There is hope. Although I had good teachers, I also learned lots of history from my parents. I picked it up naturally and without a big fuss because my parents valued an understanding of history.
Below are some events that kids should know about but maybe aren’t being taught in school — at least not in any depth. I’ve also included suggestions for what parents can do to supplement the school curriculum.
Japanese American internment during World War II
In the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States ordered 117,000 Japanese Americans to give up their homes, jobs and businesses and relocate to internment camps. The government cited national security to justify the actions at the time. It is considered one of the worst civil rights abuses of the 20th century.
It’s not hard to find books that poignantly tell this story. For elementary-age readers, I suggest “Baseball Saved Us” by Ken Mochizuki and “The Bracelet” by Yoshiko Uchida, both of which are beautifully told with fantastic illustrations. For middle school readers, I love two books that tell the story of the internment through the eyes of children who had to leave beloved pets behind — “Dash” by Kirby Larson and “Paper Wishes” by Lois Sepahban. For high school readers, try “Midnight in Broad Daylight: A Japanese American Family Caught Between Two Worlds” by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto. High school kids also might be interested in watching “Japanese Relocation,” a U.S. government propaganda film available on C-SPAN.
The space race
With private companies selling tickets to the moon, our kids might not appreciate space travel for the incredible achievement it is. The beginning of the U.S. space program and our race to beat the Russians to the moon is an exciting story filled with drama and suspense that is also one of the United States’ defining moments as a world superpower.
“Magic Tree House: Midnight on the Moon” by Mary Pope Osborne is a good start to pique elementary school readers’ interest in space travel. “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly is a picture-book version of the novel, which was adapted as a film in 2016; there is also a young readers’ edition for middle school students. Older middle school readers will be ready for Homer Hickam’s “October Sky.” High school students will love the book “The Right Stuff,” but in my experience, they find the movie version too long. The movie “Apollo 13,” however, will engross high school kids, and the scene where everyone pulls out their slide rule at once is a conversation starter in the digital age.
The Cold War
There has been a lot of talk about Russia in the news, and for kids to have some context about why our relationship with the former Soviet Union and its president, Vladimir Putin, is so sensitive, they need to know about the Cold War.
Elementary-age kids can learn about the Berlin airlift by reading “Christmas From Heaven: The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber” by Tom Brokaw. Middle school kids can learn about the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union by reading “A Night Divided” by Jennifer A. Nielsen, a fictional story of a girl tunneling out of East Berlin. “The Dogs of Winter” by Bobbie Pyron is another middle-school-appropriate novel that tells about life in the streets of Soviet-era Moscow. High school students may enjoy watching “Thirteen Days,” about the Cuban missile crisis, or “The Hunt for Red October.” Both are great for a family movie night, where you can pause and answer questions as needed.
Immigration is another story dominating the news cycle, but our history with immigrants is not new. In school, kids might have learned that we are a nation of immigrants, but what does that mean? These books can help kids better understand the topic.
One of my favorites is Bette Bao Lord’s “In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.” The story of her own immigration and assimilation into American culture tugs at the heartstrings, and any elementary-age child will relate to common fears of starting a new school and wanting to fit in. Also for elementary-age kids is “The Keeping Quilt” by Patricia Polacco, a story about how an immigrant family keeps alive their memories of relatives back in Russia. For middle school readers, “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan gently introduces the topic of illegal immigration. “Uprising” by Margaret Peterson Haddix is a fictionalized account of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and it helps reinforce how immigrants have often struggled with hardship and unfairness. For high school students, “American Street” by Ibi Zoboi and “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez both tell of trying to assimilate while navigating family expectations.
Exposing kids to the genocide of 6 million men, women and children isn’t for the faint of heart. Professional Holocaust educators use the phrase “safely in, safely out,” which means exposing kids to Holocaust stories that end with a message of hope or show how small actions can make a difference.
In the children’s book “The Butterfly,” author Patricia Polacco tells a Holocaust story for elementary-age readers that perfectly follows the “safely in, safely out” concept. It is a story about friendship based on true events. For older elementary and middle school students, there is Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” — a fictionalized account of how the Danish Resistance helped their Jewish population escape from the Nazis. Reading about the Holocaust is challenging, but watching images on a screen is even more difficult. For that reason, I don’t suggest films until kids are older. Louis Malle’s intense, award-winning film “Au revoir les enfants” is based on events at his French boarding school during the Nazi occupation. The award-winning British documentary “The World at War” is worth watching in its entirety, but the episode dealing with the Holocaust could stand alone. Be warned, though, that the images are difficult.
Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, tutor, teacher, librarian and a mom to four. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student.