Family History Books for Kids

How might teachers or parents guide young family historians? Just like considerable information exists in books and on the Internet for adults, so too are there many websites and books for kids. Here, I review three family history books for kids in the U.S. I selected them more or less out of a hat. When I realized how many family history books for kids have been published, I decided to start with three from Amazon that appear to sell well, and that differ from each other.

Leavitt, The Kids' Family Tree Book

Leavitt, The Kids’ Family Tree Book

The Kids’ Family Tree Book (C. Leavitt, Sterling Pub Co., 2007) targets ages 7-11. This delightful, beautifully-illustrated book is loaded with detailed steps that appear very user-friendly for children. It begins with guidance on building a family history scrapbook; subsequent chapters flesh out various kinds of records and information that can be included. The book concludes with guidance for planning a family reunion and family website to share all that has been learned. Of the three books discussed here, this is the one I’d go to first because it is comprehensive without being overly detailed, and has nothing I’d be tempted to skip over.

Wolfman, Climbing your Family Tree

Wolfman, Climbing your Family Tree

Climbing your Family Tree, 2nd ed. (I. Wolfman, Workman Publishing Co., 2002) targets ages 8-12, and features an accompanying website that includes links mentioned in each chapter as well as downloadable charts and other tools. Chapters are organized around questions (such as what surnames can reveal or how immigration policy worked) and kinds of sources (such as family interviews, and libraries and archives). Each chapter is illustrated with photos and copies of documents, and includes specific guidance on what to do and questions to ask, as well as background information about relevant concepts (such as how to interpret conflicting dates in records). Chapters also include personal examples and interviews, connecting concepts with real people (including Alex Haley, who wrote the Introduction for the first edition). The book’s main drawback is that kids may find the amount of information and detail overwhelming, especially if just starting family history research.

Perl, The Great Ancestor Hunt

Perl, The Great Ancestor Hunt

The Great Ancestor Hunt (L. Perl, Houghton-Mifflin, 1990) targets ages 12-16. Published before the explosion of Internet research, this book focuses on analyzing paper and other hard-copy documents such as needlework and passports, in addition to more traditional documents such as census records and family Bibles. Of the three books, this one presents the most U.S. and world history, including a quite interesting introductory chapter about how and why people around the world have kept oral and written family records. Although the book contains much useful information, I would be less likely to choose it than the other two, partly because it is dated, but also because the others provide more hands-on guidance.

All three of these books family history books for kids begin by considering why family history might be personally relevant. Leavitt and Perl explain that it helps you understand yourself; Wolfman describes how he personally became hooked. All three then guide young people to begin the process of investigating family history with what they already know about their life and family. The books offer questions for analyzing available records, family photos, and other family treasures. They also help young people consider what their surnames might reveal about the family’s past.

The three books then provide detailed guidance for locating and examining public records, such as census records, old passports, birth certificates, death records, marriage records, and property records – kid-sized versions of the kinds of tools in this blogsite. Wolfman provides a particularly extensive collection of ideas about how to record data on family members and family groups. Leavitt and Wolfman give wonderful guidance for oral histories, along with encouragement for young people to talk with older family members. I enjoyed Leavitt’s interesting sections on medical history, what maps can tell you, and reflections on what life might have been like for ancestors when considering things that hadn’t been invented yet.

The books share some limitations. One is simply that availability of Internet resources has expanded since these were published. Wolfman’s website and chapter on use of the Internet are quite helpful in this regard. At the same time, however, since so many resources are not on the Internet (and some, such as family interviews and family documents never will be), and since many others such as census records look the same whether accessed digitally or in paper, the research and thinking process these books present is valid, even if one might add additional resources and steps today.

A second limitation is their largely shared, tacit assumption of two-parent, unblended families as the norm, particularly in presenting family tree charts, although Wolfman gives some attention to diverse family structures. Elsewhere, one can find useful tools that expand how families can look. I encourage teachers to begin with the assumption that there will be diverse family structures in any normal classroom, and to offer a variety of charts and diagrams children can use, as well as questions they can pursue, based on this assumption.

A third limitation of Perl and Wolfman is their assumption about what the “normal” historical experience in the U.S. has been. Both include history chapters about U.S. immigration, framed within a European immigration narrative to which “others” are added, similar to what one finds in U.S. history texts. Wolfman also includes a chapter near the end of the book for “special situations”: adoption, African Americans ancestors, American Indian ancestors, Jewish ancestors, blended families, LGBT families. These features “normalize” a European immigrant narrative about U.S. history, on top of the two-parent family template. My interest in Critical Family History attempts to destabilize such dominant narratives. While Ellis Island, for example, is more relevant to European immigrant ancestors than to anyone else, one can ask who was included and excluded by its very existence.

In sum, while teachers and parents should review kids’ family history books carefully before purchasing, there is quite a lot available, as this sampling shows. What I haven’t found yet, however, is a kid’s book that situates family history within a critical social, cultural, and historical analysis like this website does. Maybe a reader will create one!

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