Great history books for students

When Reading History, Read Great Books, advises Diane Ravitch. She quotes Will Fitzhugh, who publishes historical research by high school students in the Concord Review. Common Core State Standards calls for students to read more nonfiction, but they don’t suggest reading complete history books, Fitzhugh writes.

. . . we find them suggesting little nonfiction excerpts and short speeches to assign, along with menus, brochures, and bus schedules for the middle schoolers. Embarrassing.

. . . Everyone is afraid to mention possible history books if they are not about current events, or civics, or some underserved population, for fear of a backlash against the whole idea of history books.

His favorites: Mornings on Horseback (the young Teddy Roosevelt) by David McCullough for high school freshmen, Washington’s Crossing (military history of Revolutionary War) by David Hackett Fischer for sophomores, Battle Cry of Freedom (Civil War) by James McPherson for juniors, and The Path Between the Seas (building of the Panama Canal) by David McCullough for seniors.

What else? I keep thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. It’s fiction, but reputedly so accurate that Civil War veterans couldn’t believe Stephen Crane wasn’t a combat soldier. It sparks students’ imaginations,  it’s short and there’s  no sex.

About Joanne


  1. twitter_shag2 says:

    Thanks, Joanne. I really liked The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Stiles) for the AP US kids. It gives a great treatment of the all-important antebellum period.

  2. Genevieve says:

    In my moderately selective AP American History Class (only a few students actually took the AP test). We were required to read one history book of our choice related to American History, and perhaps a specific era. I remember reading Barbara Tuchman’s The First Salute. It was a different reading experience than the textbook. It was probably the first time I read a serious history book. Up until then I had read a lot of historical fiction, but I don’t think I had read much non-fiction.

  3. THe reason why no one recommends reading books is because most of the kids won’t read them. Until we give motivated kids the opportunity to study history at an advanced level, that’s not going to change.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    Many homeschoolers approach history from a real books perspective. Albert Marrin has written some terrific middle school/high school level topic specific books. My youngest enjoyed his Stalin biography last year – if one can “enjoy” a Stalin biography.

  5. Rosemary Sutcliff has great versions of classic myths (Iliad, King Arthur etc.) and a number of good historical novels set in Roman Britain (with a young male protagonist) Although all of the latter books stand alone as stories, for historical purposes, it would be better to start at the beginning, since they do start at one point an continue through time. The language is excellent. The level could be anywhere from early -mid ES to HS, depending on the students. Barbara Tuchman has a number of good books for HS level. Bernard Cornwell and Bruce Catton both have lots of different titles. There’s lots of historical poetry, also.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      momof4 and i have agreed on Sutcliff before. Catton writes good non-fiction. Cornwell’s fiction is almost entirely about war. Civil War, Napoleonic, Brits in India, Hundred Years War, Alfred the Great vs. the Danes. His afterword in each book puts the thing in context–as does some of his writing and plotting–and explains why he thinks what he had his characters do is historically manageable.
      This Kind of War by Fehrenbach is a terrific history of the Korean War, with more context than any other book I’ve seen, putting it into the nuclear-armed bipolar world, and discussing the place of the military in a liberal democracy.

  6. How could I have forgotten Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics? It’s written for a lay audience; essentially a handbook of economic literacy. Hernando de Soto’s books are also good on economic systems.

  7. My son just read Company Aytch written by a Civil War vet.

  8. Rather than The Red Badge of Courage, I’d suggest the novel Shiloh by Shelby Foote, or his short history of Gettysburg, The Stars in their Courses. I wasn’t that impressed with The Red Badge of Courage when I was in high school.