In my family’s eight years home schooling, we have tried curricula in numerous formats – textbook, digital, online. The first few years, we had the most trouble finding thorough, interesting curricula for history. Then, in 7th grade, we discovered the “horizontal history” stories of children’s book illustrator Genevieve Foster.
Over her career, Foster wrote and illustrated nineteen history “textbooks” that took a horizontal approach to history, rather than vertical. She observed that her daughter Joanna’s history textbooks gave a limited view, focusing on one person or one nation to teach on an entire era. Foster compared the narration of contemporary history textbooks to dull plays in which one character took center stage while the rest meandered on the sidelines, mumbling lines out of sight of the audience.[x]
Through her school years, history most confused Foster, written as it was as a mishmash of facts, dates, names, and events that little than a timeline and maps connected. She saw history as a drama composed of the interconnection of various events, and sought to convey these relationships through her own works.
The first book that Foster released, George Washington’s World (1941), focused on 1732 to 1799, George Washington’s lifetime. Rather than picking up in the middle to describe the American revolution, Foster’s approach allowed her to share with readers the events through America, overseas in Europe, and even in countries far east, as well introduce the lives of other eminent characters, thus providing a more complete view of the world in which Washington was born, grew up, fought, and ruled. This format remains constant through the history books published in subsequent years.
More than just a history textbook, Foster’s “World” books also explore the philosophical, literary, scientific, and religious innovations and expeditions of the 18th century. She divides her books into parts that align with milestones in the “main character’s” life, and further divides the parts into short chapters, each accompanied by black-and-white illustrations from her own hand. She writes history like a story, while maintaining the truth of the people, events, and ideas.
The home school curriculum company Beautiful Feet Books has republished and made available six of Foster’s “World” books – Augustus Caesar’s World, The World of Columbus and Sons, The World of Captain John Smith, The World of William Penn, George Washington’s World, and Abraham Lincoln’s World – as well as the shorter work The Year of the Horseless Carriage. To view these works, please see here and here.
Genevieve Foster called her history writings a “setting to rights a long neglected attic.”[x]. I highly recommend her horizontal history series and, if you give it a chance, I hope that the “World” books achieve for you her goal of dusting the dull past set by traditional history textbooks.