I have a confession: I have never read the Little House books to my sons. I did start Farmer Boy one summer, but they were so disturbed by the whipping in the first chapter that we put it down and never returned to it. As a kid I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and read them over and over, but then as I started to branch out, the overriding theme of rugged individualism and how “hard work can win all”, started to grate on me, especially as the books are touted as a fictionalized version of what happened, yet are far from the truth. Now I realize this all sounds like blasphemy (I also dislike Dr. Seuss so clearly I cannot be trusted), but I do think the Little House books are examples of superior storytelling and its okay if you enjoy them. I just don’t think its portrait of life as a pioneer should be as idealized as it has been.
The titles on this list are not necessarily books like Little House on the Prairie, although many of them have similar settings and pioneer themes. I curated this book list with the same goal I had in mind for my lists of books for kids who like Harry Potter, and books for kids who like Percy Jackson. Once Little House has your kids hooked on reading, it’s a great time to get them to branch out! I have also specifically chosen a number of books with alternatives to the standard Anglo-American narrative. So read these books aloud to your kids and then discuss the similarities and differences with the Little House books.
Please note: this list is heavy with girl protagonists, but just like the Little House books, every single book on this list will also be enjoyed by boys.
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Our Only May Amelia. May Amelia and her family are Finnish-American settlers in 1899 Washington. May Amelia has seven older brothers and as the only girl in the area she is certainly outnumbered but holds her own and has little patience for acting in a ladylike manner. May Amelia’s mama is about to have another baby and her fingers are crossed for another girl. The cast of characters, from May Amelia’s sophisticated town aunt to her crotchety grandmother are intensely engaging and pioneer life is exposed in all its nitty-gritty glory. I adored reading this book and now have Holm’s Boston Jane series on my to-read list, too.
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan is based on the life of America’s first female detective and will remind kids that the 19th century was not just about pioneer life! 11 year old Nell ends up on the doorstep of her Aunt Kate. Aunt Kate would prefer to drop Nell off at the local orphanage but Nell makes herself useful to her aunt, who works for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Hannigan deftly handles multiple story lines and weaves in a lot of interesting historical content. There is a lot going on here: Nell and Kate’s detective-ing (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) around the Baltimore Plot (a real-life attempt to assassinate Abraham Lincoln), Nell’s correspondence with Jemma, an African-American friend who relates stories with troubling details about the Underground Railroad, and the mystery surrounding her uncle’s and father’s death. Interesting characters and fast paced action will make readers want to race to the end!
The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. I am a big fan of Karen Cushman’s books. I have recommended a few of her historical novels with a medieval setting (they would be a good addition to this list, too!); this one is set in 1849. Lucy’s widowed mother decides to move her family from Boston to try their luck in California during the gold rush. Lucy is not a fan of this plan and she does everything she can to earn her way back to Boston. Cushman is skilled at creating humorous, spunky narrators and her books move along at a fast pace, making them especially good for kids who may not want to pick up a huge novel.
The Thing About Luck, a National Book Award winner by Cynthis Kadobata, is narrated by Summer, a contemporary Japanese-American girl whose family works as wheat harvesters. This year, Summer’s parents are in Japan and so she and her special needs brother, Jaz, and her grandparents travel with the fellow wheat harvesters from Kansas to Texas and Oklahoma. Summer’s narration includes fascinating descriptions of how the harvest is brought in and her experience reveals a lifestyle that most American children don’t know exists. When Summer’s grandparents are too ill to help, the 12 year old draws upon her own strength to help bring in the wheat when a crucial deadline looms. This is an excellent book and is a great counterpoint to pioneer farm life!
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. I loved this book, and its sequel, Hattie Ever After. In 1918, 16 year old Hattie, an orphan, travels to Iowa, determined to make her recently deceased uncle’s homestead in Montana her own. But, she must tame the land in a year in order to keep it as her own. The narration is coupled with short articles that Hattie writes to a newspaper about her experiences and letters she writes to her friend Charlie, who is at war in France. Hattie’s life is hard and she relies on her neighbors to help her out, but there are also fellow homesteaders who are not so supportive. This is a fantastic book. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)
May B. If your child is a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but turns up his nose at poetry, place May B. in his hands. 13 year old May and her family live on the frontier and in order to help out, May’s parents find her a place working for another family fifteen few miles away. When the couple mysteriously disappear and leave May alone, she must find a way to survive the oncoming winter. A thoughtful touch is May’s strong interest in learning and reading, even as she struggles with dyslexia (although, unlike modern readers, May doesn’t know dyslexia is her problem).
The Birchbark House. (series) Louise Erdrich’s series about a family in the Ojibwa tribe is often compared and contrasted with the Little House series. This first book takes place on an island in Lake Superior in 1847 where 7-year-old Omakayas, “Little Frog” and her Ojibwa family live. Little Frog is the sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic and is adopted into a new community. Erdrich describes the daily life and experiences of the Ojibwa as well as the sorrows they endure as a result of the White Man. Excellent, and a must read for kids.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. In 1912 Maine, Turner Buckminster III is bored. Then he meets Lizzie Bright, an African-American from Malaga Island, a community settled by former slaves, and the two connect over baseball. Turner’s minister family and the rest of the congregation do not approve of the poor Malaga Island community and decide it must go in order to attract tourism to the area. This is a serious story, based on the actual removal of the Malaga Island community. The inhabitants were sent to an insane asylum. There is some humor in the tale, but it does not have a happy ending. (Ages 12 and up.) (I listened to this on audiobook.)
The Bears on Hemlock Mountain. I used to have The Courage of Sarah Noble on the list but removed it. I always felt uncomfortable recommending it because of the portrayal of the Native Americans. I decided to listen to my gut and remove it. The Bears on Hemlock Mountain is a very short novel. It tells the story of Jonathan who crosses a snowy mountain to fetch a pot from his aunt. Crossing the mountain, he repeats the mantra “there are no bears at all.” When he does meet a bear, he manages to hide in a rather clever way. This is a simple story which kids may be able to read in one sitting. It has received a lot of criticism as being not worth of its Newbery – I won’t comment on that except to say that, considering its woodcut illustrations and the emphasis on familial relationships, I found it a nice, if tame, book.
Sarah, Plain and Tall is often touted as a book to read after Little House, (along with Caddie Woodlawn which I have left off this list) and there are a number of companion books to keep your kids reading. Sarah, a school teacher, answers an advertisement for a wife and mother, and travels to the prairie from Maine. Sarah and her new family have to find ways of adjusting to each other as well as coping with feelings of loss and finding ways to move on from grief.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III is two tales: one about Jimmy McClean, a boy of mixed Lakota and Anglo heritage, who is taking a vision journey with his Lakota grandfather, Nyles High Eagle. The second is the story of Tasunke Witko, aka Crazy Horse, as told to Jimmy by Grandfather Nyles. This book received great reviews but I will confess that I enjoyed the Crazy Horse narrative more than the contemporary story. Whenever the story switched to Jimmy and Nyles I was anxious to return to the historical action. One thing I really liked about the book, however, was the emphasis that Native Americans are not just part of the American past. Unfortunately, the way kids are taught American history, they often get the wrong impression and this book is a good starting point to correct that error.
Bright Island is probably best for older tweens, as it is quite long and dense. Thankful is a girl who loves the sea. However, her parents send her away to school on the mainland so she can learn “what a girl is good for.” The beautiful writing details Thankful’s experience at the school, her attachment to boating and the coast of Maine. It is a lovely coming of age story and is perfect for fans of books like Anne of Green Gables. I would also like to stress that BOYS will also enjoy this book. (Can you tell I feel totally worn out by “books for boys” vs. “books for girls” recommendations?)
Thimble Summer. Elizabeth Enright’s book is a wonderful choice if you are looking for chapter books about strong independent girls. Nine year old Garnet’s family farm has been suffering from lack of rain but when she finds a silver thimble and the rains come, Garnet’s wonderful summer begins. Enright’s writing is superb and the descriptions of Garnet’s everyday farm life are enchanting.
Elijah of Buxton. In the 1860s Elijah becomes the first free child born to runaway slaves in a colony in Canada. His family sees him as “fragile”, crying too easily or getting scared or hurt. The first part of the book is filled with humorous antics surrounding the community of Buxton. Later, Elijah makes the decision to travel to America to help a friend recover money that was stolen from him and the nature of freedom stares him straight in the eye.
Preacher’s Boy. In late 19th century Vermont, 10 year old Robbie decides he is not going to play the virtuous role of the preacher’s boy. While hiding out in the woods he meets homeless Violet and her alcoholic father. As his tentative friendship with Violet grows, he wrestles with the right thing to do for himself and his new acquaintances. Poor choices and other circumstances result in a serious injury, which also turns out to be the catalyst by which Robbie is able to redeem himself. I liked the way this story was not a study in absolute moral choices but a more realistic explorations of how we (and especially children as they discover what kind of people they want to be) decide to act and treat others.
Blue Mountain is the story of Tuk, a bighorn sheep who has a vision of a blue mountain. When the valley where his tribe feeds in winter grows bare and domesticated sheep bring disease, Tuk decides to lead his fellow bighorn to the blue mountain. Some are doubtful of Tuk’s promise of success and stay behind, but the small group of travelers set out and traverse a path beset with predators and dangers. Tuk manages to outwit bears and wolves and lead his followers in his hero’s quest. When they arrive at the blue mountain, Tuk turns back to fetch the rest of the herd. With its poetical text and interesting characters, Blue Mountain is a great read aloud.
West of the Moon. This was one of my favorite reads last year and offers Little House fans the chance to consider what it might take for some individuals to make it to America in the first place. (Although I hope not too many were as dramatic as this one!) More than anything, Astri wants to join her father in America but her aunt sells her to Svaalberd, a foul, stinking goat farmer who treats her cruelly. Astri manages to escape from Svallberd, grabs her sister from her aunt and uncle before they are able to sell her, too. The sisters, with a strange girl Astri has met in Svaalberd’s barn, run towards the coast in hopes of catching a boat to America but they are pursued by Svallberd. The writing is an intriguing mix of history and folklore. (I recommend it for ages 12 and up.) Edited to add: There is a scene of attempted rape in this book that may make some parents uncomfortable, so preview the book if that is a concern for you. *See comments, below.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer is a wonderful contemporary mix of magic and realism. When Sophie Brown’s father loses his job, the family move from Los Angeles to her great-uncle’s farm. This is an epistolary novel; Sophie writes letters to her Abuelita about her new life. While Sophie is adjusting to living on a farm, being one of the only “brown people” in the community and the frugality of her parents, she discovers a few chickens that have unusual characteristics. Her new mission becomes learning how to care and protect her new supernatural flock.
A Long Way From Chicago is a modern classic. Siblings Joey and Mary Alice visit their Grandma Dowdel in downstate Illinois. Set during the Depression, with a quirky cast of characters (especially Grandma!), my kids liked this one a lot. They usually respond well to anything that is funny and even if some of the text and vocabulary goes over New Kid’s head, when he sees his older brother laugh, he laughs right along with him. He never wants to be left out!
I had tried to finish Out Of The Dust before completing my book list of children’s novels in verse but I didn’t quite make it. I’m happy to be able to share Hesse’s book with you now. Billie Jo narrates her story of living in the dustbowl Texas during the Depression. In free verse, she describes the difficulties of poverty, having a distant father, and the tragic accident of her mother’s death which also damaged her own hands so she is no longer able to play the piano. A moving story.
My Side of the Mountain. My 10 year old came home from school singing the praises of this book and I asked him if he would be interested in listening to me read it to him and his brother. He admitted that he would so it’s on our to-read list. As a kid, I read this book about a boy who runs away from New York City to live in the wilderness, and remember being fascinated by it.
Understood Betsy. Eleanor Roosevelt named author Dorothy Canfield Fisher as one of America’s ten most influential women. Educators will recognize her as the woman who introduced the Montessori method to American classrooms. That philosophy is recognizable in Understood Betsy. Until she goes to live on a rural homestead with her cousins, nine year old Elizabeth has “never found out a single thing for herself alone.” In the country, she takes joy and pride in learning and becomes a very capable and happy Betsy.
I’m putting Bo at Ballard Creek on this list because tons of people love, love, love it. I am not one of them, however. The main character, Bo is a perennially cheerful 5 year old (an odd age for the protagonist of a middle grade novel) girl adopted by two Alaskan miners, African-American Jack and the Swedish immigrant, Arvid, when her mother, “a good time girl” feels to overwhelmed to take care of her. The action takes place in 1920s Alaska, in a surprisingly diverse and welcoming community. The plot is primarily vignette-style and the book ends with the family adopting a baby brother for Bo. I admit that it is a sweet book that will appeal to fans of Little House on the Prairie. For me, I simply didn’t connect to the narrative voice and I did dislike a few generalizations about “Eskimos”. I still think that many families will enjoy it. I also think it will make a better read aloud, because of the age of the main character.
Other lists you will like if you like the Little House books:
- 2oth century children’s classics: 10 books for each decade
- Books for kids who like Anne of Green Gables
- Chapter books written in verse
- 51 Chapter Books Every Child Should Read
- Reading for Adults from the Little House website
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