Today I am sharing an article that I recently wrote for our local homeschool newsletter.
A few weeks ago, I began reading George Washington’s World to my youngest child, my last homeschool student. As I opened the book, I wondered if this would be my last time to read this aloud. Secretly, I hoped not, although it is likely to be.
You see, I have read George Washington’s World to my students several times over the years. I have also read Augustus Caesar’s World, The World of Columbus and Sons, The World of Captain John Smith, and Abraham Lincoln’s World, all by Genevieve Foster. And can I say that I have enjoyed these history books every bit as much as my children have?
Genevieve Foster (1893-1979) was a commercial artist turned housewife who believed that there must be a better way to learn history than the way that she had learned it. I believe that she found a better way! She wrote history for children “horizontally” as opposed to “vertically,” an innovative approach. Foster would take a central historical figure and write not only about that person’s life, but about key people who lived and events that were taking place all over the world during the time that that person lived. Learning history in the traditional way, she said, “was about as dull and unsatisfying as a play might be, if only one character appeared upon the stage, while the others faintly mumbled their lines in the wings, out of sight of the audience.”
Foster wrote and illustrated nineteen books, four of which were Newbery Honor books.
Each of the five books that I have named above is divided into five parts, each part a section of the main character’s life span. At the beginning of each section is a double page spread of illustrations featuring other historical figures and events that take place during that life stage, with a very brief description under each illustration. We take the time to look at each one and read all the captions before we read that section, familiarizing ourselves with the main players before we read the details.
Then comes the narrative, masterfully told as a story (for isn’t history a story?), engaging readers young and old. Even my youngest children have listened in as I read aloud to their older siblings. We learn of the main character, his parents, siblings, childhood friends, little-known stories about his life. We get to know him. Then we are introduced to other people who were alive in his world, those near and those far, all across the globe. Chapters are brief, the stories well told. At the end of the section, we go back to the illustrations and review the characters and events we have just learned. (Charlotte Mason would call this narration.)
We continue this pattern through the remaining sections of the book, continuing to add to our knowledge of the main character and of the other players, adding more as we go along.
By the time we have finished our story, we have developed an intimate acquaintance with the main character (as well as many others), and feel as if we have lived in his time.
While these books are not specifically Christian (there is discussion of other religions and cultures, and these are treated with equal respect), there is also fair representation of Christianity, much more than would be offered in a typical modern history textbook. Let me share a passage that moved us when we read Abraham Lincoln’s World.
It was the mid 1830’s, and four Nez Perce Indians from Oregon had traveled eastward seeking the white man’s Book of Heaven. At the end of a 200-mile journey, they came to St. Louis, where they were warmly received by General William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) and his men. They spent the winter there, and were lavishly “wined and dined,” so to speak,
...but they were disappointed. At the farewell dinner in the spring, one of the Nez Perce rose and addressed the company.
“I came to you over the trail of many moons from the setting sun. My people sent me to get the white man’s Book of Heaven. You took me to where you allow your women to dance, as we do not ours: and the Book was not there! You took me to where they worship the Great Spirit with candles and incense, and the Book was not there. You make my feet heavy with gifts, and yet the Book is not among them! I came with an eye partly open for my people who sit in darkness. How can I go back blind to my blind people? I have no more words.”
Isn’t that poignant? “The book was not there.”
We began by learning history; we discovered a treasure.
Here within the pages of our history book, we were saddened by the disappointment of the men who had come to find truth and did not find it. We were inspired to look through spiritual eyes in our interactions with people...and not be so ready to offer them entertainment or earthly treasure, when their hearts are searching for eternal treasure.
So do you see why I do not want this to be my last time through the Genevieve Foster books of history?
Hmmm...maybe I can “borrow” a few children from my daughters and my daughter-in-law and read to them. I wonder...