Christopher Columbus has been a controversial figure ever since he began petitioning European kings to fund his fantastical dream of finding a western passage to the Orient. The best antidote to bumper-sticker politics is knowledge. If your kids aren’t learning anything about Columbus, or what they’re learning is largely negative, here are some well-regarded books that give an age-appropriate, holistic picture of his life and times.
I’ve presented them in order from most appropriate for youngest to older kids. The age ranges are approximate, and geared at families who read to their kids semi-regularly and would read an article about Christopher Columbus books for kids, which is sadly above-average parenting these days. The younger the age range, the more likely Columbus will be presented for his accomplishments rather than his sins, but the better books for older readers also present the crucial psychological and historical context to understand his susceptibility to abuse of power once he attained it, how greed and pride paved the way, and mitigating factors such as him being forced to crew his ships with criminals, court politics, and the vicious attacks of indigenous people on him and similar explorers.
By the way, parents, I’ve learned that reading with my children is a great way to educate myself, as well. These books have something for all ages. Even a picture book can refresh your memory on the bullet points of a historical timeline or figure.
A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus (ages 2-5)
This is the simplest Seuss for youngest use. Actually it’s not Seuss at all, I couldn’t resist a reference. David Adler has written a series of beginner biographies that are good to read out loud to the smallest people and great for beginning readers to read aloud to you. This is his Christopher Columbus book, and it should be available easily at your local library. Read the others if you like this one. I find it a little simple for my tastes but my beginning readers especially appreciate the series and the text to picture ratio is good for toddlers also.
The Columbus Story (ages 3-8)
Alice Dalgliesh is a famous children’s author from the golden age of children’s literature in approximately the 1950s. You are probably familiar with her “Courage of Sarah Noble” and “Bears on Hemlock Mountain.” “The Columbus Story” is out of print and can be hard to find to purchase, but I hunted one up in the used books pile at a local teacher’s store and copies would be available at a good library. If you see her name at a used book sale, get the book. (And if you are lucky enough to thrift up duplicates, send your extras to me!)
Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, (ages 4-8)
The best thing about this book by Peter Sis is the artwork quality, which is unusual for picture books, as the trend nowadays is to give children garbage art to look at. This is also popular and should be at any decent library. It won a New York Times award for children’s book illustrations.
Columbus (ages 5-12)
Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire emigrated to the United States as artists and illustrators in the 1920s, turning their talents to children’s books at a publisher’s request. They wrote and illustrated several historical biographies, including of Pocahantas. Their illustrations are striking. For younger children “Columbus,” and the D’Aulaire books in general, is a good read-aloud, and a good self-read for kids at approximately a fourth-grade reading level or better.
Meet Christopher Columbus (ages 6-10)
This is a modern update to the famous Landmark history series, written at about the length and in the style of an age-appropriate novel. The writing is very engaging and perfect for a child to read on his or her own with little encouragement needed. If your child (or you) likes this one, you will have started an excellent and luckily cheap habit to feed, as the paperbacks are very thrift-friendly at something like $3.50-$5 a pop.
This Country of Ours (ages 8-adult)
This is slightly a cheat, as it is an early history of the entire United States that has two chapters on Columbus bookended by the stories of the explorers before and after him, including an explanation of how America took its name from a man who didn’t first discover it that is perfectly history — essentially a random happenstance. You can get a copy on Amazon here, or read it free online here.
Author Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall was a Victorian-era popular writer of national histories aimed at children, most famously “Our Island Story,” a child’s history of her native England. The reading is entertaining yet thorough, and again engaging enough to be read aloud to children or for pleasure by adults. It is my current nightstand book.
The World of Columbus and Sons (ages 12-adult)
Genevieve Foster was another famous female historian, mostly publishing in the 1930s and ’40s, who illustrated her own books. She was a four-time runner-up for the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, and the U.S. State Department translated and distributed her books across the world. Beautiful Feet Books is reprinting many of her 19 books, including “The World of Columbus and Sons.” Foster’s approach to history was to give as comprehensive a picture as she could of the interrelated events and figures that contributed to certain periods, and it makes for a gripping read.