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My Favorite Portsmouth History Books for Kids


children Jackson House Cat


Portsmouth for kids

When it comes to books of local history for kids, Thomas Bailey Aldrich got the ball rolling in 1869. His  Story of a Bad Boy was a game-changer for young readers. Although not exactly a history book, the novel about a rascally Tom Bailey played out against a backdrop of authentic Portsmouth scenery and history. What Aldrich and his friend Mark Twain did, was to write books about boys that boys actually wanted to read. Their protagonists broke the rules, got into trouble, made fun of adults, and rarely got caught.

Portsmouth's own BP Shillaber followed suit with his "plaguey" and mischievous hero Ike Partington.  Portsmouth-born Celia Thaxter, however, was more traditional, intending to educate as well as entertain young readers. Her many stories and poems for children were moralistic and romantic, more fairy tale than history.

Local amateur author Edith Gilman Brewster tried to distill the region's founding history in adventure stories for children. Her patriotic collection of tales, published at the city's 300th anniversary in 1923, was designed, in her own words, to make boys and girls "love the more our Granite State."

When I write about an unfamiliar topic, I often begin by reading a children's book to get my bearings. One of my favorites about Portsmouth is a little volume published in 1941 by Marcelle Laval Duffe, an author I've been unable to track down. Duffe's New England Colonial Days is a surprisingly accurate and readable narrative of early Portsmouth in the 1690s.

My favorite, however, has to be Portsmouth: The Life of a Town (1966) by Ola Elizabeth Winslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. From Martin Pring in 1603 to the planned opening of Strawbery Banke in the 20th century, Winslow paints a "deep-felt" picture of the city. Having clearly fallen in love with the region, Winslow describes Portsmouth on the brink of its economic revival as "an American city that has always played a leading role in our nation's development."

children  Indian Fort

Portsmouth's storybook revival

My library contains over two dozen biographies of John Paul Jones written for children and young adults. The Scottish-born naval hero is undoubtedly our most famous temporary resident. There are kids' books galore on famous city visitors like George Washington, Paul Revere, Daniel Webster, Robert Rogers, and Capt. John Smith. Oney (Ona) Judge Staines, who was enslaved by Martha Washington and escaped to Portsmouth, is the topic of a number of new juvenile history books.   

But until recently, youth-oriented books about local characters and events were scarce. Then came Celia's Lighthouse by Anne Molloy Howells. This lively tale of a young Celia Thaxter at the Isles of Shoals remains the most popular of Molloy's 22 books for juveniles.Molloy, who lived in Portsmouth from 1976 until her death in 1999 at age 92, wrote her books in longhand and transcribed each manuscript on her husband’s Underwood typewriter. 

The rise of affordable printing and the boom in self-publishing now allows authors to mine the rich heritage of the "Old Town by the Sea." Recent paperback history books for kids focus on the 1774 raid on Fort William and Mary, the rescue of a sunken tugboat, an enslaved African girl at the Warner House, a cat's-eye tour of Strawbery Banke Museum, and the life of the submarine USS Albacore.

I bet this is just the beginning. And I hope these volumes will inspire more boys and girls to explore the history of the Seacoast region. Here are sample books from my collection. and my apologies to any fellow authors I have missed.


Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books including history books for children on Lord Baltimore, Jesse James, and child labor exploitation. His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See It is available in local stores and in narrated form by He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 


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