Smart Books for Smart Kids

by Kristen Greif

It is common knowledge that there’s a direct correlation between exposing kids to reading at a young age and increases in their comprehensive reading skills. Recognizing this, American public schools encourage reading by creating more time for reading during the school day. This certainly benefits students who may not have time to read otherwise or lack the resources to read at home, but in order to create more time for reading, schools have to cut time that had previously been allocated to other subjects, such as history. At the same time, schools face growing pressure to focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), often at the expense of spending time on social studies and literature. Cutting or reducing time for other subjects invariably damages the whole of a child’s education because it narrows their perspectives, which can limit their abilities to make larger connections. And limiting time spent studying a favorite subject or exploring new areas can create frustration or resentment among students.

Even more sobering is the fact that, even with allotting more time for reading during school hours, many American students are not reading at their expected grade level. Some of the reasons for this are outside of a teacher’s control, so what can teachers do to encourage children not just to read, but to read well?

One very effective option is to provide students with engaging books on a variety of interesting subjects that challenge them to improve their reading skills. Once a student is interested in a subject, they will naturally want to learn more about it, and as they read, they increase their reading and overall comprehension levels, and learn to think in different ways through exposure to various ideas. Nonfiction books that capture a student’s attention and imagination stimulate children’s interests in a wide variety of subjects. The Notable Missourians series, which is designed for fourth to sixth graders, provides students with the opportunity to learn about important historical events through the stories of people who were involved in those events.

Ever wonder why Charles Lindbergh named his plane The Spirit of St. Louis? Find out in our biography of Albert Lambert. Ever wonder about what happened to the Native American groups who lived in our area before American settlers moved in? Read Great Walker’s story to learn about the Ioway. We’ve all heard of Daniel Boone, but who was Olive Boone and what can we learn from the story of her life? Reading history teaches students to understand not only what has happened in our collective past, but why it happened and why it’s important. By reading biographies, students discover that the past was different, but that they are not so different from people in the past. And from that, children learn to understand what ways we are all similar and different. And knowing that makes them grow up to be better citizens in an increasingly globalized world. What could be more important?

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CSI History: Microhistories and why you should read them

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by Erica Nolan

During my internship at Truman State University Press, my fellow intern and I worked on converting one of the Press’s older publications into an e-book. While coding the information for Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle, I found myself wanting to stop what I was doing and read the text. With intriguing chapter titles like “Marital Happiness and Marital Breakdown,” “Concubines,” and “ Bastards,” I couldn’t resist. It sounded like its very own soap opera.

I ended up reading a few chapters on my own time, and was soon engulfed by the history of the Zimmern family and fascinated by getting a glimpse into the lives of early modern German nobility. This book hones in on an extremely specific set of people and events, and therefore falls into the category of “microhistory.” Wikipedia defines a microhistory as, “an intensive historical investigation of a well defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual).” Many novels focus on a single event, a community, or an individual, but in a microhistory, everything you’re reading about actually happened.

Authors of microhistories are historical detectives, digging deeper than anyone has before them in the hopes of finding something new and increasing their understanding of the larger issues of social history by focusing on specific cases. Microhistories are often written for other historians; the average person might not think of reading one of these books. But my own experience with Noble Strategies made me wonder why more people don’t choose microhistories to read. As an English major, I’m always on board for a well-written story—and microhistories have great potential for being just that. What makes microhistories so much more interesting is the overall thematic focus within them. You get a better glimpse at the humanity within the history when it is concentrated on a certain theme. For example, the underlying theme of relationships within Noble Strategies demonstrates the disconnect between marriage and love in early modern Germany. It helps show how marriage was a financial and political arrangement that created the necessity for concubines as a source of affection, which explains the resulting bastards in the Zimmern family.

If you’re interested in finding a microhistory to sink your teeth into, a few other options in our collection include Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 and Husbands, Wives, and Concubines: Marriage, Family and Social Order in Sixteenth-Century Verona. And there are a few classics out there to check out too. The Cheese and the Worms is a great example, and one of the best-known microhistories is The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (who authored our A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crouzet). The Return of Martin Guerre was also a movie (in French), and there is even an American adaptation of the story titled Sommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. Maybe someone should write a soap opera or miniseries based on the marital adventures of the Zimmern family. Their story makes great reading.

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