“A History for Peter” Shows Us What It Means To Be American

April 15, 2019

The A History for Peter series is a set of three narrative books that cover American history from the mid-fifteenth century through the beginning of the Cold War. These books are dedicated to author Gerald W. Johnson’s grandson, Peter. Each includes a touching forward addressed specifically to Peter. All throughout the series, Johnson retains this same style – that of a kindly grandfather recounting history lessons to his grandchildren.

These books were first published in 1959 and 1960. Two of them had the distinction of being named Newbery Honor Books in 1960 and 1961. The three individual books in the series are America Is Born, America Grows Up, and America Moves Forward. America Is Born covers the discovery of the New World through the Revolutionary War. America Grows Up begins with the Constitutional Convention then goes all the way until World War I. Lastly, America Moves Forward covers both World Wars and concludes in the early 1950s with the end of President Truman's tenure in office.

These books are intended for children ages 13-18 for independent reading. Slightly younger children could also listen to them as read-alouds in families that wish to read and discuss these books together.

America Is Born

​The first volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the discovery of the New World to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
Ages 13-18

Focusing on the arc of American history

Gerald W. Johnson pairs his retelling of events with reflections about the ideas that stood behind them. This, to me, is one of the best aspects of the series. Johnson chooses the details he includes carefully and focuses more on the trajectory of American history and its broader themes than on the many particulars of one era or event. For that reason, this series serves as an excellent complement to a less narrative and more dates and facts driven history book.

What does it mean to be an American?

Johnson, particularly in America Is Born, also discusses the origin of several essentially American ideas as well as the preconditions that led to their genesis. In doing so, he invites the reader to consider “what does it mean to be an American? How do the people of America differ from the people of other nations?”

He himself posits that being a citizen of the United States means something more than simply being born on American soil. In fact, he argues that being born in America by no means indicates that a man or woman is a true American, citing examples of American-born men who were more British than American, as well as examples of men born abroad who shaped America into the country we know today.

This same idea reappears in America Moves Forward during the World Wars, where Johnson depicts the fierce loyalty of immigrants who moved to America from Europe. Johnson believes that devotion to the ideals and government of the United States should bear much more weight than one's nationality at birth.

America Grows Up

The second volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the writing of the U.S. Constitution to America's declaration of war on Germany in World War I. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
Ages 13-18

An assumption of positive intent

Throughout the series, Johnson does his best to depict both sides of conflicts and to emphasize that each man was doing what he believed to be right at that time. He does not avoid or shy away from making moral judgements, but he also writes under the assumption that all men desire and work toward the good as they understand it. Whenever possible, he extends charity toward his subjects and encourages his readers to do the same. This assumption of positive intent is an important lesson for all of us, and for children in particular.

Six Presidents as the anchors of American history

Many history books focus on wars or notable eras to create divisions and chapters in their narrative. Some American history books even devote a chapter to each administration. Johnson, however, takes an alternative route.

To anchor his narrative, Johnson relies on six presidents: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spends considerable time talking about how each shaped America and brought about substantial and lasting changes. Of course Johnson mentions the other presidents, as well, but he does dwell predominantly on the individual contributions that these six made in establishing and developing our nation. 

Democracy as an on-going project and the United States as a global force

Another idea that Johnson addresses directly in this trilogy is that of American democracy as an on-going project. By design, the work of democracy will never be finished, and Johnson devotes considerable time to discussing this idea. And throughout all three books, he draws attention to changes in the American government that correspond to changes in the American people. He also encourages his readers to be active participants in the political process.

On the same topic of democracy as on-going and dynamic, Johnson does a particularly good job of addressing how America transitioned from being a relatively detached independent nation to its current status as a global force for democracy. Of course his books end in the mid-twentieth century, but in his lengthy treatment of Woodrow Wilson, Johnson illustrates just how the global political climate in the early twentieth century made it impossible for America to do anything but assume a position of leadership in the civilized world. To me, this transition is one of the most fascinating eras of American history and Johnson definitely does it justice.

America Moves Forward

The third volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the middle of World War I to the end of the Truman presidency. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
Ages 13-18

American citizenship's responsibilities and privileges

Lastly, Johnson constantly underscores the strong connection between the American government and the American people. Over and over he emphasizes the twin ideas that the government is an extension of the people and that United States citizens are responsible for their government on account of this symbiotic relationship. However, Johnson emphasizes these ideas in a way that is engaging, rather than moralizing. In stressing the responsibilities and privileges that are unique to our nation, he makes democratic involvement feel exciting. As a result, this series could be a great introduction for young people to American citizenship and all that it entails.

Where to find these books

​After being out of print for ​decades, ​these three titles are now available for sale, only at the Yesterday's Classics website, by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Purchase Gerald W. Johnson's books
from Yesterday's Classics


Why Read Robin Hood?

by Lisa Ripperton
April 11, 2019

​At about the age of eight most children are beginning to move out of the imaginative realm of fairy tales and into the world of heroic action. The heroic period, typically lasting from ages eight to twelve, is an ideal time to read stories that sow seeds that ​will bear fruit in years to come. Thrilled by manifestations of physical bravery, a child in the heroic age craves action, physical action, and is riveted by "literature every page of which is colored by feats of prowess."

​Katherine Dunlap Cather makes the case for Robin Hood

There is no finer adventure tale in any literature than that of Robin Hood, none more satisfying to children in the early heroic period. This statement often brings a cry of remonstrance, and the objection is made that there is danger in portraying an outlaw as a hero, or in picturing the allurement of a brigandish career. But Robin Hood an outlaw? He lived in an age of injustice when might made right. The man of the people was but the chattel of a king, with no rights his lord was bound to respect.

Bold Robin, in the depths of Sherwood Forest, devoted his life to redressing wrongs. He took from the oppressor and gave to the oppressed. He strove to stamp out injustice and tyranny, and his spirit is the foundation of the democracy that underlies every just government today. He was an outlaw, not because he was a criminal, but because he rebelled against the monstrous injustice of his age and strove to ameliorate the condition of the poor and downtrodden. In the time of Henry the Second he was hunted like a deer, but in the twentieth century he would be honored as a great reformer.

Robin's sense of justice appeals to boys and girls, and his fearlessness and kindliness awaken their admiration. They respond sympathetically to the story from the opening chapter, when he enters the forest and Little John joins his band, through the closing one where the hero of the greenwood goes to his final rest. If the tale is told with emphasis upon the true spirit of Robin Hood instead of with a half apology, it will prove wholesome food for the children and will help to make them juster, kinder, and more democratic men and women.

​─ An excerpt from Educating by Story-​Telling
by Katherine Dunlap Cather

​Start with a ballad of Robin Hood

​There are dozens of ballads about Robin Hood. Here are the opening lines of one, as printed in Eva March Tappan's The World's Story: England, to pique your children's interest. Incidentally, stanzas of this very ballad are included in the second chapter of Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children, recommended below.


When Robin Hood was about twenty years old,
        With a hey down down and a down,
He happend to meet Little John,
​A jolly brisk blade, right fit for the trade,
        For he was a lusty young man.

Tho he was calld Little, his limbs they were large,
        And his stature was seven foot high;
Wherever he came, they quak'd at his name,
        For soon he would make them to fly.

How they came acquainted, I'll tell you in brief,
        If you will but listen a while;
For this very jest, amongst all the rest,
        I think it may cause you to smile.

Bold Robin Hood said to his jolly bowmen,
        Pray tarry you here in this grove;
And see that you all observe well my call,
        While thorough the forest I rove.

We have had no spat for these fourteen long days,
        Therefore now abroad will I go;
Now should I be beat, and cannot retreat,
        My horn I will presently blow.

​Recommended editions

​Among the dozens of retellings of the Robin Hood story, two stand out: Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children by H. E. Marshall and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle.

Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children, as one of the ​titles in the Told to the Children series published by T.C. & E.C. Jack of Edinburgh in the early 1900s, works equally well as a read aloud for younger children and as independent reading ​for students at a fourth grade reading level. In her typical engaging prose, H. E. Marshall sets the Robin Hood stories in their historical context and relates key incidents in the chronicle of Robin Hood and his band of merry men.

In The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood Howard Pyle combines his considerable skills as illustrator and writer to produce a narrative that at the same time captivates and delights. He employs an "old English" idiom using archaic words such as "An" (for "If") and "Sith" (for "Since") in a style reminiscent of the ballads. While this make it a more challenging read (it is one of the "stiffer" books assigned in Year 2 of the Ambleside Online curriculum), it builds capacity for comprehending increasingly complex language, such as students will encounter in Shakespeare and others. ​Most families will want to read this book aloud, as it is suitable for independent reading only by children reading at a high level.

​What may happen

​Reading any of the books about Robin Hood may inspire dramatic play centering around the figures inhabiting Sherwood Forest long ago. Watch for home-made swords or bows and arrows to appear, along with feathered caps and cloaks of forest green!

Or your child may become so fascinated by Robin Hood that he begins a collection of retellings of Robin Hood, and makes well-illustrated editions​ a priority.

Share your experience

​Do you have a favorite retelling of Robin Hood to share? Or a story about how your child was influenced by hearing of Robin Hood and his band of merry men? Please tell us about it in the comments below!

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