“What was it like?”
This seems to be a question on many children’s minds when they learn about history. They want to be able to picture people’s lives, and put themselves in their shoes, to really know “what it was like – ‘back then’.”
There is a series of books that explores this very question in various time periods throughout history and gives children fresh perspective on how people lived throughout history. Published by Scholastic, there are several books in this series, and they all aim toward that goal of placing the reader into the historical context and giving them eyes to see life moving all around them. Each book begins with two words: “If you”. Many begin with “If you lived”, such as If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution, or If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War. Several explore precolonial Native American cultures, such as If You Lived with the Iroquois. Others, such as If You Traveled on The Underground Railroad study aspects within certain time periods.
Each book provides an overview of the time period of interest in an introduction, and includes historical insights, but the main focus of this series is the culture and lifestyle of the people that lived in these times. Each book is also written specifically about the lives of children at the time, and as such consider questions that children would have for a child living then. In the books about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, there are questions about children attending school – would you go to school if you supported the Loyalists, or the Patriots during the Revolution? Would you continue to go to school in the North and South during the Civil War? Gender roles are explored as well, such as why girls didn’t go to school as much as boys, and how boys and girls dressed. Famous people of the time are mentioned as well, as children of the times would have been familiar with them and their work.
These books really put kids “on the ground” in historical periods. They work to give readers new eyes and help them see life from a different point of view. They would be an excellent supplement to a more in-depth study of each subject, as they do not give a general historical overview but rather seek to explain daily life and culture. For example, if you study the Underground Railroad by reading books that explain what the Railroad was and how it worked, and detail the important people that ran it and escaped through it, If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad would deepen your child’s perspective.
An extension activity to reading this series would be to have your child write their own version of these books. If you are studying a particular ancestor who lived say, during the Great Depression, you and your child could write the book If You Lived During the Great Depression and write from your ancestor’s point of view.
To help your child understand their place in the flow of history, why not also write a similar book from their own perspective? My daughter could write If you Lived in Indianapolis in 2016 and tell about her own daily life, and her point of view of the world. Writing such a book could also be a springboard to studying current events to include in the book, helping children understand today’s events’ in the context of history.
This idea of learning how children lived in different times and places and cultures helps today’s children understand different perspectives and ways of life, but also that children throughout history have always had a lot in common. This series of books give kids a great start to understanding the study of history.
Levine, Ellen. If You Lived with the Iroquois. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1998.
Levine, Ellen. If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1988.
Moore, Kay. If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1994.
Moore, Kay. If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997.