beds they sleep in, the types of houses they live in. And so it gives you kind of a cultural anthropology for young children, a look at different cultures around the world. It does not have the United States in it. It’s only dealing with other cultures for a child who’s in the United States to see how other people live and to understand different cultures. But it ends with a picture of the night sky. The point is, of course, that we all look at the same sky. We all live on the same earth, and it shows children that we’re all basically the same. We just have different cultural ways of doing different things, different foods that we eat based on where we live and our culture, but it’s just a really well-done book. [Since recording the podcast, I found this second volume by the same author that includes blanks for writing in your child’s information and also includes more countries. It’s called This Is How I Do It: One Day in the Life of You and 59 Real Kids form Around the World. It looks like a seriously fun book to own, read, and create together!]

There’s a set of books, the Everything books that are just really great. They’re thick books that give you just a glimpse at everything you can cover about a certain topic. They have an Everything Kids Geography Book: From the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef, Explore the World. And this is written by Jane P. Gardner and J. Elizabeth Mills. And it’s a great book. It has a lot of fun facts. It has puzzles throughout the book for your young children. Especially if you’re homeschooling, this would work as a curriculum for younger elementary kids and would give them information enough that they would want to research more, to learn more about that country.

And then there’s this set of books that came out in the early 2000’s. I love these books. They’re called Welcome to My Country. And then it has the country’s name. I have Taiwan and Singapore, of course, but they even have one for the U.S. U.S, Ecuador, several different countries. And these books are kind of like a child narrating their experiences in their country. It takes you through so much of the culture and geography of that country. The one for Welcome to the USA: Welcome to My Country is written by Nicole Frank and Elizabeth Berg. The one for Taiwan is written by Vanessa Wan and Melvin Neo. And some of these have been out of print, so they’re very expensive to get, but if you can find one at a used bookstore, they’re really fun to read. The pictures are great, and kids love them.

Now, in addition to geography, we want to talk about history. And I mentioned that there are some great books about different people in history. If you want to study the different presidents or you want to study people who have made a difference in our culture, there are books you can get just like the other biographies for authors that I’ve mentioned that include different historical figures as well. And that is The Who Was series: Who Was George Washington, Who Was Abigail Adams. And so there’s different ones. Who Was George Washington Carver. And we already talked about Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr. They have Who Was Abraham Lincoln, Who Was Thomas Jefferson. They have The What Is series as well–it was The What Was series, I should say. So What Is the Declaration of Independence? Who Was Ben Franklin? So there’s all these different books from this series written by their authors in the Who HQ company. They’re really great little biographies that are good for young children who are just starting to want to read chapter books because they’re very short chapters or they aren’t really like a typical chapter book. It’s divided into chapters, but they’re extremely short. So they would work for a first grader, second grader easily could enjoy these books. They have one What Is the Constitution as well.

And there’s another set of books written by Norman Pearl. They are The US Constitution: American Symbols Series, and they also have The Bill of Rights and The Pledge of Allegiance. These picture books are good for introducing those topics to children. They’re illustrated by Matthew Thomas schemes. So these are another choice you could have, if you wanted to try to do something other than the What Was and Who Was series. And of course there’s others as well. But I like these. I like the way that they appeal to the young children and give us a lot of good information. And so those are two options.

Another book is Explore Colonial America: 25 Great Projects, Activities, and Experiments. And this is an Explore Your World book written by Verna Fisher and illustrated by Brian Stone. And in this series, they have Explore Ancient Egypt, Explore Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, the Solar System. And then they have different things like Explore Transportation, Explore Spring and Winter. So Let’s Explore or Explore Your World series has quite a few books in it.

Now, this one, when it’s talking about Colonial America, it says, “Have you ever been on a camping trip? Or have you ever traveled on a ship? Do you know what it’s like to move to a new place? Well, the colonists did all of those things when they traveled to America. So where was colonial America? What was it like to live in colonial America over 300 years ago? And where did the settlers come from? We’ll find the answers to these questions and have fun along the way.” So this is the introduction within the book. Then they have a cool artifact and then “Who were the settlers and why did they come?” And then it has words to learn–some vocabulary. And then it goes into the different lifestyle, the religion, when did all of this happen? What was going on? It talks about then and now.

Each of these books I’ve mentioned, one of the qualities I like in most of them is they deal with map reading and help students learn how to read maps. And so I think that’s a very important skill. Whether you using your GPS or you’re using a paper map, you have to be able to understand how to read it and understand the symbols on it. And so map reading is an important skill that some of these books do include.

Another book is called American Trailblazers: 50 Remarkable People Who Shaped US History by Lisa Trusiani. And this book has Louisa May Alcott who wrote little women, Muhammad Ali, John James Audubon. It’s got men and women who affected American culture and even includes Dr. Seuss, but it’s kind of an interesting book. This book deals more with, like I said, the people who have influenced culture through art, literature, and other avenues besides just politics and policymakers, it’s different from many of the books we might choose to read about history and about culture and learning about America.

[One more book I meant to mention is one by author Annette Whipple which I interviewed for last week’s podcast. She wrote The Story of the Wright Brothers: A Biography Book for New Readers. I love this book. It tells their story but asks thought-provoking questions as well. It also includes timelines and quotes from the Wrights. It’s a great book.]

If your children really love history, and you want to add to what they’re already learning, personally, one of my favorite curriculums to use for history is the Bob Jones University curriculum. They call it the BJU Press Heritage Studies series, and their studies on American history are some of the best I’ve seen. Their explanation and review of the Constitution and information through American history–I just really like it. It’s one of the best I’ve seen. I’m sure there are others out there that are really good, but I really like BJU Press, especially for American history. I also like it because it does bring in the Christian mindset. It includes like the Great Awakening in the historical timeline, as you’re discussing, you know, the Americas and the history, the Puritans, and all that’s going on in the US, then it talks about the Great Awakening and Jonathan Edwards. So I like that about it as well. They have it available for every grade in school, up through 12th grade. But I feel like with my experience with them, their American history books are the most thorough discussions of American history I’ve seen that speaks to your middle schooler, high schooler. They do just a great job.

And on some of my other podcasts, I’ve mentioned some other novels, historical fiction that are some great books. I love to pair up literature with history. And so then you can bring in, for the younger children, the American Girl series or Little House on the Prairie or any of those kinds of books. And if you remember from my interview with Marci Seither, she has a book that works great for fourth grade history to go along with California history. When you’re talking about fourth grade, you do your own state’s history. And so look for great little books written about different people from your state who have made an impact, and someone has written their story. Anytime we can pair literature with history, it helps both to come more alive for the children. And it also combines those lessons. You can also bring in science when you’re talking about climate and geography and the animals, you know, the state animals, the animals that are common to any country. You can cross the lines of the different subjects of your curriculum and have like history at the core as the jumping off point. And from that, you can go into all the different subjects, including art and music, literature, science, and, I don’t know, math might be a little more difficult, but I love to go across the curriculum and have a central theme, usually centered around geography or history. That was what I preferred to do. That’s a lot of fun, and it makes your curriculum kind of all gel together. It doesn’t seem then like the students are having to do so much of so many different subjects. And one thing that you find when you look at educational theory and the way our brains work, if you can combine those and make connections between the different subjects, what happens is you are reiterating and reaffirming the facts that they’ve learned in history. As you’re talking about science, as you’re talking about literature, as they’re reading the story and seeing that history come to life through that book and the storytelling, then it reiterates and reaffirms the facts they’ve been learning in history and geography. And so then they learn better when we divide up what we’re teaching into so many different subjects, we actually retain less. It’s the same thing with Bible study. When we think of our churches, most of the time we have Sunday school where we’re learning one thing, then we go to our worship service and we have a sermon about something else. And then we may have a discipleship group or a midweek small group where we’re studying something else. So instead of getting one section of scripture and really digging deep into that, and, you know, chewing on it a little while, meditating on it, memorizing it, and really learning it–We’re throwing so many different lessons at our congregations during one week that they’re not really digging deep into one thing. And so what we’ve done in the past is get a Bible reading. So everybody’s reading the same scripture. And then when we come to church on Sunday, our Sunday school class and our sermon are also based around these same scriptures. And then when you have your discipleship or small groups, they also are discussing the same scriptures and you can dig deeply into it. You can deal with the different themes that are discussed in that one scripture. You can talk about questions that have come up because of the scripture you’re all looking at. And you’re all on the same page. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of purposeful decision-making to make this happen. But when we do, we’re able to really dig into the word of God and remember the word of God, much more than trying to process so many different topics in one week. So we can do that with our children, with their curriculum, if we’re homeschooling as well. And it can be quite effective and make it much more fun for the students. So I hope this helps a little bit. I’ve tried not to give you too much. It’s hard because with each of these subjects, there are so many picture books out there that you could read that you could go to. But I thought maybe with giving you some of the series of books that they have available, that it might be fun. I mean, even like, if you like The Magic Treehouse books, in some of their later volumes, they dealt with American history. You just have a whole plethora of places to go and look, and you have to be careful to see from what perspective they are sharing the stories, because that does influence a lot of people today. For some reason, they want to rewrite history, which I do not understand. History is history. It should be what happened and understanding there’s good, there’s bad, there’s the ugly of history. And hopefully we learn from our mistakes, and we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, and we also need to help our children understand that we are judging the past by our present understanding. So it wasn’t that everyone was trying to be evil. They really did not think of what they were doing as evil, even though we know from our perspective, certain things were evil.

You know, for instance, let’s deal with the hot topic of slavery. No one wants to talk about slavery. It was an awful time in history, both in Europe and America and other countries as well. But to me, what I want us to look at now is what about modern day slavery? We have so much trafficking of young people, and it’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking. And there is slavery in many countries around the world. And so to me, I feel like instead of being all up in arms about our history, we should be all up in arms about what’s going on today. Slavery should not be something we have to fight today. Attitudes are different. Now we know slavery is wrong, that all people are created in the image of God, and that everyone should be equal. And yet we have modern day slavery. Our children need to understand that.

So if we’re going to talk about prejudice, we’re going to talk about slavery and those kinds of things. We need to look at what’s going on today, and can we make a difference, and how can we make a difference? And one of the other resources I want to mention to you is Prager U. Prager U has videos, and they’re five minute videos. That’s what makes them so great. They’re better than TEDx because TEDx has, first of all, has many different perspectives, but there are about 15-20 minute videos, but the Prager U videos are five minute videos. And they cover a variety of subjects in science, politics, history, and current events. But they have a whole new group of videos geared toward children and to help them understand history and to understand current events. And so these would be a valuable resource for you to use not only in homeschool, but just in general with your children and helping them to understand culture and current events.

Okay. So for today’s devotion, I’m sharing from Grace for the Moment by Max Lucado. And this one is from August 18th, because I was thinking I wanted to do a devotion that emphasizes that everyone is created in the image of God. We are all human beings equal before God’s throne equal at the foot of the cross. And we need to be equal in our cultures as well. The devotion’s called “Lookalikes,” and the verse is Deuteronomy 7:9. “He will keep his agreement of love for a thousand lifetimes. He does this for people who love him and obey his commands. We are God’s idea. We are his, his face, his eyes, his hands, his touch. We are him look deeply into the face of every human being on earth. And you will see his likeness. We are all created in the image of God. We are amazingly and incredibly the body of Christ. And although we may not always act like our father, there is no greater truth than this: We are his; that cannot change. He loves us with a love that never dies. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. See Romans 8:30, 39. Nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. Growing in grace: Make a list of things that separate. There are things you can see, like walls, doors, and mountains. And there are things you can’t see, like anger and hatred, but not one of those things can separate you from the love of Jesus.

And I think it would be great to discuss what is separating people from each other. What separates us from another group of people and how we can bridge that gap through the love of Jesus. I think it’s such an important lesson to understand that we are all created in the image of God. We are all his children whom he loves, and we have only to choose to follow him, choose to accept him as our Lord and our savior. And then we are his children. He accepts us into his family. It doesn’t matter how light or dark our skin is. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done in the past or where we’ve come from. We are all equal in God’s eyes, and we’ve all equally sinned and fallen short of his glory. And we all equally need a savior, Jesus Christ.

Thank you for joining us for “Books that Spark,” a podcast, celebrating books, that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussions as we disciple our children and help them follow Christ with their whole hearts. If you would like to join my mailing list, you can find me at TerrieHellardBrown.com.

Your Host:

Terrie Hellard-Brown writes and speaks to help children and adults find God’s purpose and plan for their lives. She teaches workshops and writes devotional books, children’s stories, and Christian education materials.

Her podcast, Books that Spark, reviews children’s books that spark imagination, emotion, questions, and discussion leading to teachable moments with our kids. Her podcast posts each Tuesday morning.

Her blog posts are published each Thursday and discuss living as a disciple of Christ while discipling our children. She challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in obedience to Christ.

For more information, visit her website at terriehellardbrown.com

Terrie uses her experiences as a mother of four (three on “the spectrum”), 37 years in ministry (15 in Taiwan), and 32 years teaching to speak to the hearts of readers.

Her motto is “Growing older is inevitable; growing up is optional” and keeps her childlike joy by writing children’s stories, delighting over pink dolphins, and frequently laughing till it hurts.

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