These are descriptions of books
and other items which have been useful in my homeschool. The articles were
all originally printed in our local support group newsletter (thus the dates).
SELCO is our region’s library system, but many of these items will likely
be found in any extended library system using interlibrary loan. Librarians
are a wealth of information, and are usually very happy to help you search
for exactly what you need, so visit your library often, let the librarians
guide you in learning how to search, and give them a nice gift at Christmas!
While we’ve been studying Minnesota’s history, we’ve come across a few outstanding resources that I’d like to share with you. One of these is The Story of Minnesota: The State’s History in Picture Form by Jerry Fearing. Originally published as a one-year series in the Pioneer Press’s Sunday editions (1963-64), it was reprinted in book form in 1969 by the MN Historical Society. The story is in a unique “pictures and text” format (similar to the “Prince Valiant” comic series): 37 two-page color spreads. It gives a very detailed picture of Minnesota’s history through the early part of the 20th century. Ages 10+.
Gopher Tales by Antoinette Ford is a real sweetie of a book. This is a 1946 “reader” style book at about a 3rd-4th grade level. These MN history stories are each 4 or 5 pages long, and each has review and comprehension questions at the end. Very interesting and quaint!
Folk Songs of the Great Lakes Region by Lee Murdoch: Okay, this one is regional history! It contains an excellent audiotape of local music and a teacher’s guide with background notes, discussion questions, and a few pictures. This is very interesting and covers quite a variety of folk songs and the history surrounding them. Suitable for any age!
To enrich your U.S. History or Geography, why not cook something up? Cooking Up U.S. History (S. Barchers and P. Marden) has several hundred simple recipes organized by U.S. region and time period. Make Indian pemmican, colonial berry ink, soldiers’ hardtack, or southern hush puppies. Each recipe is followed by a “Library Link” question to stimulate interest in further research, and each section concludes with a comprehensive bibliography of related children’s fiction and non-fiction books. This is a wonderful resource.
I wish I’d seen Reading Rainbow: A Guide for Teachers (2 vols.) when my “big boys” were a bit younger! It’s sometimes fun to coordinate a video “field trip” with something you’re studying in math, science, or history, especially in the winter. If you like the “Reading Rainbow” program (many available on video through SELCO), these guides will help you with that coordinating. As well as summarizing 80 episodes of “Reading Rainbow”, the guides identify the theme of each episode, sugeest related activities and discussion topics, and list related reading books. We especially enjoyed “The Life Cycle of the Honeybee” when we were studying pollination, and “Hill of Fire” when we were “into” volcanoes. “Reading Rainbow” is ideal for ages 4 to 10.
Something the boys and I have really enjoyed is listening to books-on-tape. I often think of a work of literature that I know they’d enjoy, but I don’t have time to read it to them because we’re already in the middle of something else. By checking it out on tape, we can all listen to it on long car trips, during lunch, or while we work on art projects. Over the past few years we’ve listened to many wonderful books such as The Hobbit, Treasure Island, The Cay, Charlotte’s Web, Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories, Tom Sawyer, and Call It Courage. There are many more available: Johnny Tremain, The Jungle Book, The Prince and the Pauper, Mr. Revere and I, the whole Anne of Green Gables series and on and on. I highly recommend the unabridged readings in all cases; you lose the flavor of the original literature with either the abridged or the dramatized versions of books (this information is in the full material description on SELCO’s catalog. And, of course, the same discernment is necessary when choosing books on tape as when choosing books--not all tape sets (or books) called “children’s” are going to be acceptable.
Whether you’re looking fo a central book for a unit study, a historical novel for enrichment, or just some fun summer reading suggestions for the kids, these two series are worth looking into:
“The Whole Story” books are thoroughly annotated, unabridged editions of classic children’s literature. A few titles in the series are The Call of the Wild, The Jungle Book, Heidi, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island. These are beautiful books with both new and period illustrations, maps, diagrams, extended captions throughout explaining cultural references and obscure vocabulary, and much other information which “readers could otherwise access only through a broad range of supplemental research” (to quote a book cover). This really helps the modern reader to enjoy these “antique” classics.
Cynthia Harnett’s adventure novels: I hesitated to list this second series, because one of the books may be objectionable to some*, but they were so good and so well-written that I don’t want them to be overlooked. Now with that “disclaimer” I’ll let this description from the book jacket say the rest: “Cynthia Harnett’s Adventure Novels--Action and intrigue mark these six outstanding books, written by well-known British author Cynthia Harnett. Drawing on historical events and details about life in the past, Harnett has fashioned colorful and fascinating backgrounds for her characters. Each novel is set in England, and together the six books span the years from 1415, when England was ruled by King Henry V, to 1690, when Sir Christopher Wren was building St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.” these books are not sequels; any of them can be read individually as each story stands alone. Independent reading level: jr. high and up (younger aloud).
Here are the individual titles with the publisher’s description of each:
The Sign of the Green Falcon -- Dickson, apprenticed to the mercers, finds himself involved unwittingly in a plot against the king.
The Writing on the Hearth -- Stephen worries that his dreams to study at Oxford may be jeopardized by his association with someone who practices black magic.
The Cargo of the Madalena -- Bendy solves the mystery when Caxton, the master printer, fails to receive paper shipped to him aboard the “Madalena”.
The Merchant’s Mark -- The son of a wealthy wool merchant, Nicholas manages to unmast a plot designed to ruin his father’s business.
Stars of Fortune -- The four eldest Washington children--ancestors of George Washington--become involved in a secret plot to help young Princess Elizabeth flee the country.
The Great House -- Barbara and Geoffrey accompany their architect father to the site of a new house and in the end make a significant contribution to his work.
*The Writing on the Hearth, but read it yourself before you decide to skip it. The theme is “how can we tell good from evil?” and the conclusion the main character comes to is “by their fruits you will know them”.
Cooking Up World History is another wonderfully useful book by the same people who brought us Cooking Up U.S. History. No matter what (or where) you’re studying, you will be able to find several related recipes to try in this hefty resource!
Westward Ho! An Activity Guide to the Wild West by Laurie Carlson offers much more than just activities. This book has several pages of introductory text for each topic covered (“Trail Blazers”, “Mountain Men”, “Rush for Gold”, “Settling Down”, etc.), enough to thoroughly cover this era for your elementary-age student. Activities include songs, recipes, square-dance instructions, games, and much more. Lots of fun in this one. Ages 5-12.
If you have a reader interested in the Orphan Train Stories, they may also like Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story by Andrea Warren. This short book (76 pp.) intersperses chapter relating the true story of Lee Nailling, a child on one of the orphan trains in 1926, with chapters which tell the history of the orphan trains. The story is not always a happy one, but it ends with a lovely credit to God for His watchful care. Illustrated throughout with photos; bibliography of orphan train books.
If you would like to integrate art history into your curriculum, you may be interested in Shirley Glubok’s books. The SELCO system holds about 35 of her short, thoroughly illustrated books on the art of many cultures, as well as some topical art books. Ranging from art of the Vikings, Eskimos, or Etruscans, to many periods of American history, knights in armor, historical dolls, and photography, these are very useful little books. They are mostly black and white, and the ones we’ve read have pretty brief text, but lots of photos to thoroughly acquaint you with the art of the culture or time period. Browsing through these may give you some ideas for related art projects, too! (Hint: Search by author name to scan all her titles--there were too many to list here, although many are “The Art of _____”).
Another subject you might wish to look at during your historical/geographic studies is the science known in various cultures. Published by Franklin Watts, the “Science in…” series has a reading level of probably 5th grade and up. Each book is written by a different author, but they consistently have ten or so short chapters covering such topics as astronomy, agriculture, and medicine. We’ve read Science in Ancient Egypt and Science in Ancient Rome; there are several others. To see them all, search “Science in” in the title category. These are very interesting books.
Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloane is a wonderful book to include in your study of American history or engineering. The author/artist has taken Noah Blake’s real 1805 diary, and expanded upon it--writing in interesting detail about every facet of the self-sufficient early American life, and illustrating it fully in pen and ink. For example, Noah describes in March, the construction of their new wood floor, but Eric Sloane enriched this with a description and a drawing of how housewives “decorated” their dirt floors (before the wood floor could be built) by sweeping them and then scratching in a carpet-like design when company was expected! There are many descriptions of the well-designed tools and household gadgets, and the amazing machinery of this era. Although this book would be of interest to anyone, it will especially appeal to boys and to anyone with an engineering bent. Reading level, ages 10+.
The Swallowtail Butterfly-The Mosquito-The Silkworm (“Animal Families” series by Diamond Entertainment Corp.) This 33 minute-long video composed of excellent close-up photography, background music, and narration says “for younger viewer”, but all four of my boys (through age 12) and I found it interesting. Each 11 minute segment uses appropriate vocabulary (ie., “metamorphosis”, “larvae”, etc.), but narration is simple enough for a four-year-old to understand. If you haven’t raised a caterpillar yourself (not to mention the silkworm and the mosquito!), or even if you have, this is a neat way to experience metamorphosis. Note: To locate in SELCO, type in “t=swallowtail”; for some reason it doesn’t come up when you search by subject.
John and Logan and I recently did a two-day “quicky” unit study on tropical rainforests, and in so doing, I came across some really beautiful and interesting books. Unlike most books about tropical rainforests, these do not make heavy demands of the child reader to “save the rainforest” by influencing their parents and their political system!
Antonio’s Rainforest by Anna Lewington (44 pp.) describes with text, photos, maps, and drawings the day-to-day life of eight-year-old Antonio and his family, who live as rubber tappers in the Amazon of Northwestern Brazil. It also includes a thorough introduction to the history and discovery of rubber, and how it is tapped, processed, and used.
Amazon Diary by Hudson Talbott and Mark Greenberg (42 pp.) is a fictional diary, with real photos and drawings, of 6th grader Alex Winter’s emergency crash-landing in the Amazon Jungle while on a plane trip to see his anthropologist parents in South America. While stranded in the jungle he is “adopted” by a primitive tribe, the Yanomami, and we get a look at their life from a modern-day 6th-grader’s point of view. The Yanomami are a real tribe, and all the information in the book is true--only the storyline is fictional. (Be forewarned--the Yanomami are a primitive people living in a hot climate and thus wear almost nothing).
Inside the Amazing Amazon by Don Lessen begins with a very good introduction to the rainforest’s incredible ecology. After that there are four fold-out sections, one to represent the creatures found in each layer of the forest: floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layer (or overstory). Each section also includes a description of several animals and plants found in that layer, and they ar amazing!
Jungle Days, Jungle Nights by Martin & Janis Jordan (unpaged) follows a year of life in the jungle. The book cover describes it best,
“Both atmospheric and informative, the text conveys a strong sense of how each species depends on its environment, while the richly charged paintings bring the animals and plants of the jungle into dazzling focus.”
This is a beautiful book.
We have recently been studying the artists of Renaissance Italy and have found some really excellent resources focusing on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonorotti. If you are considering looking at the life and work of either of these men, the SELCO system has some wonderful resources for you:
The Life of Leonardo da Vinci is a very detailed biographical video which has been dubbed from the original Italian. Plan on plenty of time to absorb the approximately 280-minutes of this very interesting 5-part series.
Leonardo da Vinci: Artist, Inventor, and Scientist of the Renaissance by F. Romei offers a brief biography of Leonardo's life, as well as much well-illustrated background material pertaining to Renaissance-era Italy, the apprentice system, and Leonardo's artistic and scientific discoveries and work. Ages 10+.
Leonardo da Vinci for Kids by Janis Herbert is a fairly thorough and very interesting biography, suitable for all ages, supplemented with 21 related activities which are probably best for elementary and jr. high ages. This book alone could be the basis for a nice unit study.
What Makes a Leonardo a Leonardo? by Muhlberger explores several of the artist's masterpieces, commenting on technique, subject matter, and his innovations.
The Second Mrs. Giaconda by E.L.Konigsberg is a historical, but very fictional, novel exploring Leonardo's years with the rascally child, Salai, and speculating on the Mona Lisa's origins. A fun read-aloud.
Michelangelo by Diane Stanley --a somewhat sophisticated picture book biography for ages 10+. (This author has written many excellent biographies in this format, including Leonardo daVinci, which I haven't seen yet.)
Michelangelo and Raphael in the Vatican has excellent large-format and fold-out color plates of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as well as other paintings by these and others in the Vatican. The larger pictures make all the difference!
Michelangelo: Master of the Italian Renaissance by G. di Cagno is a well-illustrated look at the artist and his works as well as the culture in which he lived. Same series as the F. Romei Leonardo.
The Agony and the Ecstasy, a 1960's video starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as the Pope, and based on the Irving Stone novel, is a fun way to "wrap up" this study.
There’s a really neat series of activity and information books that you can use to add some fun to your homeschool studies. Chicago Review Press has published eight books on everything from the westward movement in America (Westward Ho!) to life in ancient Greece and Rome (Classical Kids). Each book follows a similar format, interspersing informational and well-written text about the topic with simple, fun activities that tie in. In Shakespeare for Kids, your children will make a goblet and other items in two activities, then they can choose from several acts of a Shakespeare play to dramatize using the “props” they have manufactured. In Westward Ho!, your children make a travel diary, make candles, and save seeds for next year’s garden. Other titles in the series are Days of Knights and Damsels (medieval life), Leonardo da Vinci for Kids, On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids, Shakespeare for Kids, and Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids. The newest book in the series is Old Testament Days, but SELCO did not have a copy last time I checked; hopefully this one will be added to their holdings, too. These books are recommended for first grade and up; the activities I’ve seen seemed geared towards elementary and middle-schoolers, but the text would be informative for all.
Lots of time for lazy summer reading and what are you going to read? This month I want to recommend a couple of series that will keep you and/or your children reading for a good part of the summer or longer. The first book in Ralph Moody’s turn-of-the-century autobiographical series is
called Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers. This story begins with the Moody family moving to Colorado, presumably for the cleaner air, as Ralph’s father was suffering from tuberculosis, and struggling to succeed on their ranch in the mountains. During the course of their first year, Ralph has to deal with school bullies and their rough donkey(!), as well as his bossy older sister; he learns horseback riding from a real cowboy, has a run-in with the local sheriff, and makes friends with an aged Indian. While the stories are fun and interesting, providing many details about life in a unique time and place, they also offer many character lessons and opportunities for discussion. These are the other titles in the series, in order:
Man of the Family
The Home Ranch
Mary Emma and Company
Fields of Home
Shaking the Nickel Bush
The Dry Divide
Horse of a Different Color
I should mention that, in keeping with the realistic nature of these books, some of the dialogue contains cursing; other than that one drawback, these are an excellent series of books suitable as read-alouds for the whole family or independent reading for ages ten and up.
Another series we’ve really enjoyed are the Horatio Hornblower books by C.S. Forester. These are nautical tales of life on board the ships of the Royal British Navy during the Napoleonic period. For a good introduction to the stories, watch the excellent video adaptations of the first three books available through SELCO. We watched these during a “sick week” last winter and got “hooked” (although we felt that the fourth one was below standard), so we started reading the books (which are best read in order) and found out both that the videos were true to the novels, and that the novels are excellent. They begin with young Horatio Hornblower, who has never been on a ship before, beginning life as a midshipman by becoming horribly seasick, to his chagrin. He struggles to find honorable solutions to the challenges that face him in naval life, and ultimately triumphs over such adversities as a cruel and dominating senior midshipman, the disrespect of his men, and being placed in temporary command of a sinking ship. We have read three or four of the books, the series is much longer, and the books are appropriate as independent reading for junior high and up, or as read-alouds for all ages. Boys, especially, will enjoy these.
We have been studying the Civil War era this year, and have found most of our resources at the public library, so I wanted to share some of these items with you this month. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt is an excellent fictional classic about a family struggling to survive the hardships and divided loyalties of the war. I chose this one to read aloud, and even my 6- and 7-year-olds enjoyed listening to it.
Albert Marrin has written several very readable and interesting civil war biographies suitable for jr. and sr. high (adults will enjoy his works, too). Unconditional Surrender: U.S. Grant and the Civil War, and Virginia’s General: Robert E. Lee are two of these, and both offer many interesting details and anecdotes about their subjects, as well as giving a good picture of army life and many of the specific battles during the war. I can’t recommend Albert Marrin’s books enough--he has written on a variety of historical topics and eras; if any of them fit into your studies, you’ll want to find them.
The Civil War for Kids is another Chicago Review Press “unit-study-in-a-book” by Janis Herbert. Sandwiched between short chapters about the war are instructions for completing many games, activities, and crafts to enrich the study. These include making butternut dye, homemade ink, and a battlefield stretcher; having a rebel yell contest, and being the general directing a Civil War battle (on paper!). This book would be a good stand-alone introduction to the war for older elementary and jr. high ages.
There are many videos about the war in SELCO’s collection; we thought the best by far was the PBS documentary series (7 or so episodes). Glory, about the first all-black regiment in American history, is very good, but depicts graphic violence unsuitable for younger or sensitive viewers. Uncle Tom’s Cabin starring Phylicia Rashaad is a good family introduction to this story that influenced our country so greatly, but you need to know that it is extremely abridged from the book.
I really wanted us to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin aloud together, but the length was daunting, then I found a good unabridged reading of the novel on tape. We are listening to that now--it’s very engaging and makes exciting listening while we work on art projects, fold laundry, or ride in the car! Also on tape we found All for the Union, the civil war diary of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. I’d like to say we listened to it all, but all I can say is that what we did listen to sounded very interesting.
Civil War-era music on CD also enriched our study; I think there are quite a few different recordings in the system--I believe I found them by searching under “subject” for “music--Civil War”, but you may need to get a librarian’s advice on this.
This is getting long, but I’ll try to end quickly with a few books my “younger readers” have enjoyed: Harriet and the Runaway Book, an easy reader about Harriet Beecher Stowe; Me and Willie and Pa by Monjo, an easy reader about the Lincoln family; Thee, Hannah by M. deAngeli about a Quaker family in Philadelphia before the war; and Two Little Confederates by Thomas Nelson Page (who was a child in the south during the war), an excellent and touching read-aloud chapter book about two little southern boys. You should be aware that some of the racist opinions which were commonplace at the time (in both north and south) are voiced in the book--you may want to scan ahead and “edit” before you read, or use this as an opportunity to discuss racism.
I hope this is helpful to some of you. I would like to add that our family wasn’t really looking forward to studying U.S. history this year (most of us prefer world history), but the resources we’ve found have made this unit “come alive“ for us.
Addendum, January 2002:
We just finished another really good “living book” set just after the end of the Civil War. Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder explores some of the emotions which remained after the war concluded. 12-year-old Will Page, orphaned by the Civil War, has to go live with his mother’s sister and her husband, who, to Will’s disgust, refused to fight in the war while others were injured and killed. There is a lot of food for both thought and discussion in this story of a young boy who must deal with his loss as well as learn to respect the differing decisions of others. We listened to this one on tape by Recorded Books, Inc.., the reading level is about 6th grade and up.
Math books aren’t usually considered “fun” reading, but we’ve come across a few that can be placed in that category, plus some that may just add a little spice to a dry math lesson.
Tiger Math is an introduction to one zoo’s orphaned tiger cub as well as a thorough introduction to the various types of graphs and the information they convey. Illustrated with photos throughout. Story: grades pre-K and up; math: grades 2-4.
Counting on Frank is a “mathematical thinking” book that emphasizes measurement; I’ll quote from the cover: “Meet Frank’s owner…Call him a measuring maniac or a fool for figuring, but this young man surely has a unique way of looking at the world. From peas to ballpoint pens, everything takes on a new--and hilarious--significance when he examines it. And, in the back of the book, you’ll have an opportunity to look at your world in the same detail--from macaroni to how fast you grow. Enjoy the adventure!” Fun for all ages, math for elementary.
Along the same vein, but even wackier, is The Math Curse by Jon Scieszka. It begins,”On Monday in math class, Mrs. Fibonacci says, ‘You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.’ On Tuesday I start having problems.” From there, the hapless main character goes through her day seeing everything in terms of math problems. Part of the fun of this one is figuring out which problems are solvable with the information given, as some aren’t, and many are just plain silly. These are really hard to grade, but I’d say probably 3rd or 4th grade and up on this one (even your older kids may like it).
A whole slew of counting-with-food-and-candy-items books have come out in the last few years; I’ve seen Cheerios, M&M’s, gummy candies, Skittles, and others featured in these books. My impression is that most of these are basically advertising, and cover only very simple math concepts for which a book is redundant. One book from this genre which we have found both fun and enlightening (to kindergartners and first graders, anyway) is Jelly Beans for Sale, which uses colorful photos of children selling Jelly Bellies at a “jelly bean stand” to very clearly cover all coin values, adding coins, and equivalencies up to a quarter. Also, More M&M’s Math has an excellent graphing activity as well as covering division and remainders in a hands-on way. You will need an individual-size bag of M&M’s to complete the activities.
There are several good books which help reinforce or visualize the difficult concepts of scale, proportion, and number value. Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is? and What’s Smaller than a Pygmy Shrew?, both by Robert E. Wells, will introduce your 3rd-6th graders to the grand scale of the universe, from molecules up to the whole universe. How Much is a Million? and If I Had a Million, both by Steven Kellogg, help students (and their moms!) to visually comprehend the vastness of that number. After reading this, you’ll be overwhelmed anew at the size of the national debt! All ages.
Three different versions of the same folktale all teach a lesson about doubling (and they’re good stories, too): The Rajah’s Rice, A Grain of Rice, and The King’s Chessboard. It might be fun to read two or three and compare them (thus covering literature as well as math). Upper elementary.
There’s not space to cover in depth all the good math books available in SELCO, but here’s a quick list of titles with the concepts each touches on:
© The Grapes of Math…grouping and skip counting to add without counting. Fun book!
© Grandfather Tang’s Story…a Chinese fairy-story told with tangrams (includes a pattern for tangrams)
© Mapping Penny’s World…mapping concepts and various types of maps
© Measuring Penny………………measurement
© Fractals, Googols and Other Mathematical Tales? as well as others by Theoni Pappas…..interesting, amazing, and unusual math ideas including discussion of prime numbers, dimensions, aerodynamics, number systems, shapes, proportion, architecture, and much more. This one deserves special mention because it will be of interest to Jr. High and up.
I don’t know how to categorize the list of books I’m going to give you here. Biology? Human physiology? You can decide, but they’re all fun books that cover a lot of interesting information about different aspects of the human body.
Brain Surgery for Beginners: A Scalpel-Free Guide to your Insides by Parker and West (57 pp., grades 5+) offers an amusing but factual overview of many of the body’s systems from the perspective of how they are directed by the brain.
The Brain by Seymour Simon (gr. 5+) complements the above book with a variety of impressive photos of the brain and extensive information on the brain’s functions.
In Inspector Bodyguard Patrols the Land of U by Vicki Cobb (gr. 6+ independently, younger if aloud), episodes following the fictional (and very small!) “Inspector Bodyguard” and the challenges he faces protecting the Land of U alternate with factual explanations of the amazing ways the body protects and defends itself from cuts, heat, infection, and many other dangers.
They Came from DNA by Aronson (gr. 6+) is the story of an alien astronaut, stranded on earth, trying to figure out human genetics from clues, as a detective would. It is a very clear book with one entirely skippable chapter on evolution. Three little books by Fran Backwill introduce the same concepts and more for slightly younger readers (about 4th gr.+). Those titles are Cells Are Us, Cell Wars, and DNA is Here to Stay.
All these books are fun and lively, but don’t let that fool you--the concepts covered are sophisticated enough to be a good addition to your science program.
We recently watched Sousa to Satchmo, a very interesting video on the development of jazz music from its march and ragtime roots. In the video, renowned jazz musician Winton Marsalis clearly explains the music theory, as well as the history, behind this development, using computer animations and several different bands to demonstrate the principles he describes. This is one in a series of four Marsalis on Music videos; the others are Why Toes Tap, Listening for Clues, and Tackling the Monster (about music practice). The series was designed for an elementary-age audience, but the music theory bored my non-musically educated 1st and 3rd graders (though they liked the music); young children with some music background might get more out of it. Otherwise, I’d recommend it for anyone grades 5 or 6 and up (I learned a lot!).
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