I’m a huge fan of using literature to teach social studies. Picture books in particular are a powerful way to show students what life was like during certain time periods and events. I love that they spark great class discussions and that I can also use them to review strategies like predicting, inferring, identifying themes, sequencing, and more.
However, it can be tough to find books that are the right level for your students. With that in mind, I wanted to share some of my favorite Civil War books for upper elementary students (4th and 5th grade). This list includes a mix of fiction and nonfiction picture books, chapter books, biographies, and even a magazine. Depending on the level of the book, you could use these as independent or guided reading options or use to read aloud to your class.
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Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco definitely has to be on this list. This powerful book examines the friendship of two Union soldiers – one African American, one white. It’s a very touching story and one that I’m sure to read aloud every year.
Another must-have is Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine. This real life story is fascinating, and the book leads to great student conversations about the obstacles that African Americans faced trying to get to the North and to freedom.
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder is about Harriet Tubman’s life as a child. Great story, great illustrations – maybe a little young for the upper grades, but still a great choice to look at this important figure in history.
There are a number of really well done picture books about the Underground Railroad. One is Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter, in which several enslaved African Americans learn the song and follow its directions to reach freedom. I also like Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold. This story follows Cassie (from Ringgold’s Tar Beach) as she goes back in time to meet “Aunt Harriet.” This book delves into life for enslaved African Americans, something that I think a lot of children’s books gloss over, and I love Ringgold’s artistic style. One more I have to recommend is The Secret to Freedom by Marcia Vaughan. This book is a great read-aloud to use to teach students about the Underground Railroad quilts.
To explore the roles of women in the war, I like using Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss. Edmonds was a Canadian woman who dressed as a man and enlisted in the Union Army. Fantastic illustrations along with helpful features like a detailed glossary make this a great resource for a Civil War unit.
You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Civil War Solider by Thomas Ratliff has good background information about life for the soldiers of the Civil War. Like the other books in the series, there are lots of cartoony illustrations that students love, and the information is in short chunks that are easy for elementary students to digest. Another good option that covers life during the war is If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War by Kay Moore. These are nice to have on hand if your students do any Civil War research projects.
Finally, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom by John Hendrix has a bit of a graphic novel feel to it and may really appeal to your students. John Brown’s raid is part of the Virginia Studies curriculum, but there aren’t a lot of resources about him for elementary students, so this is a good one to consider adding to your collection.
Bull Run by Paul Fleischmann tells the story of the Battle of Bull Run from 16 different viewpoints. It’s an engaging historical fiction novel with lots of great opportunities for students to practice reading strategies. The vocabulary is advanced, though, so you might want to use this one as a read aloud with a lot of vocabulary support.
There are also some good chapter books from the “What Was…?” series, including What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? by Jim O’Connor and What Was the Underground Railroad? by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Kids eat this series up, and I love that they have primary sources sprinkled throughout the pages. Great options for your higher independent readers or to read aloud to your class.
It’s really aimed at older readers, but I have to recommend Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. I devoured this book as a kid and I think it holds up really well. It may not work as an independent reading option, but you can certainly share bits and pieces of it with your students.
I also like this magazine on the Civil War from Kids Discover. The text is more advanced, but there are some nice visuals, and it also comes with a free teacher guide.
I hope you’ve found some new books to use to teach your Civil War unit! As always, if you have suggestions for books that aren’t on this list, please comment with them below!