Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

Top Five Books on Economic History

Click on the title for each book to see book cover and more details.


  Together in Pinecone Patch
Author and Illustrator:  Thomas F. Yezerski
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0-374-37647-6
Year: 1998
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level:  4.7

Concepts: human resources, natural resources, immigration, scarcity, economic history

Summary:  In parallel experiences, the starving Buckleys leave Ireland and the starving Paziks leave Poland. Both families come to America and settle in a gritty mining town in Pennsylvania. Feisty, red-headed Keara Buckley and shy Stefan Pazik live in parochial neighborhoods--one Irish, one Polish.  The illustrations successfully depict the begrimed world of a small coal-mining town at the turn of the century.

Source of Summary:  School Library Journal

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Title:  Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story
Author:  Janet Halfmann
Illustrator:  Duane Smith
Publisher:  Lee & Low Books
ISBN:  978-1-60060-232-0
Year: 2008
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 5.7

Concepts:  human resources, slavery, jobs, economic history

  Robert Smalls, born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839, grew up to become one of the biggest heroes of the Civil War.  As a slave, Robert started working at a very young age in the McKee household.  In neighboring plantations and in town, he witnessed the brutal treatment of other slaves and quickly grew to hate the institution of slavery.  At the age of 12, Robert was sent to work in Charleston as a waiter for five dollars per month, all of which he had to give to his master. Yet the position led to new opportunities to work on the waterfront, where ultimately he gained the experience and skills to work as a sailor on a coastal schooner.

The start of the Civil War brought new hope for freedom for Robert, his new wife Hannah, and their baby son.  The War also led to different work as a deckhand on a large wood-burning transport ship, the Planter, for the Confederates.  Shrewdly, Robert used this position, and a subsequent promotion to wheelman (the title held by boat pilots of color in the South) to develop his navigational skills, gain the trust of the white officers, and learn the various secret steam whistle signals for passing by the forts in Charleston Harbor.  In the spring of 1862, Robert used his training and immense courage to commandeer the Planter across the Harbor, with his crew and family members on board, in pursuit of freedom.

This outstanding book pays tribute to a brave man who later served in the South Carolina state legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Just as he fought for the freedom of his family and crew, he spent much of his life advocating for equal rights of African Americans, especially in public schools, the military, and in politics. With the intrigue and nail-biting plot, Seven Miles to Freedom is an exciting book that the reader will find difficult to put down.  Mixed into the suspense are some extremely powerful economics lessons about work and the role of slavery in the South.  The Robert Smalls story is one worth learning and remembering.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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Title: Uncle Jed's Barbershop
Author: Margaree King Mitchell
Illustrator:  James Ransome
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0-671-76969-3
Year: 1993
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level:  3.8

Concepts: saving, human & capital resources, entrepreneurship, economic history, discrimination

Summary: First-time author Mitchell crowds several themes--segregation, racism, the Depression, the American Dream--into her enterprising story. Sarah Jean's great uncle Jedediah, "the only black barber in the county,'' hangs on to his ambition to open a barber shop, despite a lifetime of obstacles that deplete his savings. First, Sarah Jean requires an expensive operation; later, the bank failures of the Depression wipe out his painstakingly replenished account.

Source of Summary: Publisher's Weekly

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Title:  Lady Liberty: A Biography
Author:  Doreen Rappaport
Illustrator:  Matt Tavares
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
ISBN:  978-0-7636-2530-6
Year:  2008
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 4.8

Concepts:  human resources, jobs, scarcity, immigration, altruism, economic history

Review:  Told from the viewpoints of the people who conceptualized, financed, and built the Statue of Liberty, this remarkable book describes how the Lady Liberty was transformed from a bold idea in France to an enormous symbol of freedom in New York Harbor.  In France in 1865, Professor Édouard de Laboulaye shared with his colleagues his vision of building a monument to commemorate the American Revolution and to celebrate the friendship between France and the United States.  Ten years later this vision began to take shape through the hands of Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor who believed in the possibility of de Laboulaye’s dream.  It took another eleven years for various crews to design the copper sheeting, engineer the internal steel structure, ship the pieces to America, build the pedestal, erect the steel skeleton, attach the copper shell to the steel framework, and formally dedicate the Statue of Liberty. 

The author and illustrator do an excellent job in communicating both the visible and the less visible work involved in building the Statue of Liberty. Much credit goes to the efforts by poet Emma Lazarus to write the inspiring sonnet that was engraved on a plaque on the statue’s base:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…”  Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, also played a crucial role in raising money to finance the construction of the pedestal in the face of opposition from government and business leaders.  Intertwined with the interesting historical narratives are valuable economics lessons about human resources, jobs, immigration, and altruism. The stunning artwork and informative text work well together to make reading this book a truly rewarding experience.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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Henry's Freedom Box
Author:  Ellen Levine
Illustrator:  Kadir Nelson
Publisher: Scholastic Press
ISBN:  978-0-439-77733-9
Year: 2007
Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level: 3.0

Concepts: slavery, human resources, economic history

  Henry, a sweet child born into slavery in the early 1800s, did not know his exact age but did know that he wanted freedom.  That aching desire to escape the bonds of slavery deepened when the plantation’s dying owner, rather than set him free, gave Henry to his son.  Years of hard work in the new master’s factory under terrible conditions, and another agonizing separation from beloved family members, strengthened Henry’s resolve to find a way out. With the help of members of the Underground Railroad, Henry stowed himself inside a wooden crate and was delivered through the post to Philadelphia.
This inspiring book is based on the true story of Henry “Box” Brown, one of the most famous people to escape slavery through the Underground Railroad. The reader cannot help but feel moved by Henry’s sadness and courage through the poignant illustrations; these stunning paintings rightly led the book to garner recognition as a Caldecott Honor Book in 2008.  With the U.S. government having issued a formal apology to African Americans for slavery, Henry’s Freedom Box constitutes a valuable resource for teaching younger children about some of the heart-wrenching experiences and harsh working conditions that were associated with slavery.

Review by:  Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children

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