As the name of my blog indicates, I spend a lot of time thinking about home. Of course, my Heavenly Home is the one that is eternal, so that’s where I need to lay up my treasures, and that’s the one I’m striving for. But in the meantime, I have been given this tiny piece of the here-and-now—this home on the edge of town, this family, this neighborhood—in which to serve Him. And, though this is in the earthly realm, I want the things that happen here to be investments in the Heavenly realm.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The History Books of Genevieve Foster

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...


  1. We discovered these books a few years ago. I'd seen them for years but never looked at them. We love them.

    They are a wonderful way to learn history - in a natural, flowing way. World events are tied together - you get the understanding of what is happening in HISTORY. I am going to use them again and again, and make sure that my children have them for their own libraries.

    You articulated very well, what I feel about these books.

    Kindreds again!


  2. I've enjoyed the 2 I've read to my gang.

  3. Indeed a very interesting way to learn history, I imagine incorporating other characters in her books only caused one to search for even more history. I bet each time you read it anew you found even more treasures, and I can see why you would not want it to end. Thanks for sharing, and once again I have so much respect and admiration for moms who invest in their children through homeschooling. I know you are seeing the many dividends already.
    Enjoy your day.

  4. George Washington is my favorite President of them all, not kidding. I would want to read this book myself! xo

  5. We did a lot of our schooling this way--sort of horizontally. I think you will definitely find some children who will enjoy having this read to them! I have no doubt.

  6. Oh you can come and read it to me. I'm just a big kid. I really want to know more about these books. Thank you so much for discussing them.

  7. These books sound wonderful. I'll definitely be looking into them for the future. What ages do you think they are written for (as read alouds)?

  8. Allyson, when I have read these aloud to an older child, my youngers have listened in and are usually interested the most at the beginning of the book. This is where the author tells about the main character's childhood, and also the childhoods of many of the other character whom we'll see throughout the book.

    However, there is a lot of detail in these books and therefore the most is gleaned by an older child of maybe 10-11...although we have read these books in high school too! They are such well-told stories that they are interesting to adults!

    That said, as we are reading George Washington's World, Bekah is remembering a few things that she heard several years ago as I read it with Kati, although much of the information is "new" to her.


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