books,  history,  homeschooling

great children’s books for exploring the 19th Century

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The 19th century was an amazing century of industrialization, railways and colonization. The Napoleonic wars, Crimean war, opium wars, the American civil war were just a few of the wars fought during the century. Beethoven was composing his symphonies. Railways were transforming travel, trade and many other things. My appreciation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days grows as I learn to recognize how new and exciting the ability to travel far distances by rail was. My appreciation of feminism grows as I read about the nineteen century woman’s struggle to break free of the limits placed on her, but it helps too in recognizing the limits of feminism, as first wave feminism was born out of the situation of upper class women, and not women in general. I start wondering if there are better ways of explaining the existence of social services by acknowledging the role industrialization played in making people into “unnecessary extras”?A few of the books about the 19th century.

The following are some books and resources for learning about the 19th century. The list is naturally not complete – there are hundreds of other great resources that could be added, but it is a start. I’m listing the books in order from the ones most suited for younger children to the ones for older children. A few of the books stretch into the early 20th century. The books are focused around the lives of particular English and American people with a few other stories as well.

It is important to note what is missing though. I know that this list tells little about the lives of the people being colonized during the 19th century, or those fighting against colonization. It includes very little about North American history and the ones it does include focus more on lifestyle or technological changes and not about the political history. This is not because those other aspects are not important. They are tremendously important, but I’m basing this list on what my children and I have been reading recently.

As we read these books I slowly began removing some of my notes about Christina Rossetti from my history bulletin board and replaced them with other notes about the 19th century. These notes are not meant to be comprehensive information about the 19th century but only to help kids get a sense of things being interconnected. Some were written with my children’s assistance, based on their priorities. I print them out and pin them to the bulletin board inviting my children to organize and reorganize them according to a rough timeline, or to different themes. Click here to view my notes on the 19th century.

Now onto the books….

The true story of Peter Rabbit : how a letter from Beatrix Potter became a children’s classic by Jane Johnson. This picture book would be good for younger children. It tells of how Beatrix Potter sent the story of Peter Rabbit as a letter to a young boy sick in bed. I wish they would have explained a bit more about Beatrix’s connection with the family, like that the mother had been Beatrix’s “German governness” teaching her the language. Or perhaps it could have mentioned Beatrix love of painting fungus.

My Napoleon by Catherine Brighton. This adorable children’s book is told from the point of view of a young girl living on the Saint Helene. It is based off of the real Betsy Balcombe’s memoir of her friendship with Napoleon.

Beethoven: Great Composer by Anna Carew-Miller and Vitali Konstantinov. This book is a cut above the average kid’s book about Beethoven. The introductory page starts off with a discussion of Fate as a wild river, and Beethoven as a hero for fighting against the limitations of his fate, and that theme of fate and heroism is brought up periodically throughout the book. That’s fine, but the better part is that the book includes an abundance of details about the historical events around. It tells how Mozart influenced Beethoven’s life first because Beethoven’s father wanted him to be another child protégé and later when Beethoven became Mozart’s student. It tells of Beethoven’s admiration for the French Revolution and his longing to not be composing just for the aristocracy. It mentions his admiration for Napoleon and his disappointment in Napoleon. (Leading me to ask the kids what would Beethoven likely think of Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, according to the version of the story told by Shakespeare?) Nor does the book shy away from mentioning things like Beethoven’s nephew’s attempted suicide. Yet despite mentioning all those details, the book remains a children’s book. It has big colorful pictures, large text and is not very long. The book inspired me to go back and re-read this post about Beethoven and the (adults nonfiction) books that inspired me to write that post.

Hurray for Inventors by Marcia Williams. This comical book has stories about a number of 19th century inventors including Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, and the lesser known but still amazing Richard Trevithick, George Stephenson (steam engine inventors), and Antonio Meucci.

All Aboard!: Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine  by Monica Kulling. This book on Elijah McCoy mentions (very briefly) the underground railway before moving on to talk about how the trains used to need to stop to be oiled every half hour, and how McCoy solved that problemCurious about the reason for McCoy's oil can, we explored how oil lubricates metal.. We used a couple of coins on jar lids to explore what the oil might have been doing.

In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps It Up, also by Monica Kulling. Margaret Knight invented a paper bag folding machine, but more interesting to me was that she invented a covered shuttle to make cotton mills safer. Industrialization and the danger of the mills and factories is an important aspect of the 19th century. Another good book about her is Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully.

Through the Tempest Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein by Sharon Darrow. Mary Shelley’s mother was the famous Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women and her father the philosopher William Godwin, her father rejected their previous ideas about women’s rights when he remarried and fourteen year old Mary was sent to Scotland for a while to avoid fights with her stepmother. In this fictionalized picture book, Mary is portrayed as helping at the father’s publishing business, but being denied the ability to study Greek like her brothers.

The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter by Bonnie Christensen. Nellie’s family is of the social class where the abundant work in factories and sweatshops is considered inadequate, but she still needs a job. Writing a letter to the editor led to a position as a woman journalist (like Edith in Downton Abbey.) The picture book speeds through her time writing about the fate of working girls and women, and her reporting on Mexico. It spends a bit more time on her investigating the insane asylum and devotes most of the pages on her journey around the world. I first heard about Nellie Bly on an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, where the fictional first lady criticizes the president’s lack of knowledge about women’s history.

Living History: Industrial Revolution.The industrial revolution started in the 18th century but it continued into the 19th century, and the 19th century can’t really be understood without exploring it. This book uses pictures of actors in costumes for illustrations and has two page spreads on various topics including “The First Railways,” “The Scramble for Empire” and “Medicine and Health.”

Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing by Leonard S. Marcus. I love the way this book captures the energy, excitement, grime, and some of the politics of the 19th century. It tells background of the city of Manchester’s nickname “Cottonopolis” and gives a great view into the growing world of newspapers of the 19th century and the role the railway played in shaping the culture and expectations. The book has over 60 pages with a focus on text but lots of cute and silly pictures thrown in as well. Near the end of the book it mentions the influence Caldecott had on Beatrix Potter, in whose house one of his original drawings hung.

Heart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale by Gena K. Gorrell. This book includes a great combination of historical background and personal detail. Florence Nightingale was mentioned frequently in the books I read about Christina Rossetti because she was so pivotal in challenging the idleness to which upper class women were subjected. She wasn’t just the loving angel with the lamp, she also was a meticulous record keeper, taking notes and writing reports. She made her enemies but kept working. As a social justice advocate I enjoyed reading about the abundance of letters she wrote, and her dedication to keep working, taking the stories to the media when necessary in order to force those in power to take action. She changed the way people saw soldiers (not as useless brutes but people deserving of good treatment), she worked to change the way workhouses were run and she tried to bring about improvements in sanitation and agriculture in India.

England’s Jane: The Story of Jane Austen is a fairly straight forward biography of the famous author, but with the addition of excerpts from a few of her letters, and a handful of side essays on topics like “Marie Antoinette” and “The Regency Period.” Of course there’s no point reading this if one doesn’t also read or watch the movies for the stories of Jane but those can be great fun too.

Best of Times: The Story of Charles Dickensby Peggy Caravantes. I asked my nine year old to read this book on his own but he took more of it in when I re-read selected parts of it after we had watched specific movies based on Dickens books. The book mentions briefly bits about Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Carlyle. I laughed reading the book to realize the connection between Charles Dickens and Christina Rossetti. Dicken’s was friends with Willkie Collins (author of The Woman in White), and Collins brother was once a love-interest of Christina’s sister Maria though he ended up marrying Dicken’s daughter Kate instead.

Sherlock Holmes: We read The Hound of the Baskervilles from the Whole Stories Series. I like how these books have little side details and bits of history in the wide margins but my nine year old found those annoyingly distracting.

Horrible Histories television series: Obviously this isn’t a book but as a great resource for getting the kids interested in the era and adding some details we turned to Horrible Histories sketches about the “Vile Victorians.”

I’ve written seperate posts about a few other books relevant to this era. Check out my post about stories of Emily Dickinson, and my post about the book Jackanapes.


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  • Ticia

    I missed your post when you first linked up to Phyllis’ linkie, so I’m glad she featured you.

    I hadn’t heard of most of these books, so they certainly look like an interesting read to me.

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