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Colonial adventure books for kids. December 9, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Wondering what to give your kids for Christmas? How about a book that brings the Colonial and Revolutionary period to life? Your three Poor Richard’s Almanac bloggers, our friend Ben, Richard Saunders, and yours truly, all share a passion for early American history. And we owe it to a book each of us read as children, Ben and Me. It’s a biography of our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin, as told by his pet mouse.

To this day, OFB and I plan vacations to places like Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where both Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Montpelier, home of James Madison, are located), and Richard is always hopping up to New England to visit his girlfriend Bridget’s family in Boston and take in historic New England sites. OFB and I dream of spending Christmas at Williamsburg, and one day we hope to vacation with Richard and Bridget in the Washington, D.C. area and go to Mount Vernon, which none of us has seen since childhood.

And of course, everybody’s Christmas and birthday lists include the latest publications on the Founding Fathers and the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. We each have a wish list of rare books we’d love to acquire on the period, as well, and sometimes we even get one!

Each of us focuses on particular Founders and aspects of the period, too. Of course, we all love Ben Franklin, but our friend Ben, who’s related to Martha Custis Washington, has a particular fondness for George Washington, as well as the great and overlooked Founder Gouverneur Morris, and he’s made a special study of botany and agriculture of the period. Richard Saunders enjoys the other great thinkers among the Founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as another overlooked Founder, George Mason, and being a historian, he’s absorbed by the growth, development, and history of the Colonies. As for me, I like the rowdy boys, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and Thomas Paine. And I love reading about and exploring the everyday life of the time, including, of course, cooking!

To think all of this grew out of a children’s book! (Except in the case of OFB, who loved the book but also grew up in a Colonial-era home with period furnishings, and has ties to a number of Revolutionary War figures, and thus would probably have been obsessed by the era anyway.) I’ve continued to collect children’s books about the era, and I confess, OFB and I really enjoy reading them, even though we ostensibly keep them on hand for when our nieces and nephews visit. Here are some of our favorites, highly recommended for your own kids or grandkids:

Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos (Robert Lawson, Little, Brown, 1988). The book that started it all. Amos takes credit for most of Ben’s discoveries, but the enduring humor of this book makes it easy to forgive him.

John, Paul, George & Ben (Lane Smith, Hyperion, 2006). An adorable look at the four—make that five, Mr. Smith had to add Tom Jefferson—patriots in their imaginary youth. (On John Hancock: “At the start of every school year the students were asked to write their names on the chalkboard, and every year it was the same story. ‘John,’ his teacher would say, ‘you have lovely penmanship. John, your confidence is refreshing. But, John, c’mon… we don’t need to read it from space!'”) Priceless, and as funny for adults as for kids. 

The Amazing Life of Benjamin Franklin (James Cross Giblin, Scholastic, 2000). A marvelous and marvelously illustrated account of the life of Ben Franklin. People who only know Franklin from his grim portrait on the “Benjamin,” the $100 bill, will find this account of the youthful Ben and his adventures a revelation. 

Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (Jean Fritz, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987). You might think a book about a bunch of guys sitting in a stuffy room writing the Constitution would have little appeal for children, but Jean Fritz weaves lots of fun trivia about the Founders into the narrative to liven it up, as well as providing a highly factual account. And Tomie dePaola’s delightful illustrations will endear the book to adults and kids alike. The complete text of the Constitution is included at the back of the book, for kids who want to know more or adults in need of a refresher.  

Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington (Anne Rockwell, Harcourt, 2009). If you’d like to inspire a diffident child with the story of how a big, gawky, shy, bad-tempered child overcame his flaws to become America’s first and greatest President, this is the book for you.  

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008). Gardeners, and especially organic gardeners, will want to add this account of the First Composter to their libraries. The author shows how the lessons Washington learned from his passion for farming translated to his experience leading men and ultimately shaping a nation. But those of us who are as fascinated by gardening as by history will find it a riveting account of Washington’s gardening experiments, the benefits of which we still feel to this day.

Hanukkah at Valley Forge (Srephen Krensky, Dutton Children’s Books, 2006). Admittedly, Judaism isn’t something that springs to our minds in conjunction with the Founders and the Revolution, except in the case of Alexander Hamilton, whose mother’s first husband was Jewish. But this book tells the true story of George Washington’s attending a soldier’s Hanukkah celebration during the bitter winter at Valley Forge. And it’s as beautifully illustrated (by Greg Harlin) as any children’s book we’ve ever seen. 

George Washington’s Socks: A Time Travel Adventure (Elvira Woodruff, Scholastic, 1993). Four modern-day friends and one’s younger sister, Katie, are transported to the banks of the Delaware just in time for General Washington’s famous crossing.

George Washington’s Spy: A Time Travel Adventure (Elvira Woodruff, Scholastic, 2010). This sequel to George Washington’s Socks stands just fine on its own. When a bunch of ten-year-old friends are transported back to 1776-era Boston, they learn that the Revolutionary War was a bit more complicated than they’d been taught in school.

18th Century Clothing (Bobbie Halman, Crabtree Publishing Company, 1993). Bobbie Halman has created a wonderful series of books on the Colonial period, including this one and Colonial Home, Colonial Life, Colonial Crafts, A Colonial Town: Williamsburg, and many others. I’m listing this one only because I’ve already passed all the others along to children in OFB’s and my extended families. They are marvelous, with wonderfully detailed (but short and easy-to-understand) descriptions and photos of real people wearing the clothes, living the life, etc. 

“1776.” This is a movie of a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, not a book (the book 1776 by David McCullough is wonderful, but is a serious history for adults). Will kids love the fiesty John and Abigail Adams, the sentimental Tom and Martha Jefferson, and the bawdy Ben Franklin depicted in this movie, or will they simply be bored to tears? Frankly, OFB and I have no idea. We have many adult friends, including Richard and Bridget and Cole and Bruce, who simply love the movie, but we think kids might love it more. In any case, it certainly won’t hurt them! We suggest that you watch it together as a family and let us know what you think.

Please, please, if you know of other books about this period that you love, share them with us. We’re all happy to expand our collections!

           ‘Til next time,