Sunday, March 13, 2016

Living Books for Wisconsin State History

A question has come up repeatedly over the years as to what to use for Wisconsin history –
particularly if you are like me and you use Charlotte Mason's philosophies and methods and are wanting to use living books in this part of your child's education as well. There have always been some suggestions made, but nothing written in stone. So, I decided to take on the project of coming up with some good suggestion. To be honest, I will likely add ideas to this list as I go along. I have included suggestions from others (people that I know love Mason's methods and know what a good, living book looks like!). I am including books of various interest, reading levels, etc. I don't think you should confine your learning about your home state to just one year and would suggest picking out one or two to read each year. To be honest, having lived in both Indiana and Oklahoma prior to Wisconsin, Wisconsin is an amazing state with a long, wonderful history and the geography of our state is amazing as well.

I started my search with the Wisconsin Historical Society Press (WHSP) website. I had high expectations. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed with what I found there after I checked out many of the books from our wonderful library system. I suspect that the DPI or other educational institutions works heavily with WHSP as to how the children's books are written. At the time of my writing this, I had returned the book to the library. There was a lot of dry, dull books there with lots of leading questions included included, along with lots of bolded words that they assumed the child needed the definition of (which was often included at the bottom of the page or in a colorful box on the page. Sometimes, there was a glossary at the back instead (not a bad thing, but still....the bolded words on every page was just a little much).

I started with the current textbook (fully knowing it would be a textbook, not a living book). I looked at it thinking it could possibly be used as a spine, a guide, something... The book is called Wisconsin: Our State, Our Story and is for 4th grade school children. It has a historical event on each page (vignette style) with pictures and blurbs in boxes. If you use it for a spine of things to cover in your homeschool, go for it. Use it as a pictorial resource. The rest is pretty much textbook fodder and it DOES talk down to the children. It is a shiny, glossy book with lots of pictures. You can learn more about what the book covers on the WHSP site here:

I also looked at the book WisconsinHistory Highlights, Delving Into the Past, which was written in 2004. I did look at the beginning and it confirmed what I said a couple of paragraphs back. This book says that it was made possible through a collaborative project with the D.C. Everest School District and the Fund for the Improvement of Education Earmark Grand Award. I don't find it to be of any different value than the Wisconsin: Our State, Our Story text book. It is a black & white textbook again written in vignette style with lots of leading questions at the end of each bit.

I also looked at two books, currently available on the WHSP site on Wisconsin's native heritage. The books were...okay. I suspect there are much better books out there and I will continue looking. The book Indian Nations of Wisconsin, Histories of Endurance and Renewal by Patty Loew is the book written towards adults. It is okay. It isn't twaddle, but not a living book. It is more of a “just the facts” kind of book. Patty Loew has also written a book towards the elementary level called Native People of Wisconsin, but to be honest, it has the same kinds of problems that the Our State, Our Story book does, but does have many more pictures than the adult version. I really felt like the author could have made it more engaging than she did. I do want to continue to look deeper here. I have a list from my husband's godmother to work off of. She is Oneida and I trust her, but would like to look myself before I pass them on.

I found a couple of books that might be okay on the WHSP site, but I had to turn to my library to find better books. There are some real gems in the older books from WHSP. I know Charlotte Mason people are often pigeon-holed as only using old books, but you know – that is because there is a LOT of fluff out there in the more recently printed books. Not that there are not any living books being currently written, but they are few and far between, particularly when you are looking at a relatively narrow subject (when just about any old thing can be published) and it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack at times, particularly in the history genre. There are a lot of “just the facts”/dry books out there – full of information, but really awful to read. There are also a lot of dumbed down books that only have basic facts and are worse than awful to read. One book, called Wisconsin: Celebrate the State by Zeinert & Hart written in 2007 stated that people in Wisconsin like to complain about the weather....but, by an large, while not a living book, it was not dumbed down or hard to read. Lots of facts about Wisconsin. I did not think it would be one of my favorites and that is still the case, but it is not a bad book for a quick overview. Wow....did I really just say that? LOL!

So, what books did I love?

Here we go:

A wee bit of Geography - if you cannot get to that part of the state to see it for yourself, at least read a well written book about it!

Alluring Wisconsin: The Historic Glamor and Natural Loveliness of an American Commonwealth by Fred L. Holmes - For exploring the geography and landmarks of Wisconsin, I cannot say enough about this book. I would use this with middle to highschool age students. While an older book, it is a beautifully written book written in 1937. Fred L. Holmes was a prolific writer about all things Wisconsin. A word of warning – the author was a product of his time, so some of the words he uses to describe the native population are typical of the time, but I absolutely would not throw out the book based on those few words. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of the book:

“Rockbridge was the exclamation point on the route. For it is a real rock bridge! This formation of stone, one layer upon another, ten miles north of Richland Center, crosses the east branch of the Pine river. A solid wall of rock sixty feet high, one hundred feet thick and about a mile long is what proved to the world that at one time it constituted a part of the shore line of what was probably a large body of water. Cutting its way through this wall of rock, the Pine river, eight feet wide and no longer that deep, has built over itself a natural bridge. Although it is sufficiently wide, it does not serve as a wagon bridge, but is used only by visitors who go on foot. Those travelers are rewarded for their climb to the top of the bridge by lovely wild flowers, pins and birch trees. It is the one spot in Richland County where trailing arbutus grows. In the fall, bittersweet may always be found there.”

General Wisconsin History Books:

Old World Wisconsin: Around Europe in the Badger State (also published simply as Old World Wisconsin) by Fred L. Holmes. This was reprinted in 1990 (making it more easily found). He wrote the book to capture Wisconsin's amazing cultural diversity before it disappeared. This book should not be missed!

The Making of Wisconsin by Smith & Callahan (1927) – This little gem is also beautifully written and was published by the University of WI. The writing is good and interesting. You can read it for free here. You can even get it for 99 cents for your Kindle. A word of warning - again, the author's are a product of their times as are their writings, but to me, that is not a deal breaker.

Wisconsin: The Story of the Badger State A popular history, including Travelers' Guides to historic destinations by Norman K. Risjord (1995) - This book has more of the conversational tone that I was looking for in a book that covers WI history. It is NOT a WHSP book (and I think that shows through). You could easily use this for late middle school through highschool. I think this one might be my favorite of the more recently published books.

A Short History of Wisconsin by Erika Janik (2010) This book is published by the WHSP. This one was an engaging book without talking down to the reader.


An important event in Wisconsin:

The Great Peshtigo Fire – An eyewitness Account by Reverend Peter Pernin with a Foreword by Stephen J. Pyne. You want to include this book in your reading about Wisconsin. The Great Peshtigo Fire was a huge, but forgotten fire in WI that was heavily influenced by the weather. Why was it forgotten? Because it was the same night as the Great Chicago Fire. It also changed how logging was done along with how/why prescribed burns eventually came to be done was done both here and elsewhere around the country. I highly recommend including the reading of the foreword in this book. For additional information (maps, pictures, etc.):

*One note on this particular event – I did not care for the book The Great Peshtigo Fire by Scott Knickelbine. I wanted to. Truly. But, it was full of really short sentences. The author did try to quote Rev. Pernin a couple of times, but the book was really left wanting. It was dumbed down for children....Sigh. This comment on Good Reads explains it, “An excellent read, especially for Wisconsin students.”

I have another book on request through the library. Firestorm at Peshtigo : a town, its people, and the deadliest fire in American history by Denise Gess. I will update here if it is a go. If you have read it and have thoughts on it, please let me know.

There is also an interesting looking series of fictional books for children by Nelda Johnson Liebig about a couple of children during the time of and after the Peshtigo Fire. It starts with Carrie's Crazy Quilt. I have requested these books to look at, as well.


Wisconsin History-themed books:

I have to include Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder! No explanation needed. I know it is mostly fact/some fiction, but it fits better here for the moment.

I ADORE the book Muskego Boy by Edna Hong for the younger children. We are lucky that our library has a copy of this book. It is written for children, but it is well done. It tells the story about a boy and his family migrating from Norway to the Muskego/Wind Lake area of Wisconsin. It is a beautiful story and my older children enjoyed me reading it to them years ago. I look forward to reading it to my younger children in the next year or so.

The Long Ago Lake – A Book of Nature Lore and Crafts by Marne Wilkins. This one was suggested by a trusted friend.


These books were suggested by Kathy Seeger of the Living Education Library in Edgerton, WI:

The Day They Gave Babies Away by Dale Eunson: Based on a true story, it is about a Scottish couple who are immigrants and settle in Wisconsin in the 1800's. The book tells the tale of a 12-year-old boy who, after the death of his parents, gives his five younger brothers and sisters away to carefully chosen families on Christmas Day. There was also a movie made based on the book called "All Mine to Give".

Chief Black Hawk by Frank Beals is part of the American Adventure Series and is a biography of the famous Sauk Indian chief.

Rascal by Sterling North is set in Wisconsin. "Nothing's surprising in the North household, not even Sterling's new pet raccoon. Rascal is only a baby when Sterling brings him home, but soon the two are best friends, doing everything together--until the spring day when everything suddenly changes."

Old Abe: The Eagle Hero by Patrick Young is a children's picture book about the Civil War's most famous mascot. "Gives children a bird's-eye view of history via the "biography" of Old Abe, an eagle who served as mascot for the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War and eventually went on to appear at the Chicago Wold's Fair in 1865, following his "retirement."

Fiat Lux - the Adventures of a Lighhouse Keeper's Daughter by Dave Strzok is about a young girl who spends time at an Apostle Island lighthouse with her light keeper father. From what I see on Good Reads, it is more of a log than a story, but is still a great book.

On Sand Island by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is set in the Apostle Islands in the 1800's. "In the deep blue waters of Lake Superior lies a small island of hummingbirds, rabbits, and hardy Norwegian fishing folk. On that island lives a boy named Carl who wants nothing more than to be out on the water in a boat of his own making. So this is a story of sawing, nailing, and sanding. But because Sand Island neighbors are closer than cousins, this is also a story of picking strawberries, moving rocks, and mending fishing nets fine as lace."

Latsch Valley Series by Anne Pellowski includes the books First Farm in the Valley, Winding Valley Farm, Willow Wind Farm, Stairstep Farm, and Betsy's Up-And-Down Year.  They are similar to the Laura Ingalls Wilder book about Polish-American immigrants to Wisconsin.

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling covers the geography of the Great Lakes and is a wonderful book to use with a map of the Great Lakes and really take some time on (not a speed read!).  "
A young Indian boy carves a little canoe with a figure inside and names him Paddle-to-the-Sea. Paddle's journey, in text and pictures, through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean provides an excellent geographic and historical picture of the region."  I love this statement about it: "Geography of the best kind made vivid by the power of imagination." -- Horn Book

Pioneer Girl: The Early Life of Frances Willard by Clara Ingram Judson - I found this review over on "The first of a series of books about the life of Frances Willard. At the age of seven she drove with her pioneering family from Ohio to Wisconsin in 1846. Even as a child, the young Frances broke precedents -- demanded to be called Frank, demanded schooling, proved she should be allowed to ride a horse by riding a cow and at eighteen won her father's respect by announcing that from then on she would make her own decisions. These early years are told in story form and Frances might have been any little pioneer girl. Well done."

Wisconsin's First Settler's - The Indians by Nicholas Georgiady -  Kathy says this about it: "Simply written and textbookish, but does cover the 4 original types of Native Americans to come to WI. Elementary level."

The Underground Railroad by Raymond Bial:  Kathy notes this: "This is not well written, but not horrible, but does have a map showing the UR routes, only one of which leads to Milton, WI wink emoticon. The cover photo is from the tunnel in the Milton House, and it does have lots of great and interesting photos. Would work well for olders."

The Unholy Apostles: Shipwreck Tales of the Apostle Islands by James M. Keller  - Kathy notes: "
This is not well written, it appears tedious and technical, but it is an interesting subject if an older child was interested in shipwrecks of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior."


More books that I am either reading or have yet to read – reader beware – they may or may not be living books:

Plank Road Summer & Plank Road Winter by Hilda and Emily Demuth – timeline is 1852 in Wisconsin and there is a tie-in with the Great Chicago Fire (there may be mention of the Peshtigo fire, but I don't know yet). There is a link to the author's blog on the Good Reads page: I will let you know my thoughts after I read them.

Little Hawk and the Lone Wolf, A Memoir by Raymond C. Kaquatosh

Whispers and Shadows, A Naturalist's Memoir by Jerry Apps – what I have read of this so far is fabulous!

Badger Saints and Sinners by Fred L. Holmes – same author as Alluring Wisconsin and Old World Wisconsin. I think this could prove to be a good one, but I have not read it yet.

Ship Captain's Daughter: Growing Up on the Great Lakes by Ann M. Lewis – this one looks to be a memoir.

I can see that there are lot more books on Good Reads under Wisconin History that I want to take a look at. I have a few more on request through our library as well, because....rabbit trails to more interesting looking books. If you have great suggestions, please let me know!


Other books I did not care for, but I will mention:

So, I have looked at the Young Readers Series. If you have an elementary child interested in learning more about a specific person, these might be okay, but I cannot call them living books. They have the bolded words, definitions at the bottom of the page, a glossary at the back of each book, and lots of short, boring sentences.


  1. Thank you so much, Melissa. this will be a hugely valuable resource.

  2. Badger Saints and Sinners--This title sounds familiar, so I am intrigued and will have to request a copy from the library. Thanks for a thorough post! I'm sharing it with my homeschool community.

  3. Thank you for all of this work! I'm wondering if you've seen these two books and how they might compare with The Making of Wisconsin (or the others):;