11 Great Picture Books for History


Nearly every time I try to sit on our living room couch, I can’t actually sit. That’s because of the trail of two or three wide-open chapter books left on the cushions by my 11-year-old. She really loves being a bookworm, but she has yet to learn the purpose of a bookmark. Sigh.


I suppose this is a symptom of her book obsession. She reads all sorts of books — classics, biographies, historical fiction, children’s fantasy, devotions and poetry — and usually has several in progress at once. One book I frequently try not to sit on is The Racketty-Packetty House, which she is in the process of converting into a script for a play she hopes to direct this summer. That seems like such a grown-up endeavor!

To my great delight, though, this dear bookworm has not yet outgrown the ritual of curling up on the couch with me to enjoy a lovely picture book from the library. I really don’t know what I will do with myself if she ever does outgrow such a ritual because I have a serious weakness for picture books.

My favorite read-alouds for this upper elementary age are historical picture books that bring the past to life. It’s always delightful to read well-illustrated, factually accurate books about real people and real events. Here’s a list of books in this genre that we’ve really enjoyed reading together as part of our homeschooling adventures.

1. Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick is the best new book I’ve read in this genre.


I fell hard for it immediately because it is a sweet, well-told story as well as a beautifully illustrated work. You may have guessed this: it features the real bear who inspired A.A. Milne’s much-loved character Winnie-the-Pooh. But it’s also a great World War I story about Canadian soldier Harry Colebourn. I simply adore it.

2. Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff is another fabulous book I’ve come across in this historical picture book genre.



The book, which features Ben Franklin and Franz Mesmer, has mesmerized my whole family. The eye-catching typography and magnificent illustrations make it exceptionally fun to read; plus the fascinating story could easily count as a read-aloud for science as well as history, not to mention a tiny French lesson, too!


3. Lily: The Girl Who Could See by Sally Oxley and Tim Ladwig is a lovely book about English artist Lilias Trotter, who faithfully served the Lord as a missionary in North Africa in the late 1800s. After you read it, consider watching the documentary film about Trotter’s life: Many Beautiful Things, which is available at manybeautifulthings.com.


4. A Bear in War and its sequel, Bear on the Homefront, both by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat, tell the bittersweet stories of one small stuffed bear, Teddy, and a family’s experiences during World War I and World War II. You can see Teddy at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.


5. A Voyage in the Clouds by Matthew Olshan is about the first international flight by balloon in 1785. It includes fantastic illustrations by Sophie Blackall, who also illustrated Finding Winnie.  The Frenchman and the English-American in this notable crossing of the English channel did not get along, and the author uses that angle to make this telling of the event quite interesting. Disclaimer: A wee bit of what you might categorize as bathroom humor appears in the text and illustrations, but only because it’s a true part of the event. Don’t miss the author’s note at the end to clarify where some liberties were taken.


6. Fly, Cher Ami, Fly! by Robert Burleigh is about a truly heroic carrier pigeon that helped rescue a lost battalion of soldiers during World War I. The illustrations are quite captivating, and the tale is a memorable piece of American history. This remarkable bird can be seen at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.


7. Stubby: The Dog Soldier by Blake Hoena tells the story of another animal from World War I that’s also on display at D.C.’s National Museum of American History. Stubby braved the battlefields alongside soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 26th Division.

A few other favorites in this genre that we have checked out from the library are:

8. Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan

9. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant

10. Noah Webster and His Words by Jeri Ferris

11. Papa is a Poet: A Story about Robert Frost by Natalie S. Bober










A Back-to-School Creature

’Twas the night before school,

And downstairs in the house,

Some wild creature was stirring;

Was it a bat or a mouse?


Trapped within the li’l wall

Between girls’ beds and bathroom,

This creature was restless,

Would the school day be doomed?


And Ma still up planning

With her nose in three books,

Sat frozen to her chair

Too afraid to go look.


But Pa with his courage

Went to investigate,

Thumping hard on the wall.

Oh, so what if it’s late?


The girls in their soft beds

Slept on – still unaware

Of the noisy creature

Who was certain to scare!


Early they all arose,

A new school year to start.

With fresh pencils and paper,

Story-writers take heart.­


To library Ma went

Toting students and books,

While the pest man and Pa

Searched the crannies and nooks.


Found still stuck in the wall

’Twas a mouse, not a bat.

Now Ma sits a-wonderin’

If she’s happy ’bout that.

Let This Be Written

A few years ago our family had the privilege of seeing an amazing exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at our local science museum. How incredible to see those ancient words of God – words that He miraculously preserved in jars inside of caves for two thousand years! What a mighty act of God! Preserving words on paper for two thousand years would be impossible for man, but it was possible with God.

Seeing those scrolls reminded me of Psalm 102:18, which says, “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD.” I am indeed thankful for those men of long ago who obediently and diligently wrote those precious words down on scrolls so that my generation and my children could see them and praise God.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit also reminded me of Psalm 145:4. “One generation shall commend Your works to another, and shall declare Your mighty acts.” What a great verse this is for homeschool moms – and all parents and grandparents for that matter. If we could only teach one subject as homeschoolers this year, I think this should be it.

In her story book Bible The Mighty Acts of God, author Starr Meade explains that the purpose of telling stories of God’s mighty acts isn’t for entertainment value or good moral examples. The purpose is to make known the wonder of God’s great character.

Likewise, John Piper of Desiring God says we want the next generation to have not just heads full of right facts about the works of God, but also “hearts that burn with the fire of love for the God of those facts – hearts that will sell everything to follow Jesus into the hardest places of the world.”

That’s quite a vision for our students! And as this new school year begins, Psalm 102:18 and Psalm 145 are great encouragements to pass on to my children not just what I know about the one true God from reading the Bible, but also to pass on – heart to heart – what I personally love about God and how I have witnessed Him at work in my life. He has revealed specific attributes of His character – like His faithfulness, compassion, and unfailing love – in specific moments and seasons throughout my life. Knowing by heart those personal faith stories and marveling at God’s great character will fuel my children’s love for Him and better equip them to pass the faith on to their own children someday.

When I take time to recall how God has acted mightily in my own personal history, God is magnified and I am encouraged and comforted. But in order to recall these little faith stories and declare them to my children, I must first record them somehow. That involves watching for God’s grace in daily life, taking lots of pictures, making lists of specific things I am thankful for, writing down prayer requests, keeping a blog, and scrapbooking when I can. These practices take time and no, I don’t keep up with all of them regularly. But these practices are quite meaningful to me because together they build the history book of our lives.

Puritan Pastor John Flavel says, “There is not such a pleasant history for you to read in all the world as the history of your own lives, if you would sit down and record from the beginning hitherto what God has been to you, and done for you; what evidences and outbreakings of his mercy, faithfulness, and love there have been in all the conditions you have passed through.”

So what does praising God and declaring His greatness in the bits and pieces of my personal history look like? Some days it’s telling a story about my childhood as we eat lunch or reading aloud a passage from an old blog post or an old baby journal. Other days it’s looking at photos in a family scrapbook, reading an old letter from a grandparent, or clicking through a digital photo album of last week’s field trip.

In looking back at these records through the lens of God’s goodness, I see things I did not see before. I see ways He has cared for us, provided for us, comforted us, strengthened us, encouraged us, healed us and equipped us. I see how He has brought us through trials and sorrows. I remember joyous moments I would forget otherwise. And as I share all those insights with my children, I praise God.

Jonathan Parnell at Desiring God says the most essential detail to look for in our personal history is God’s mercy to us through Jesus.

“Every detail of God’s goodness to you has come through the blood of Jesus,” he says. “Look back on these providences and remember that you’ve earned none of them. They come by Jesus, or they don’t come at all. His cross is the most vivid demonstration of God’s love for us, and every little good we’ve seen has flowed from that glorious fountain. It did yesterday, and it will tomorrow.”

Parnell also suggests several other details to look for, such as God’s care for you, wisdom for you, grace for you and humility for you, as well as His goal in all your provisions and His goodness in comfortable stuff like socks. He explains each of these ideas thoroughly in an article online entitled “Seven Details to See in Your Past.”

This school year, I pray that teaching the next generation about God’s mighty acts and sharing stories of His goodness and mercy will be a higher priority each day. I pray that we keep pre-algebra and science lessons in the right perspective. I thank God for the fresh encouragement given by Asaph in Psalm 78, a passage which the ESV Bible titles “Tell the Coming Generation.” And I pray that we may arise and tell our children truths about God so that they set their hope in God, keep His commandments, and never ever forget the works of God.


Fly, Butterfly, Fly!


When the little package arrived in the mailbox that sunny afternoon in May, I was not sure what to expect inside. My two daughters were busy playing in the backyard, so I was alone when I cut open the cardboard box and found the five tiny caterpillars inside a little cup. It was just what I had ordered. The cup had a thick layer of gooey brown food on the bottom and a nice tight lid on top. This project was to be the highlight of our homeschool unit on butterflies, but I secretly feared these caterpillars were dead upon arrival. I could not detect any movement whatsoever.

Continue reading over here at The End in Mind.


Treasures for Pre-Teen Girls


“She is always sitting with her little nose burrowing into books. She doesn’t read them, Miss Minchin; she gobbles them up as if she were a little wolf instead of a little girl. She is always starving for new books to gobble…”

That’s how Captain Crewe describes his 7-year-old daughter Sara’s love for reading in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic A Little Princess. And like Sara Crewe, my pre-teen girls always seem to be gobbling up books and starving for new ones.

Hunting down a steady supply of wholesome, captivating books to feed their souls, encourage their hearts, and inspire their imaginations can be quite a daunting task. I want my girls to read and think about what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise, just as Philippians 4:8 instructs. But so much of what is newly published on the shelves for pre-teens is none of the above. Either it looks dark, creepy and twisted, or else it appears completely frivolous. Sometimes just seeing the book covers makes my heart sick enough that I don’t want to explore what unpleasant characters might lurk inside.

In His grace, God has been faithful in equipping me as I search for books. His hand is at work through wonderful websites that offer Christian reviews of children’s literature, such as Redeemed Reader and The Story Warren. God has led me to meaningful, age-appropriate books that I don’t have to pre-read entirely before sharing with my daughters. Specifically, I have felt God leading me to entire series of books written by trustworthy authors – some who lived a century ago and a select few from recent decades. Finding an entire series of books is a treasure! It helps satisfy my bookworms much longer than when I offer them a stand-alone novel. In addition, finding older books usually helps us steer clear of the objectionable worldviews that characterize some recently published works.


Because of television and movies, nearly everyone is familiar with the classic fiction series like Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery, The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We do enjoy reading these, and we especially adore Anne of Green Gables.


Sometimes in hunting for book series, I realize that a well-known, classic book has a sequel or is part of a series. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women is one of four in a series, and Caddie Woodlawn has a sequel entitled Caddie Woodlawn’s Family. Who knew?

More often, though, God leads me to a less popular series that tells the enchanting stories of lovable characters who demonstrate commendable virtues like perseverance, kindness, gratitude, creativity, patience, forgiveness, and gentleness.


For example, one of the older book series that we treasure is the All-of-a-Kind Family series written by Sydney Taylor in the 1950s. This delightful series relays the holidays and surprises shared by five Jewish sisters growing up in New York City in the early 1900s. The girls are genuinely kind to their family and others, and they persevere through challenges together.


Also based in the early 1900s, the Betsy-Tacy series by Maude Hart Lovelace features best friends Betsy and Tacy and their whimsical childhood excursions in Deep Valley. Their devotion to each other and their creativity in playing together make these stories sweet and memorable. They were first published in the 1940s.


Another excellent series published in the 1940s, the Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright introduces readers to the four Melendy children and their lively adventures while residing in the city and in the country. The siblings endure change, hardship and occasional disputes with one another as they grow in perseverance, forgiveness, and patience. Elizabeth Enright also wrote Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away, in which three brave cousins discover an abandoned lakeside resort and courageously make new friends.


Of course, not all of our favorite book series are old. One newer but lesser known fiction series my girls cherish is the Sarah, Plain and Tall series by Patricia MacLachlan. It includes five books about a mid-western farm family in the 19th century. Like the Ingalls, they carry on through the trials of farm life and adjust to family changes with love, forgiveness, patience and selflessness.


The Kathleen McKenzie series by Tracy Leininger Craven, which includes four books about a spunky and competitive 11-year-old growing up during the Great Depression, is another favorite collection. Kathleen bravely works through difficulties and uses her talents for God’s glory.


The newer collections that my oldest daughter reads over and over are those written by Lois Walfrid Johnson. Her faith-based historical fiction work includes the Freedom Seeker series, which is set in the 1850s along the Mississippi River and features the daughter of a steamboat captain. Set in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the early 1900s, her Adventures of the Northwoods series portrays the life of a 12-year-old who becomes part of a new family. And in her Viking Quest series, a young girl named Bree is captured by Viking raiders and taken from her home in Ireland. I had the great joy of meeting Lois at a conference this spring, and I told her that my 12-year-old had already gobbled up all of her books – most of them twice – and was eagerly awaiting her next series. Lois gently told me to tell her, “I’m sorry I can’t write books as fast as you can read them!” We look forward to her next series.


Besides reading a lot of fiction, my girls also appreciate biographies. An excellent collection of faith-based biographies for pre-teen girls is Wendy Lawton’s Daughters of the Faith series. Each book features a girl who lives out her faith boldly and overcomes significant struggles. The titles are Almost Home: A Story Based on the Life of the Mayflower’s Mary Chilton, The Tinker’s Daughter: A Story Based on the Life of Mary Bunyan, The Hallelujah Lass: A Story Based on the Life of Salvation Army Pioneer Eliza Shirley, Ransom’s Mark: A Story Based on the Life of the Pioneer Olive Oatman, and Courage to Run: A Story Based on the Life of Harriet Tubman.


Another collection of biographies that we just began reading is the Chosen Daughters series, which portrays the lives of women who accomplish extraordinary things by the grace of God. The first book we read is A Cup of Cold Water: The Compassion of Nurse Edith Cavell by Christine Farenhorst. It’s a compelling and very well written biography about Edith Cavell’s family, her childhood, her life of faith and her exemplary service as a nurse during World War I. We loved it and are eager to continue the Chosen Daughters series this fall. The other title by Christine Farenhorst is Wings Like a Dove: The Courage of Queen Jeanne D’Albret. Other titles in this series are Dr. Oma: The Healing Wisdom of Countess Juliana Von Stolberg by Ethel Herr; Against the Tide: The Valor of Margaret Wilson by Hope Irvin Marston; and Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata by Simonetta Carr.

A Hard Road Paved with Grace

At a crossroads. That’s where our homeschool journey began. By God’s grace, we felt peace that the public school path was not an option for our soon-to-be Kindergartner. But still two paths remained: private school and homeschool.

A Hard Road Paved with Grace - By Diana Barto

The private school option seemed like the most obvious route, especially since our oldest daughter was already attending preschool at the local private Christian school and enjoying it.

Click here to continue reading “A Hard Road Paved with Grace” over at The End in Mind.

More Maples and Springy-ish-ness


Last week we spent the first afternoon of spring at the Arboretum, exploring the tapped maple trees there and also looking for signs of spring.


The Arb uses different equipment for tapping trees — most notable are the bright blue bags, which make it easy to see the sap inside.




They also run these hoses between taps — and use the law of gravity — to collect sap from multiple trees. The Arb collects a lot of sap. Last year, they made 111 gallons of syrup. And if you figure that it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, that means they collected nearly 4,500 gallons of sap last spring. That’s quite impressive!

Another impressive tidbit to share concerns our watch for signs of springy-ish-ness. It’s impressive how much snow has melted since our Arboretum trip two weeks before this. Remember how we couldn’t find a single bench to sit on?


And remember the magnolia tree with the nearly invisible bench?


Well, the snow is melting and the girls found multiple places to sit!



Also, the tips of the magnolia’s branches are {maybe} looking a tad bit fuzzier.


In closing, I must credit the cranberries for their bold color contributions while we await the arrival of spring flowers and all.


Thank you, cranberries. And happy spring, y’all!





8 Tips for a Great Kindergarten

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Homeschooling Kindergarten is so much fun. And while both my Kindergarteners seem to have run off to higher grades in a blink, many of my friends are making plans to teach 5 and 6 year olds at home next fall. So here’s my two cents on Kindergarten.

1. A little structure with curriculum was helpful for me the first year of homeschooling, mostly because I didn’t have a teaching degree and didn’t feel super-confident. But don’t feel compelled to buy/use lots of curriculum for this age group. You can do wonders with a library card and a little creativity.

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2. Read-aloud, read-aloud, read-aloud. Reading lots and lots of picture books (and a storybook Bible and maybe a few chapter books) out loud is most essential. Listening to written word read is a vital part of literacy. This is where the library card comes in handy. Check out audio books in the children’s section, too. These are great for car rides, younger sibling’s nap times, or times when Mom is busy elsewhere. This post about reading includes various lists of children’s books you might want to put on reserve at the library.

3. Emphasize reading not handwriting, and don’t complicate letter names and sounds with pictures of apples, bananas and cats. Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons is an excellent curriculum that avoids the unnecessary “B is for Banana” work. Instead, you point to the letter and say only the sound. A very dear friend/elementary school teacher used it with her children, and that’s how I first heard about this book. It worked really, really well with both my girls. We waited to start it when they were nearly 5. There’s a tad bit of handwriting included in those lessons as well; I consider that part very optional, especially at first and especially with boys. I’d suggest just doing the 10-15 minute reading lesson part and then take a break.

4. If you want to teach handwriting, too, do it at a separate time for 5-10 minutes and don’t rely on pencil and paper only. Hands-on learners seem to like to do letter handwriting lessons on Mom’s back or in a tray of salt or with finger paint or play-dough. Have fun with that; there’s plenty of time for pencil and paper later. Also, lacing cards and writing with chalk are other fun ways to work on strengthening fine motor skills for pencil-holding.

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5. Do teach math. For my youngest’s Kindergarten year, we used “RightStart Math Level A.” (We’ve also used RightStart curriculum with my oldest since 1st grade and love it. Check out http://www.alabacus.com for samples and more details.) What I like best is that it is Montessori-style teaching, so it comes with lots of manipulatives and fun math games and visual reinforcements like the AL Abacus. It is really light on worksheets, which I think is wise, and it de-emphasizes counting. It stresses the importance of mental math and thinking through math problems, rather than just memorizing math facts. I personally have totally re-learned how I do math with this curriculum!

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6. Go outside! Aside from reading together, almost nothing is more wonderfully memorable than time spent enjoying God’s creation with your children. Soak up the sunshine, smell the flowers and learn their names, discover what little creatures are living nearby — what they eat and where they make their homes. This is science!

7. If you do purchase a boxed curriculum like My Father’s World or Sonlight, don’t let it consume you. You are the parent and the curriculum writers are simply giving ideas. You have excellent, creative ideas, too, and you are the world’s leading expert in what your Kindergartener knows and likes and needs to learn. Don’t become a slave to any curriculum.

8. Stay flexible. Don’t feel like what you do the first year sets things in stone. As you go along, you can always change it up or combine styles or switch out what isn’t a good fit for your child’s learning style or your teaching style. Flexibility is one of the huge benefits of homeschooling.

Origami Love

While my youngest and I were making lollipops last week, my oldest daughter sat at the kitchen table making origami stuff. Last summer I bought her this easy origami kit and she was completely hooked on it after spending an afternoon playing with the kit and my dear cousin.

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Over the last several months, she has very much folded herself into quite an impressive little origami artist. So for Valentines, origami was a perfect idea for sharing with her friends. She made these cute little origami frogs. They really hop!

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We stumbled upon a new origami book at the library last week — Easy Ocean Origami by Christopher Harbo. The book has directions for origami water lilies. They turned out quite well!

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My little artist was not sure she approved of using scissors with origami, as this book suggests for several of its projects. Even so, she had quite a lot of fun making the goldfish in this book, too. But probably the most fun was racing the windsurfer boats. We give the book two thumbs up!

Hitting the Books

It’s been a long, hot summer but now we are hitting the school books again! During our break, we read aloud one of my favorite chapter books: Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls. By the way, Rawls is also the author of the tear-jerker Where the Red Fern Grows. Anyway, Summer of the Monkeys partly inspired the sock monkey theme we have going in the school room this fall.

Our bubbly first-grader named her newest monkey Gris.

And our dilligent fourth-grader named her newest monkey Marron.

The sock monkeys and books aren’t all that’s new to the classroom this year. The biggest addition is a couple of used school desks (with storage under the lid!) that I bought from a nearby Christian school that had closed. The girls are quite enamored with these desks, and I love that they are exceptionally durable and adjustable in height.

So that’s a quick update of what’s shaping up around here. I might be back in a few days to discuss some of the books and various curriculum we are using this year. But for now, please excuse me. I have some reading assignments waiting!