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My Favorite Portsmouth History Books for Kids

boy reading book

A New Hampshire historian shares his fears and favorite local history books for children. Includes a list at the end of two dozen vintage-to-modern books for parents and kids. (Click title to read more)


I'm a little worried. When I give my history lectures across New England, the audience is predominantly gray. The occasional young face among the crowd always comes as a surprise.

"Did your parents make you come here?" I once asked a 10-year old in the front row.

"No," he said with confidence. "I like history. I made them bring me."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that from a youngster, I couldn't make change for a dime.  The older we get, of course, the more we think about legacy, genealogy, and nostalgia. We wonder how we will be remembered when we're gone.

But I'm worried, in a world of distraction, whether upcoming generations will share the same connection to the past.  Will they keep our house museums open or turn them into B&Bs? Will they preserve our documents and photos or be satisfied with digital versions?

children Portsmouth books


The printed portal

Admittedly, I didn't attend grown-up history lectures when I was a kid. History was my least favorite subject in school, if you don't count math, science, foreign languages, and gym. But I was a voracious reader. I spent summers reading books about dinosaurs and detectives, Indians and inventors, presidents and pirates. I didn't think these were history books, but they were. So was the dog-eared paperback copy of Ripley's Believe It or Not  that I carried in my back pants pocket. I was being honed for a career as a history writer -- and I didn't even know it.

I don't believe the sky is falling. But kids are easily distracted. There is so much to do and see today, so many flashes of Internet genius, that I worry, just a little. Will our kids lock in to an appreciation for local history, or will that critical period pass them by? Is the past, the real past, getting drowned out amid all the fascinating noise of the 21st century?

A national educational publisher recently stopped doing biographies of historical figures. School libraries were not buying enough history books to make them profitable to print, I was told. The kid's book market has moved to super heroes, zombies, Navy Seals, sports personalities, rock stars, and graphic novels.

Okay, that's not entirely true. Publisher's are still putting out history books for kids, but they are struggling to make them more interesting to a new media-savvy audience. Kids no longer see the past as a sacred and immutable thing. History now has to compete for its market share. The result are titles like  You Wouldn't Want to be at the Boston Tea Party. Then there's The Foul, Filthy American Frontier and,  The Dreadful, Smelly Colonies,  books that reveal the "disgusting details" of the days Americans ate moldy bread and maggoty meat, and washed their clothes in urine.

The good news is that these "revisionist" books for kids often bring them closer to historical reality by demystifying the past and turning heroes into authentic humans. The downside is that kids may be left thinking that our ancestors were dumber, less resourceful, less evolved, and even less important than we "superior" beings living today.


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Monday, February 19, 2018 
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