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  • Family History Fun for Children

    Maureen A. Taylor

    NEHGS senior research scholar Gary Boyd Roberts wonders where the next generation of professional genealogists is going to come from. He can relax.  I’ve seen them. They are the children toiling over family history projects in classrooms across America. In the process of learning about their family heritage, these students are also acquiring new skills in academic subjects. Teachers across the United States have found a way to make history interesting through family history.  Unlike your recollections of family history assignments today there are more ways than ever before to have fun with genealogy.

    In fact, every day provides an opportunity for children to discover family history if you consider genealogy less of a collection of names and dates and more the story of each member of your family. I like to imagine my ancestors sitting on the branches of my family tree waiting to tell their story through the evidence I uncover.  Everyone, whether dead or alive, is a composite of inherited traits and learned patterns from their maternal and paternal lines. The basic genetics only provide part of the story; oral traditions, foodways, and social history tell the rest of the tale.  Let’s not forget that historical facts have changed the direction of many families through war, disease, and immigration. Sometimes all it takes is a good story to introduce children to genealogy and every family has at least one tale to tell. Getting children involved in family history depends on their age group and interest level. Tell children that genealogy is their own very personal detective story and turn them into the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.

    My daughter is enthralled by a multi-volume set of books called the Magic Tree House. In each installment, Jack and Annie travel in time and to faraway places. In each adventure they learn history, science, and literature. Family history research is very similar in that as children learn about their heritage they must also investigate the background details on a variety of subjects.

     If you want to get your children or grandchildren interested in genealogy why not introduce the topic through one of the many books—fiction and non-fiction alike—that discuss family history or history in general. Summer is a great time to introduce this new hobby and why not do it the easy way. Rather than have kids look at documents right away, first let them read a little bit about genealogy.  I’m rather proud that my own book, Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) actually made it to the sixth grade summer reading list in my town. When my son saw that, he groaned and asked whether he was going to have to read it too!

    I have listed below some of my favorite books for children as well as a couple just for teachers.  You can purchase most of these titles through Amazon.com or from local book stores. You can also check to see what your public library has in its collection or ask if they can borrow for you via interlibrary loan.

    Summer Reading List for Budding Genealogists

    Non-Fiction

    Do People Grow on Family Trees? Genealogy for Kids and Other Beginners by Ira Wolfman (New York: Workman Publishing Co., 1991) $10.95

    Subtitled “The Official Ellis Island Handbook,” this includes historical information on immigration and features an activity in each chapter to help children discover their ancestor’s immigrant memories.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    The Family Tree Detective: Cracking the Case of Your Family’s Story by Ann Douglas (Los Altos: Owl Communications, 1999) $19.95

    This creative endeavor is very different from the usual how-to book as it includes lots of colorful illustrations that explain how to find family online and by using traditional research methods.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    My Family Tree Workbook: Genealogy for Beginners by Rosa Chorzempa, Rosemary A. Chorzempa (New York: Dover, 1989) $3.50

    Fill-in-the-blank forms help children research their family history step-by-step.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    The Great Ancestor Hunt: The Fun of Finding Out Who You Are by Lila Perl (New York: Clarion Books, 1989) $8.95/Out of Print

    Tips for helping elementary age children uncover their family history.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project illustrated by Veronica Lawlor (New York: Scott Foresman, 1997) $16.99

    Recollections by individuals who were children when they passed through Ellis Island between 1897 and 1925, as collected by the Ellis Island Oral History Project.
    Suitable for ages 9-12 

    Kids Explore Series by the Westridge Young Writers Workshop (Santa Fe: John Muir Publishing, various dates) $9.95

    Written by children, these books focus on various aspects of ethnic heritage (African American, Hispanic, Japanese, Jewish, Western Native Americans) such as celebrations, food, history, and famous individuals.
    Suitable for ages 9-12  

    Me and My Family Tree by Joan Sweeney (New York: Dragonfly, 1999) $14.99

    A simple explanation of what a family tree is for preschool age children.
    Suitable for ages 4-8

    My Backyard History Book by David L. Weitzman (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1975)  $13.95

    This classic text is a series of activities selected to help children explore their community history and genealogy. You might even remember using this book when you were in school!
    Suitable for ages 12 and up 

    Tales of the Elders by Carol Ann Bales (Boston: Silver Burdett Press, 1977) – Out of Print

    Subtitled “A Memory Book of Men and Women who Came to America as Immigrants, 1900-1930,” these first person accounts are a great way for children to learn about immigrant experiences.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    We Were There, Too!  Young People in U.S. History by Phillip M. Hoose (New York: Melanie Kroupa Books, 2001) $28.00

    What better way to get kids interested in family history than by having them study real children and their roles in history?  This book is fascinating for children and adults. It is full of anecdotes and first person accounts for each period in United States history and was a finalist for the National Book Award.  This book should be a must read for genealogists who want to learn more about their ancestors’ lives.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

     

    Fiction

    Family Celebrations by Diane Patrick  (New York: Silver Moon Press, 1993) $14.95

    This book consists of fictional accounts of several different types of family celebrations.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    Family Tree by Katherine Ayres (New York: Yearling, 1996) $4.50 

    Eleven-year-old Tyler Stoudt’s class assignment is to research her family tree, but she only has her father to ask and is unaware of any other relatives. This is about her journey to rediscover her family heritage.
    Suitable for ages 9-12

    Henry and Mudge in the Family Trees by Cynthia Rylant (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1998) $14.00

    Part of the popular elementary school reading series following the adventures of Henry and Mudge, this volume has the children attending a family reunion.
    Suitable for ages 4-8

    Who’s Who in My Family by Loreen Leedy (New York: Holiday House, 1999) $6.95

    Follow Mrs. Fox’s class of an assortment of animals as they learn about family relationships in traditional and non-traditional families.
    Suitable for ages 4-8

     

    Especially for Teachers

    All About My Family by Catherine Zahn (National Genealogical Society, 1997) $6.95

    Study unit for kindergarten through third grade to help teachers introduce family history in their classroom.

    The Family News: A Teacher’s Guide for Using Genealogy and Newspapers in the Classroom by Catherine Zahn (National Genealogical Society, 2001) $7.50

    Students compile family history information and learn to incorporate it into a newspaper format.

    Far Away and Long Ago: Young Historians in the Classroom by Monica Edinger and Stephanie Fins (York, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 1998) $17.50

    This is a book for both teachers and students. Follow the examples of a fourth grade teacher’s experiences with her students. Teachers will be interested in Edinger’s critique of her own curriculum. 

    Leave a couple of these books around and see if your children or grandchildren will pick them up to read. Then see how long it takes them to ask you questions about your life. As many genealogists know, grandparents play an important role in getting young children interested in family history, so let older members of your family become the storytellers. Kids love to hear about two topics - what they were like as babies and the exploits of their parents . Of course teenagers will balk at the first topic but they will probably perk up for the latter. Here are a few ways to get the conversation started. The rest is up to you. 

    What’s in a Name?

    Go to your public library and research the first and last names of the members of your family. You will be surprised to discover the ethnic origins and meanings of your primary name or last name. Tell children the story of how and why their names were selected. Look for naming patterns or nicknames in your family history.

    Travels Around the World

    Post a world map in a visible place like a kitchen or family room and start plotting family origins and travels on it from the point of origin, using stickers, stars, or even ribbons. You will be surprised how interested children become in learning about other cultures and places when there is a personal connection.

    Interview Living Relatives

    Buy an inexpensive tape recorder and have the children develop a set of questions to ask relatives about important moments of their life that have significance for children. For example, their memories of first riding a bicycle, pets they had, and what school was like for them. This is a great way to connect the generations and keep the children busy.

    Photographic Memories

    Here is your chance to get all those unidentified photographs identified. Provide a soft lead pencil for writing captions on the back, a pair of clean white cotton gloves, and a magnifying glass. This can keep kids busy for hours on a rainy afternoon.  If there are any young writers in the family let them keep track of the photographic stories and compile them into a book using a computer and a scanner. This makes a wonderful hand-made gift.

    This list of my favorite books and these four activities could jump-start a children’s interest in genealogy. If you are reading this column then you understand how fascinating family history is, so why not attempt to encourage a member of the younger generation to try it. 

    Maureen A. Taylor is the author of Through the Eyes of Your Ancestors (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)  a guide to family history for kids. It appeared on the Voice of Youth Advocacy (VOYA) non-fiction honor list for 1999. She writes on family history and children for Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

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