Ride the West with Living Books

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I didn’t see it coming.

Recently, I was reminded that some of the best learning “units” we’ve enjoyed were unplanned and unexpected. They were birthed by questions raised from learning a new word, being involved in an intriguing moment, or engaging in a fascinating event. One of our most recent learning tangents evolved after reading a few chapters of The Pony Express by Samuel Hopkins Adams (Random House, 1950) to my middle schooler. In the process, the elementary learner wondered what the excitement was about and she, too, was hooked. Before we knew it we were all riding the routes of the Pony Express (Mom included after realizing she didn’t know as much as she wished she did), racing through mountain passes, stopping at rest stations, and outwitting bandits.

I remembered we had a few more books about riders on our home library shelf—as well as books about the period of history. I invited my youngest to join me at the bookshelf to find other resources she might enjoy. She was intrigued by the cover of one in particular, Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express by Eleanor Coerr (HarperCollins,1995). Upon opening the book and fanning through the pages—seeing the larger font—she was even more excited. Large font. Easy, enjoyable reading. Unintimidating. We began reading and she immediately recognized some of the rider’s names and station stops from listening to me read to her sister. Learning about the Pony Express just got a bit more personal for her.

Three weeks later, looking back, the “unit” was more than I could have imagined, mostly because of the level of engagement. There was interest and they fully “owned” what they were learning, because they were interested. The more we read, the more involved my learners became. When they had questions, we did our best to find answers. This paved the way to practice research skills.


Language arts. Study skills. History.


I know my girls remember a large percentage of what they learned. That makes my heart smile. But, there was something else that grew along with their knowledge…a relationship. They had something in common, a mutual interest, something they could talk and wonder about. They shared what they learned; got excited together.

I could never have manufactured or orchestrated that aspect of the process.

Even after 26 years of homeschooling, I didn’t see a “unit” growing from this book.

But, it did!!

And, I am grateful.

Today, because of that deeper care for one another, they are outside reading in the fort. That’s another story for another day.

Related resources for riding and exploring the west:

Buffalo Bill, Augusta Stevenson (Childhood of Famous Americans)

Buffalo Bill: Wild West Showman, Mary R. Davidson (Discovery biography series, Garrard Publishers)

The California Gold Rush, May McNeer (Landmark series)

Annie Oakley: The Shooting Star, Charles P. Graves (Discovery biography series, Garrard Publishers)

Jim Bridger: Man of the Mountains, Willard and Celia Luce (Discovery biography series, Garrard Publishers)

Kit Carson: Pathfinder of the West, Nardi Reeder Campion (Discovery biography series, Garrard Publishers)

Daniel Boone: The Opening of the Wilderness, John Mason Brown (Landmark series)

Daniel Boone: Young Hunter, Augusta Stevenson (Childhood of Famous Americans)

The Story of Daniel Boone, William O’Steele (Signature series)









Childhood of Famous Americans: Living Books for Young Learners

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Over twenty years ago, a veteran home educator suggested I read titles from the Childhood of Famous Americans series to my children.  Doing so would bring history—real problems solved by real people—alive, she claimed.

I purchased our first COFA and the children and I curled up on the couch to read. The book fueled questions, fostered wonder, and begged my children to read more. What a find!

That mom was right!

The Childhood of Famous Americans (COFA) series, praised by parents, teachers, and librarians for over sixty-five years, was first introduced to the public in the 1940s and continued to be printed into the 1960s by Bobbs-Merrill. Originally printed in hardback form, these fictionalized biographies (suitable for independent readers third grade and up or to be read aloud to any age) became instant favorites and were reintroduced in an infamous red, white and blue paperback form in the 1980s.

These books have engaged my children since the early 1990's.

Our family prefers the original hardcover books. Their large font invited emergent readers to read and allows younger eyes to comfortably read the text. Sadly, the hardcovers are now out of print. However, they can be found in online sales or in used bookstores.  If we cannot get our eyes and hands on these hard-bound treasures, we look for the well-known red, white and blue covers.

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Over the years, whenever we began new unit of study or a learner developed a new interested, we tried to find a COFA title to personalize learning. These books have allowed our young learners to learn history through real people, real problems, and real solutions. When we study a specific era, I use this list. With over 170 COFAs to choose from, there is sure to be one to be woven into any study.

Recently, the COFA flame was recently rekindled as one of my youngest children wanted to read about “real baseball players”.  I immediately looked through the stacks of COFAs on our shelves. Indeed, we had a paperback cover copy of Roberto Clemente: Young Baseball Player and a hard cover copy of Knute Rockne: Young Athlete.  I pulled those from our collection.

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I am thankful for that experienced mom’s recommendation to begin reading books from the COFA series. Since that day, we’ve been eagerly reading about the childhood lives of famous Americans, learning some very interesting lesser-known facts about people we have come to admire.

More about the Childhood of Famous Americans series:

  • The books are fictionalized, though based on information about the childhoods of these famous Americans.
  • Children find the books inviting because of their focus on the childhood life of people they know only as adults.
  • Each book is packed with noteworthy experiences, personality traits, and adventures from the growing up years of famous inventors, scientists, statesmen, and explorers.
  • Children gain understanding of how a person’s experiences and personal gifts contribute to and impact the lives of other people.  
  • By the end of each book, the reader is left with the desire to find out what happened next, a perfect lead to further study.


In recent years, several publishers are working to bring the once-out-of-print-titles back to life. A great endeavor, however in the process some of the books have undergone editing and rewording. One publisher, Patria Press, began reprinting the stories in 2002, renaming the series Young Patriots. 

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Want to learn more about the heroes and heroines who shaped our country?

Find a COFA title and relax on a comfy couch. You and your children will discover inspiring details from the lives of the men and women whom we often know only through their adult accomplishments.

Teaching High School American History and American Literature with Living Books

I am often asked how we teach American History and American Literature in high school. 

Actually, we have used different means and methods with each of our high school learners, dependent on their interests, learning styles, and in some cases, learning challenges. 

This blog post addresses one of those methods; the method we used with our reader who LOVED history. 

With our son's interest in reading and history, we divided American History into Early American (to 1850) and Modern (from 1850 to present) so we could allow time for him to dig deeper. After extensive research (based on my love for education as well as the fear I was doing enough--yes, I have been there!), I developed literature lists for American, British, and World Literature courses. These lists provided my son with reading suggestions to get him started, a springboard of sorts. His desire to learn history prompted him to seek out additional titles. My motto became, 

"You read it, I will give you credit."

For readers interested in the list of works from which we used toward either American History or Survey of American Literature, our reading list (remember it was a springboard from which he could jump in for more) is below. The American, British, and World literature lists are included in my book, Celebrate High School

Please keep in mind as you read through this list, our son was a self-motivated reader with an interest in the subject. Not all young adults will share this interest or learning preference. In addition to his independent reading, we used a textbook as a spine of topics. Though he started the year reading some of the text, by the end of the year he was reading more primary source documents, living history selections, and biographical pieces than text. He also had amazing opportunities to tour many of the Civil War battlefields and visited Washington, D. C., Boston, Plymouth, Philadelphia, and New York City. God provided for his love of history through many experiential opportunities. We realize not all learners will have these experiences but trust there will be other provisions for your family. 

This method worked for our oldest son. I tweak the process for each young adult, asking for their input. Please, don't use what is written here as a comparison for what your student should or shouldn't be doing. Learners are unique and high school is not a one-size-fits-all experience. 

Comparing ourselves or our children to others leads to discouragement and discontent, neither of which are valuable.

Our examples are only intended as encouragement, to give an idea of what worked for us and what you might be able to create (or adjust) for your high schooler. Our young adult was (and still is) a reader, but your young adult may have an opportunity to intern with a local historical site or job shadow a museum curator. Use what God provides for your learner and pray about how he is preparing your young adult for the future plans He has, not for the ones we best intention.

Our American Literature list:

Alcott, Louisa May, Little Men

Alcott, Louisa May, Little Women

Barton, David, Bulletproof George Washington

Baum, L. Frank, The Wizard of Oz

Bierce, Ambrose, Civil War Stories

Cather, Willa, My Antonia*

Cather, Willa, O Pioneers!*

Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans*

Crane, Stephen, The Red Badge of Courage*    

de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America*

Dewey, John, Democracy and Education*

Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass*

Edwards, Jonathan, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God*

Faulkner, William, The Sound and the Fury*

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby*

Franklin, Benjamin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin*

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter

Hemingway, Ernest, A Farewell to Arms*

Hemingway, Ernest, For Whom the Bell Tolls*

Hemingway, Ernest, The Old Man and the Sea*

Hemingway, Ernest, The Sun Also Rises*

Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes Were Watching God*

Irving, Washington, The Legend of Rip Van Winkle

Keller, Helen, The Story of My Life*

Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird

McCullough, David, 1776

McCullough, David, John Adams

McCullough, David, The Wright Brothers

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick

Miller, Arthur, The Crucible

Miller, Arthur, The Death of a Salesman

Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan, The Yearling

O.Henry, The Gift of the Magi

Steinbeck, John, Of Mice and Men*

Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath*

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom’s Cabin*

Thoreau, Henry David, Civil Disobedience*

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden*

Thurber, James, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Twain, Mark, Life on the Mississippi

Washington, Booker T., Up From Slavery

Wilder, Thornton, Our Town*

Williams, Tennessee, The Glass Menagerie*

In addition to this literature list, we use primary source documents including speeches and journals.

Here are some examples. There are plenty of resources available on the internet (which could be a great catalyst for a discussion on reliable sources.

50 Core Documents, Teaching AmericanHistory.org

Primary Source Documents in American History

National Archives

Journals of Lewis and Clark

The Story of A Common Soldier- Kindle ebook

The Journal of James Audubon

Orville Wright's journal entry

This post is based on the experience of our oldest son. It is not intended as legal advice and is written with the knowledge that parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children.