Explore the Past: Historical Nonfiction Books for K-12 Students

History is full of tales of courage, danger, adventure, and fun. And studying the discipline may spark a child’s interest—whether in a time period, individual, or social movement. 

True stories from history are a great way to increase reading skills in students of all ages, or expand their knowledge of a topic they’re already enthusiastic about.

When reading about history, it’s important to remember that our knowledge of the past depends on what remains from the particular time period today; what documents have been saved, what artifacts have been uncovered, what buildings remain standing. Some stories, either whole or in part, have been lost forever, are hidden from view, or are misinterpreted by scholars.

HMH has published a lot of compelling nonfiction books for children of all ages and below are just a few to consider. Most of the books I list here use primary sources to illuminate previously untold aspects of history, whether some part of a larger story that’s already familiar to your students or one that has been overlooked. These books also provide good examples of different ways one can write about history.

ANCIENT TIMES 

Pyramid by David Macaulay, grades 5-7

Macaulay describes through richly detailed illustrations and clear text how and why the pyramids of ancient Egypt were built and describes what life was like under the Pharaohs. 

Bodies From the Ash by James M. Deem, grades 5-7

Deem tells two stories about the Roman city of Pompeii, interweaving descriptions of how the people lived and then died on that fateful day when Mount Vesuvius erupted. This is recounted alongside the story of how archeologists discovered the buried city and its inhabitants under the ash. He includes photographs taken during the 150 years since the site was first discovered and plaster casts of the bodies in flight.

THE MIDDLE AGES

Castle by David Macaulay, grades 5-7; Caldecott honor book

Although the castle in this book is not real, everything else is historically accurate in Macaulay’s descriptions of the building—a castle in 13th-century Europe. Macaulay’s detailed drawings are captivating, and every child should find something to capture her attention here. 

Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 by James Rumford, pre-K to grade 5

Rumford adapts Ibn Battuta’s memoir of his 29-year, 75,000-mile adventure that took him from Gibraltar in Spain to Beijing and back again, for young children, without losing a sense of danger and wonder. The lines of text wander the page, mimicking his journey, and the book includes names and phrases in Arabic (with English translations nearby) along with a map and source notes, making this picture book useful for older children as well.

EARLY AMERICA

Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac and Greg Shedd, PreK to grade 3

Noted Native American storyteller Joseph Bruchac explores the first Thanksgiving by telling the story of Squanto, who was captured, brought to England, and then back to the New World. The illustrations are lovely, and the emphasis on cooperation and native ways is an important addition to the Thanksgiving story. 

Who Was First?: Discovering the Americas by Russell Freedman, grades 5-7

Freedman debunks the old narrative of the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans and instead tells the story of the exploration and settlement of the two continents by those who had been arriving since the Stone Age. Included are photographs, full-page maps, reproductions of drawings and engravings, and mentions of archeological discoveries still being uncovered.  There is also a good bibliography!

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science by Marc Aronson and Maria Budhos, grades 7-12

Aronson and Budhos make the case that sugar did more “to reshape the world than any ruler, empire, or war had ever done.” The human desire for sweet things is universal, which allows the authors to cover the world and roughly 10,000 years of history before focusing on how sugar drove the trans-Atlantic slave trade, not only bringing death and misery but also sowing the seeds of rebellion and freedom. There are many maps, archival illustrations, oral histories, songs, and a timeline, along with source notes and a bibliography. This book is not only fascinating but also offers students an alternative way to look at what shapes history.

THE 19th CENTURY 

They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, grades 7-12

Bartoletti uses the letters and diaries of the six former Confederate officers who founded the Ku Klux Klan to describe their coming together and forming a “club” in 1866 to preserve law and order.  She then describes its spread during Reconstruction using a wide variety of voices from the time. As she warns in the introduction, racist language and disturbing images are left uncensored. A great many photographs and illustrations are included, as is a thorough bibliography and many source notes.  This book is disturbing, but it is a powerful example of how to use primary sources to make history come alive. 

Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine 1845-1850 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, grades 5-7; Sibert Medal winner

One million people died and two million left Ireland and settled in other countries during the famine. Bartoletti uses contemporary newspaper accounts to tell the compelling and sometimes infuriating stories of those who stayed and survived. This book is a good example of using the past to inform today. In the conclusion, Bartoletti encourages readers to respond to hunger, poverty, and suffering in the world today. 

TURN OF THE CENTURY

Kids on Strike! by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, grades 5-7

Until child labor laws were enacted during the Progressive Era, children worked in factories, mills, and mines alongside adults and also joined in strikes for better working conditions alongside adults. Bartoletti covers both successful and unsuccessful strikes and in so doing illuminates the role of children in our country’s labor history.  

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman, grades 7-12

What makes this book so interesting is that Freedman demonstrates how the buildings and places where history unfolded tell the stories of ordinary people and how important it is to save them. He weaves stories of Asian immigration to the U.S. through the story of the discovery of the “graffiti.” This refers to hundreds of poems and statements and names etched into the walls of an abandoned building on Angel Island by the many thousands of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants who were held there while awaiting admittance to the U.S. from 1910 to 1940.

THE 20th CENTURY

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown, grades 7-12

The graphic novel format Brown uses makes it possible for him to vividly express the magnitude of the drought, the ensuing dust storms, and the devastation wreaked on the farmers of the American plains in the 1930s. Using panels of differing sizes, he packs in an incredible amount of information, both visually and with text, sometimes incorporating the words of those who lived through it all. There is a bibliography and source notes as well. It’s a wonderful example of history coming to life through drawings!

We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman, grades 5-7; Sibert Honor book

Freedman uses archival photographs and documents to tell the inspiring story of the Scholl siblings who broke from their upbringing, along with a few friends in the Hitler Youth, to defy the government they had come to doubt.

Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon by Catherine Thimmesh, grades 5-7; Sibert Medal winner

Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon for the first time. Thimmesh looks at the thousands of people who helped the three astronauts get there, blending the voices of engineers, software designers, telescope crew, seamstresses who put together the many layers of their spacesuits, and many, many more. Stunning photos from the NASA archives give readers a sense of the hugeness of the project and a celebration of the work and the teamwork behind it.  

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about HMH's new Into Social Studies program for K-6 students.