When learning this part of U.S. History, help kids immerse themselves in chapter books and middle grade books about western expansion and life in early America. Historical fiction chapter books like will give children more understanding about life traveling west or life as a settler in the west.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many chapter books on the westward expansion (that I know of) from the Native American perspective. If you know of any titles, please let me know in the comments!
The Best Historical Fiction Chapter and Middle Grade Books About Westward Expansion
Voices from the Oregon Trail by Kay Winters, illustrated by Larry Day
Rich illustrations depicting western movement scenarios pair with prose from a character’s point of view. Carl Hawks, son of the captain of a wagon train, shares his hopes and fears. Louisa Bailey, age 14, makes breakfast with her mama and sister then pack up the wagon. Sioux scout, Channkoowashtay, watches the wagons and thinks no good will come of all the travelers. Talk about history coming alive! The first-person narrative really draws me in. An excellent book about westward expansion!
Ranger in Time #1: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner, illustrated by Kelley McMorris (ages 7 – 10)
Ranger, a golden retriever trained for search-and-rescue, travels back to the Oregon Trail to help a family in need. It’s a simple story that introduces the ups and downs of traveling west in a covered wagon.
Nettie & Nellie Crook Orphan Train Sisters: Based on a True Story by E.F. Abbott (ages 7 – 10)
Only five years old, the twins whose parents are still living are placed in an orphanage for reasons unknown and then put on a train going west where they hope to be adopted…
Sarah. Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (ages 7 – 10)
Papa advertises for a wife and mother to join them on the plains where they’re living. Sarah is coming to visit Anna, Caleb, and Papa to get to know them and see if they’ll be a good fit. This is a sweet story about a family living in the west filled with some grief but mostly love and hope.
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (ages 8 – 12)
Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith
This exceptional graphic novel contains three compelling biographies of little-known historical black individuals who lived during the Old West. Smith is an exceptional storyteller and you’ll be pulled into the stories immediately. Read about Stagecoach Mary, a former slave who had the most interesting life that included many jobs, and Bob Lemmons whose horse training skills helped him capture a wild mustang stallion.
On This Long Journey, the Journal of Jesse Smoke, a Cherokee Boy, the Trail of Tears, 1838 by Joseph Bruchac (ages 8 – 12)
Like most of the My Name Is America series, this chapter book about westward expansion is out of print — which is why I didn’t include any but this title. It’s 1838 in Tennessee. Jesse and his Cherokee family are dragged from their beds at gunpoint, forced to leave their homes and walk west. Their Trail of Tears journey is beyond difficult, freezing cold, and tragic for many reasons.
The Oregon Trail by Matt Doeden (ages 8 – 12)
Will you go west with a wagon train? Discover what life was like during Westward Expansion by jumping into a role where the choices you make could lead you to opportunity, to wealth, to poverty, or death.
The Quilt Walk by Sandra Dallas (ages 8 – 12)
The chapter book about western expansion follows Emmy and her parents traveling west from Illinois to Colorado by covered wagon. Dallas does a great job of character development, so we become just as concerned as Emmy when we see a fellow traveler being mistreated by her husband. We worry when Emmy finds a dog and hope her father lets her keep it. I found this absolutely engaging and informative about the historical period, too.
Hardscrabbleby Sandra Dallas (ages 8 – 12)
Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder (ages 7 – 10)
These books are memories of Laura’s actual life, setting the scene for what she lived through including her family’s fears and prejudices toward Native Americans. You’ll want to talk about that with your kids if you read these books with your children — how a lot of people felt that and why… In this first book, Laura and her family move to the prairie in Kansas where they’ll hope to make a new home and farm. No matter how hard their circumstances, this loving family of hard workers stick together.
***I grew up loving these books because they gave me an understanding of western expansion and pioneer life. However, it’s troubling to read books with any sort of prejudice which we see in Laura’s Ma. Please consider the book’s racism before you decide to read it as it is offensive to American Indians and sends the wrong message of endorsement or acceptance of these beliefs.
How I Became a Ghost — A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle (ages 8 – 12)
10-year old Issac, a Choctaw boy, shares how he became a ghost. It’s a gripping, skillfully written book about injustice but it’s a story that is also infused with magic, culture, and adventure. (I know this sounds strange but it totally works.) Issac’s family and tribe are forced from their home in Mississippi to walk on foot during the winter to Oklahoma. He, like many others, won’t survive. But his story will stick with you, leaving you better for knowing it.
P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man by Caroline Lawrence (ages 8 – 12)
12-year old P.K., a private-eye, lives in the wild west and is a brilliant individual who is hired to solve the murder. P.K.’s characteristics will make adults think of Asperger’s. She’s brilliant, prefers to be alone, and collects cigars. It’s an entertaining mystery during the time of westward expansion.
The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming by J. Anderson Coats (ages 8 – 12)
Jane’s haughty stepmom drags Jane and her younger brother on a ship traveling from the East coast to Washington Territory in search of a new, rich husband. Only the muddy street outpost of Seattle is not what they expected, nor are the men. Fortunately for Jane, her stepmom becomes desperate and marries a kind man who welcomes the three of them into his small, rural home. It’s an uplifting story with a vivid historical setting.
Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart (ages 8 – 12)
It’s the 1890s and after losing his entire family, Joseph also loses his horse when it’s sold without his permission. He journeys to find and buy back his horse, his only family left. Along the way he develops a friendship with a Chinese boy who speaks no English, wins a horse race, helps deliver a baby, and fights an outlaw. Excellent writing — I couldn’t put this book down.
The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey (ages 8 – 12)
13-year-old Kit is angry about everything. It’s 1905 in a Nevada gold mining town, her mother’s just died of the flu, her classmates and teachers mock her, and her dad gets murdered by his mining boss. Kit is determined to bring Mr. Granger, the mine boss, to justice. Her grit lands her a job at a newspaper where she can investigate more about the mine and Mr. Granger’s misdeeds. The author skillfully sets the historical stage with interesting details like the only motor car’s constant flat tires. Smart writing, an interesting plot, plus a compelling main character combine to make this a great read.
Pony by R.J. Palacio (ages 9 – 12)
Pony is a deeply moving story set in western frontier times about a boy who, with a remarkable pony and ghostly best friend, sets off from home in pursuit of his kidnapped father. After a group of counterfeiting bandits kidnaps Silas’s dad, a mysterious Arabian horse arrives at Silas’s house; he sees this as a sign and leaves his home on “Pony” to find his father. In the haunted woods, Silas meets a U.S. marshall who is also tracking the group and who abrasively teaches Silas how to survive. Ultimately, Pony is a story of courage, love, and the ties that bind us together, even after death.
The Lost Kingdomby Matthew J. Kirby (ages 8 – 12)
The wild west plus fantastical elements combine in this marvelous adventure of an expedition in 1753 to find the lost people of the Welsh Prince Madoc. This is the wild west like you’ve never imagined. And you’ll love it.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (ages 12+)
Hattie is determined to succeed as a homesteader on her late uncle’s land in Montana. She hopes this can finally be her real home. She’ll just have to survive the weather, difficult neighbors, cooking for herself, and the many unexpected challenges of homesteading.
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