As a homeschool mom and a history buff, I am always interested in good history books for children. I want them to be both interesting and truthful. And while there are hundreds of colorful and popular children’s history books on the market, quality titles are limited in number.
This post will be the first in a series of comparisons that look at multiple versions of historic people and events, both old and new.
George Washington has always been one of my favorite historical figures. Despite the numerous writings he left behind, as well as the many contemporaries who wrote about him, he remains a bit mysterious. I believe it is because of his reserved manner. But he was an incredible leader with a devout faith in God. Over my lifetime I have studied Washington consistently. Among the books I have read (and own) are:
- The Life of George Washington by David Marshall
- George Washington: Writings
- George Washington, the Christian
- The Diaries of George Washington by John C. Fitzpatrick (out of print, but online)
- The Private Life of George Washington
Having this background, I can quickly judge whether a children’s book about George Washington is accurate. Accuracy is very important, but so is fascination. That’s why I really like historical fiction. And that’s why most children do, too. These are the two critical components of a great children’s history book: accurate and fascinating.
As a homeschool mom and blogger, as well as a history buff, I have been curious about the “Who Was” series of biographies. I was not surprised to find that they are disappointing. I understand they are written for younger children, but the writing is disconnected and boring. It is a dumbed-down version of history that provides a few minutes of reading material and not much more. Based on my years of reading primary sources (Washington’s diaries, letters, and the writings of his friends and family) I can say that these books leave out some very important information.
The George Washington Books
I compared Who Was George Washington? to the George Washington book by the D’aulaires (1936), and the Sower Series biography entitled George Washington: Man of Prayer and Courage (1977). The Who Was book lists a bibliography of books from the 21st century (except one). The Sower Series book lists a bibliography of books dating back to 1919 (including the actual diaries of Washington). You can begin to see the problem. A children’s book based on other very recent children’s books is sloppy work. A children’s book that takes pains to include facts from Washington’s own documents gives children an accurate picture of our first President.
Who Was George Washington, is an easy book to read, and it does have some nice drawings of maps, but it’s really not worth your time if you truly want your children to know the father of our country. The text is dumbed down, and the information is superficial. It includes plenty of bias, including its choice of quotes from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, his habit of prayer, and his relationship with his mother. When quoting from the famous “Rules of Civility,” it says, “He also wrote himself a long list of rules about good manners. One of the rules was about not spitting into a fire while meat was being cooked in it! Another rule was to avoid killing fleas and lice in the presence of other people.” In case you didn’t know, there’s much much more to it. See what’s quoted in the Sower Series book, below, or read the entire Rules of Civility for yourself.
As I stated above, the bibliography in the back of the book references only books from the 21st century, besides one written in 1998. I looked up each book, and without exception, they are children’s books with suggested age ranges like K-4, 5th-6th grade, and 7th-9th grades. Friends, this is nothing short of atrocious! A great children’s history book should be rooted in fact with a pleasing presentation, not based on other recent children’s books from 10 years ago!
I don’t have much hope for other books in the Who Was series.
George Washington by Ingri & Edgar Parin D’Aulaire is a beautiful old picture book for children published in 1936. It’s perfect for elementary grades! Each page has a short but rich section about Washington’s life accompanied by either a colorful or black and white drawing.
It does not mention Washington’s faith, only his good morals. There is a note in the back by Rea Berg, the publisher (Beautiful Feet Books) about Washington and the question of slavery. It is very good. The text is definitely geared toward younger children, with a theme that helps them relate to Washington.
I do recommend this as a secondary book about Washington, but would also pair it with one that includes his prodigious Christian faith.
George Washington: Man of Prayer and Courage (Sower Series) is one of my favorites. I read this (and many others from the Sower Series) when I was homeschooled, and they fueled my love of history. It is a historical fiction based very closely on primary sources, blending a story with verifiable fact.
One of those verifiable facts is Washington’s strong Christian faith. He wrote of it and spoke of it repeatedly. He was trained by his parents at home and by his tutors at school to read the Bible and memorize the catechism. He worked painstakingly to hire a chaplain for his troops during the French and Indian War, attended church services no matter where he was in the colonies, and implemented strict rules for Sabbath worship for his troops during the Revolution. He often wrote and spoke of the hand of Providence, his formal manner of thanking God for protection and benevolence. All of this is easy to verify in the numerous diaries, letters, and speeches of Washington, and those who knew him also spoke of it.
George Washington: Man of Prayer and Courage tells his life story with all of the excitement of his adventures while including his faith in God. This is as it should be. No biography of any historical figure is complete without all aspects of a person’s personal life, including their faith or the lack of it. When an author chooses to omit it, there is a clear bias.
Speaking of bibliographies, this book (published in 1977) obviously references much older (and well-researched) books. This is a good thing. The author quotes liberally from George Washington Diaries, transcribed by John C. Fitzpatrick in 1925. (This one is out of print. Perhaps Knowledge Keepers needs to rectify that?!) Conspicuously absent from the bibliography is other children’s books. Because, as I said, basing an accurate children’s history book on other less-accurate children’s books is sloppy work.
A Picture Book of George Washington by David A. Adler, originally published in 1989, is another simple children’s picture book about Washington. It’s okay, nothing egregious, but if I was choosing a picture book about George Washington for my younger children, I’d go with the D’aulaire version. This book is part of a series, and there appears to be an updated version (or maybe just a reprint?).
George Washington’s World by Genevieve Foster is part of a series that looks at all of world history during one time period. It’s a wonderful concept, and it’s the way I teach my children history. American history is not separate from world history. Foster’s books really bring it all together. This one is particularly fun for American history because it features Ben Franklin, Daniel Boone, Abigail Adams, James Cook, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, plus world history figures like Voltaire, Catherine II, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, Mozart, Frederick II of Prussia, and more.
This was originally published in 1941. The version I have was updated by Foster’s daughter in 1997. Compared to primary sources on Washington, it is a good history. In fact, it could stand on its own as a history spine for homeschooling, especially if you include the list of additional books suggested in the back. It also lacks discussion of Christianity as anything but a cause of some world events.
There is no bibliography included, but the content of this and other Foster books is pretty sound.
All the truth is important
I share this information with you because the whole truth matters. We are living in an uneducated age when feelings reign over facts. An entire generation truly believes our founders were just patriarchal white men who might have been Deists and were definitely racist. This is so far from the truth, and the truth matters. Many, many of our founders (not just from the Revolutionary era, by the way) were devout followers of Jesus Christ, and American students should know this. Some weren’t, and American students should know that, too.
Public school education has already taken important history out. More and more children’s books are doing the same. Let’s strive to provide books to our children that are better. Let’s present them with the whole truth.
As you can likely see from this post, I recommend the Sower Series book, George Washington: Man of Prayer and Courage. It’s great to read aloud to your whole family, and can be assigned as independent reading for older kids. Most importantly, it’s based on fact.
Other books about George Washington
Not included in this comparison are two older children’s history series: Landmark and Childhood of Famous Americans. I do not have copies of Washington in either of these series, but I do have some other famous people, so they will be included in future reviews.
One series I want to recommend is a newer one authored by Robert Skead, about the secret spy ring that Washington created during the Revolution. It’s a 3-part series for kids. Mr. Skead is adamant about accurate history for children, and his books reflect it. Patriots, Redcoats, and Spies is the first book in the set. My boys loved them when we read them a few years ago. (The Culper spy ring was uncovered to the world when some secret papers were found in 1929. Over the past 100 years, other documents have been discovered, documenting various aspects of the spy ring!)
David Barton (Wallbuilders) does an excellent job of producing fact-based books about our Christian Heritage. The Bulletproof George Washington is just one example. This is a short, very easy book to read, and it highlights the well-documented, miraculous instances of Washington escaping death. David Barton has a massive library of primary sources, and he documents everything he publishes. I recommend all of his work.
I wrote a bit of a study guide a few years ago that illustrates how I like to teach history to my children. It’s a walk through the 18th century with George Washington as the central focus (he lived from 1732-1799). You can view it here for even more book and and activity recommendations.
Stay tuned to my website and social media for future comparisons of children’s history books. See all of my book lists for kids here. And visit Knowledge Keepers Bookstore where I publish old, valuable history books for home libraries and share lots of books lists for accurate and enjoyable history!