The Best Historical Fiction Books About Westward Expansion
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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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I appreciate your excellent list. I know teachers search for helpful materials to ignite real interest. Perhaps you’d like to add my book, The Black Alabaster Box, Schoonmaker (Auctus, 2019) ? A free guide for teachers is available on my website: http://www.fschoonmaker.com
It had been quiet along the Santa Fe Trail for more than a year when the Stokes Company set out for California, the Willis family among them. A reluctant traveler, young Grace Willis longs for her fortunate, safe, and comfortable life at home. Just as she is learning to negotiate life in a wagon-train, Grace is kidnapped by fellow travelers and taken into Oklahoma Territory. She must decide if she will cave in to despair or muster the courage to run away and search for her parents. Grace finds help in unlikely places. She discovers that there really is such a thing as magic, and there are some things only a child can do.
I’d love to learn more — if you have review copies including a Kindle file, let me know at email@example.com. Thanks!
Thanks for sharing about this book!
Your list is pretty interesting as usual, but with some of these books a serious discussion of racism (particularly towards Native Americans and Black people) is a necessity with the children reading these .
The Little House in the Prairie series is the big one that comes to mind. The phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” is a repeated mantra throughout all the books, mostly from Ma. Pa also dresses in blackface on page 258 in Little Town on the Prairie . Debbie Reese does a really good break down of all this on her blog (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com)
Some additional titles to consider from the perspectives of others during that time period. .
On This Long Journey: The Journal of Jesse Smoke by Joseph Bruchac
The Journal of Joshua Loper by Walter Dean Myers
How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle
Sadly, it’s a short list, but hopefully more diverse books will be written about the topic at large in the near future.
Thanks for your comment and sharing these titles! Other than Little House, what other book did you have a concern about?
Thank you for getting back to me!
The only other title for me at least was The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming by J. Anderson Coats. The author just doesn’t handle the native content very well which is disappointing. There were points that were great (like Jane learning the history of Chinook, a language of the people in Seattle along with a few phrases, and the explanation that there are many different Native languages ) but there was many parts that were important to the book and little references that hinged on a knowledge of Native history and Washington history, something a lot children and adults reading wouldn’t have. Coats simply didn’t do a very good job explaining that to the audience.
I haven’t read Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart, but I’ve heard really good things so I’m excited. As for more titles I’ve found
Evangelina Takes Flight by Diana J. Noble
The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich (Further along The Birchbark House series, but specifically deals with westward expansion)
Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell (an older title, but still in print at Birchbark Books)
You are a wealth of information on this topic, thank you! It’s so interesting to reflect on this. We readers often read for plot with no idea whether or not we’re reading something that is historically inaccurate or racially bias. As a book reviewer, I am seeing that I can do a better job after I read with some research before I recommend a book based on plot alone. Thanks, again, Nick!