Picture Books Make History Come Alive: Reading Stories to Kids Builds Background Knowledge & Excitement for Learning

Please be aware that some historic events – like war, slavery, and the Holocaust – might be better read to older children. Know your history, know the story, and know your children.


Picture Books about Brave Escapes Build Background Knowledge

High-quality picture books make history come alive for kids and, at the same time, the story and illustrations build background knowledge on important subjects.  Stories about brave escapes will excite kids to learn about periods of history – slavery, World War II, and the Cold War (Berlin Wall), for example. Through the characters, kids will be immersed into an historic period. When they learn about these events in school, the new information builds on the background that was established by hearing these stories. All teachers start a new unit by “activating or building background knowledge” so kids have a reference point for learning new topics. High-quality picture books can be used as mentor texts in learning Social Studies.

Arouse Excitement for Learning by Asking Questions

Reading to kids and then talking about the stories together improves comprehension as children learn vicariously through story characters. Stop every now and then to talk about the story. Ask questions that get kids involved in the story and excited to learn more:

  • How bad could life have been that children risked their lives by skating to freedom?
  • What dangers do you think there are in ice skating in the canals?
  • Do you think it was safe to flee in a hot air balloon?
  • How did they know where to go?
  • What would happen if they were caught?
  • Why was there a goat living in the White House?
  • What is important about the White House?
  • What would it be like to be transported in a wooden crate?
  • How would the story be different if … ?
  • If you were in the story, what would you do?
  • What would have happened if they didn’t escape?
  • How did these people feel?
  • How is this like … ?
For P-3, No Lexile Level available
  • Henry’s Freedom Box (P-3 Lexile 490). Henry escapes from slavery by mailing himself on a long journey North in a crate.
  • The Greatest Skating Race (Gr 4-7 Lexile 750). This thrilling true story follows the daring escape of children who skate their way to freedom during WWII.
  • 8.Flight for Freedom (K-3, Lexile 21010). In this story, a family escapes from East Germany in a handmade hot air balloon.
  • Old Whiskers Escapes! brings a bit of historic fun to the reading. It chronicles the escape of a White House goat during the Harrison administration.

Boys Like This Story

For K-2 Lexile Level 550
Baseball Saved Us is an historic picture book about Japanese Internment camps during World War II following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Please read it first so you can appropriately introduce the topic to your children.  A free downloadable Read-Aloud guide is attached here Baseball Saved Us.

This story can be used to teach:

  • Character Traits
  • Character Motivation
  • Problem and Solution

The story is based on true events and what could have occurred in one of these camps. It is important because it personalizes events in history for a better understanding. Boys, in particular, like this story. Here is an archived Blog that you might enjoy.  When Boys Hate to Read

Reading Aloud Versus Independent Reading

It is my belief that reading high-quality picture books aloud is far better than handing over a book for a child to read alone.

  • First, read-aloud stories give kids background knowledge of the period in history being portrayed in the stories.
  • Next, historic events can be difficult for youngsters to understand on their own, so hearing a story and then talking about it with an adult, helps understanding and clears up confusion.
  • Finally, when adults read aloud, they become models of how good readers think when they read.  This happens as the reader stops to “think out loud” about tricky or unknown words and navigating through difficult text to find hidden meanings.

These are the skills we want our children to be good at so they become “Smart-thinking” readers on their own. Detailed read-aloud guides for many good picture books are available for a free download from the above Menu Downloadable Read-Aloud Guides.

So Many Good Historic Picture Books


By reading these good historic picture book stories to kids – at all ages – we can introduce different people, vocabulary, and events that will be studied in school. Children will learn about the time period and “feel” what it was like to live there through the eyes of the characters – some real and others fictional. Before reading to your children, please read them first to be aware of events that might be disturbing to some kids so you can talk about them first.

  • The Silent Witness (P-3 Lexile 950) is told from the point of view of a doll in the Civil War.
  • They Called Her Molly Pitcher (P-2 Lexile 930) is about a real woman who was helpful to soldiers during the American Revolution. A Read-aloud Guide can be downloaded free along with many others using the top Menu. They Called Her Molly Pitcher
  • Boxes for Katje ( K-2 Lexile 460) is a real story about how American children helped cold and starving Dutch children during WWII.
  • Luba the Angel of Bergen-Belsen (Gr 1-4 Lexile 750) is a real story of how one imprisoned woman saved many children during the Holocaust. This story and illustrations are absolutely NOT appropriate for very young children. Please read it first.
  • The Wall follows a man and his son as they visit the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Please be aware that some historic events – like war, slavery, and the Holocaust – might be better read to older children. Although they are advertised for children often as young as Pre-school to third grade, these topics are complicated and intense. Very young children will not be able to understand them on their own. Some of these eras in history may not be appropriate for your child.  Know your history, know the story, and know your children. Picture books can be appropriate for all grades. They have been the basis of my lessons in grades 1 through 12 – of course, depending on the book, the grade, and the curriculum.

Segregation for Older Kids

Segregation is not studied in my school until the middle grades.  These read-aloud picture book stories can set the stage – by building background knowledge – for learning about the events during this period in history. Events become real, children have many questions, and are eager to learn more.

  • White Socks Only (P-3 Lexile 560)
  • Freedom Summer (P-3 Lexile 600)
  • Freedom on the Menu (P-3 Lexile 660)

A Word about Lexiles

Lexile levels are reading levels of books by grade. They are suggested for average readers in the grades listed. Please note that picture books are often misunderstood by adults.  Since they are advertised for very young kids and there are “pictures” on the covers, it is the general opinion that kids can take them and go read and understand them on their own. If you check the discrepancies between many grades and Lexile levels using the chart to the right, you will notice that they are not always good for the youngsters for which they are marketed. Also, the topics may not be appropriate for your children.

When you read to kids and talk about story events – especially tough topics in history – you can help them understand what is happening, why it is important, and the connections between different time periods in history. Children can understand stories read to them that are 2 years above their own reading level.

Picture Book Power

There are many valuable benefits of reading picture books to children. This is a link to a list.  Why Picture Books?. I hope you and your children get a glimpse into the past by reading these stories together.  I would love to hear about your experiences.

Please subscribe to this Blog (link on the right) and I will notify you every time there is a new posting. “Happy Reading!”

Picture Books make kids smart-thinking about books.




Author: Susan

Retired NYS certified Reading Specialist, Picture Book Aficionado, Crocheter, Author, Blogger, and Westie Dog lover!

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