[Disclosure: Sonlight provided me with a History / Bible / Literature D: Intro to American History, Year 1 of 2 package, and compensated me financially for this post. I have used many Sonlight products in our homeschool prior to reviewing this product. All opinions — and photographs! ;) — are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.]
If there’s one thing I’ve excelled at in our homeschool, it’s procrastinating over choosing a US History curriculum.
As a third-culture missionary kid born abroad, teaching US history has never come naturally to me. When I was young, American history seemed worlds away, and even as an adult, I often still feel like an outsider.
I have zero patience for dry legalist curriculum which holds the Founding Fathers on faultless pedestals, doesn’t consider both sides of a story, and ignores the sorrowful brokenness of our nation’s foundations. (Second-generation homeschoolers, you know what I’m talking about!)
But I knew my own kids couldn’t just skip learning the complicated history of our nation. Eventually, we had to dive in. Having spent my early childhood years in a socialist republic without the freedom of speech, religion, or assembly, I’ve learned that no matter how complex US history is to navigate, we must never take such invaluable freedoms for granted. So I needed to find a complete American history curriculum, especially after my own previous unsuccessful attempts to piece together a literature-based US history course always fizzled out.
Why I’m Choosing Sonlight’s American History Curriculum
So why was I willing to try Sonlight’s History / Bible / Literature D: Intro to American History, Year 1 of 2 (also called HBL D) when I won’t touch so many others with a twenty-nine-and-half-foot pole?
To put it simply, Sonlight has a great track record when it comes to global perspectives (non-negotiable to me as a third-culture kid). I’ve used other Sonlight levels already, and have been incredibly impressed.
- History / Bible / Literature A, B, C
- Readers 1, 2, 3, 4, (currently in Readers 5), and
- Science A, B, C, D
and every single level has been rich in global viewpoints.
Sonlight’s heart for the entire multicultural world tells me their approach to United States history won’t be as myopic or as prone to false manifest destiny doctrines as many other homeschool curriculums. This gives me the confidence to dive in to the great big stack of books they’ve screened and selected.
And I like Sonlight’s Scope & Sequence a lot. I like the balanced ratio of time spent on US history versus time spent on world history and cultures.
Sonlight’s international focus as a whole tells me they don’t approach American history in a vacuum, divorced from the larger world, but in the context of a broader worldview. (Here are 7 Reasons to Homeschool from a Global Perspective.)
As a third culture kid trying to raise kids who see far beyond the horizon of just this nation, that’s so important. And ultimately, it’s why I’m trusting Sonlight with our foray into the complicated territory of American history.
Want to open Sonlight’s iconic white boxes with me and see what we’ll find?
Sonlight’s HBL D is a complete literature-based US history course
Sonlight’s History / Bible / Literature D: Intro to American History, Year 1 of 2 (or simply, HBL D) is designed for grades 4-7, so about ages 9-12. My daughter who’ll be using this course is 11, and a rising 6th grader.
Everything you need for the first half of of American History (pre-colonization to 1850) is included in an HBL D package:
- history spines,
- geography and mapwork,
- memory work,
- timeline figures,
- and an Instructor’s Guide containing teacher’s notes for every book you’ll read.
Let’s start with the big blue binder!
The Sonlight Instructor’s Guide (IG) is more than a schedule
That big blue binder holding your Sonlight Instructor’s Guide? It’s your homeschool executive assistant. Really. (Well, almost. You’re on your own when it comes to coffee. But if you’re reading this post, that means you’ve got a kiddo who’s just the right age to train as a barista.)
Everything you need each day — minus the coffee — for History, Bible and Literature is laid out for you in a streamlined, easy-to-read, schedule grid, known as the Instructor’s Guide, or IG.
Since HBL D is available in either as a 5-day package or a 4-day package, you have the choice of either a 5-day or a 4-day IG. If you have co-op or another recurring weekday extracurricular activity, the 4-day option is the perfect choice. Having Sonlight scheduled for only four days each school week — instead of all five — offers welcome margin.
A Sonlight Instructor’s Guide is the very definition of open-and-go. There’s no prep, which means
- no counting the pages in each book,
- no dividing pages by the number of school days,
- no figuring out where each book sits chronologically,
- no deciding what to read next,
- no trying to match up historical fiction books to the history spine,
- no flipping through trying to figure out a way to integrate geography, and
- no determining what events to add to the timeline.
This is an especially welcome feature when you hit a brick wall in your homeschool (I can’t be the only one, right?) If you’re stuck on what to do next, the Instructor’s Guide will gently prompt you to keep on going, one grid at a time.
It’s all done for you in the Instructor’s Guide —
- the order in which books are read,
- the number of pages to read each day,
- which geographical locations to mark on the included markable map,
- which corresponding timeline figures to place in the included timeline book,
- Scripture passages to read each day,
- memory work,
- the discussion prompts and comprehension questions —
everything. That’s worth getting excited about.
All you have to do is read wonderful books — and oh, they’re so good — and have discussions with your kids about what you read. The IG will even prompt you when it’s time to add a figure to your timeline book, or pull out the markable map.
And your Instructor’s Guide is also a powerful tool to help you navigate the murky waters of American history. Really.
My favorite part of Sonlight’s American History curriculum: How the Instructor’s Guide helps you navigate controversy, complexity, and nuance
Here’s the best part: Sonlight makes it easy for you to talk with your kids about the complex, nuanced, and controversial ideas you’ll encounter as you study US history. For every book you’ll read, your Sonlight Instructor’s Guide contains not just a reading schedule but a complete discussion guide, providing you with
- historical notes,
- background and context,
- new or difficult vocabulary,
- cultural literacy points,
- thoughtful discussion prompts,
- notes on disputed content,
- comprehension questions, and
- even suggested answers.
These extraordinarily helpful prompts will guide you through tons of really tough topics, equipping your kids to think deeply and truly develop (not just recite) a worldview about all sorts of complicated ideas.
These thoughtful discussions, in tandem with the extremely well-chosen books, are definitely my favorite thing about Sonlight. The questions, prompts, and notes are a lifesaver, especially on days when my two-year-old has already used up all my brain cells by refusing to sleep through the night.
Honestly? There’s no way to adequately teach anything — let alone the messy origins of our nation — without doing the hard and holy work of talking with your kids about all the different the ideas you encounter.
“The person who tells one side of a story seems right,” says Proverbs 18:17, “until someone else comes and asks questions.” Asking questions is integral to learning, and Sonlight’s thorough notes make this so much easier. I really appreciate this.
Now let’s talk about those well-chosen books!
What’s NEW for 2022 in Sonlight’s American History (HBL D)
HBL D has been overhauled and updated, NEW for 2022.
In prior versions of HBL D, parents had to choose between “Advanced” and “Regular” readers when purchasing this package. Now, though, HBL D features a single streamlined set of readers. This simplifies things and makes the level a lot easier to use; plus, you don’t have to feel like you’re missing out by selecting one level of readers over another. I really like this change.
Also as a part of this refresh, there are seven new titles in the 4-day version — a mix of readers and read-alouds:
- Peacemaker by Joseph Bruchac
- The Story of the Amistad by Emma Gelders Sterne
- Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone
- Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Jericho’s Journey by J. Clifton Wisler
- The White House is Burning by Jane Sutcliffe
- Alamo All-Stars by Nathan Hale
The very first thing I did when receiving my Sonlight box? I read every single one of the new books.
And I was blown away.
Sonlight begins HBL D by introducing indigenous American people as sovereign nations
History curriculums which begin a study of US history at the moment of European colonization don’t tell the whole story. Certainly in order to each US history accurately we must confront colonization head on, but we must also teach what happened before colonization. A balanced and truthful US history curriculum begins before the European settlers arrived.
HBL D launches with Peacemaker, an extraordinary new (2021) novel by award-winning Abernaki author Joseph Bruchac. This book combines traditional folktales with the history of the Iroquois League of Nations. I am thrilled about Sonlight’s decision to lead with Peacemaker!
Kids who study American history with HBL D will experience the first mention of indigenous people not in the conflict-ridden context of colonization, as it is with so many curriculums, but rather in the separate and sovereign sphere which existed for hundreds of years prior to European settlement. This is so important!
(Want the complete Sonlight read-aloud study guide for Bruchac’s Peacemaker? You can grab it FREE just by downloading the first 3 weeks of the Sonlight HBL D’s Instructor’s Guide — which is also free!)
HBL continues with The Corn Grows Ripe, another book with an entirely indigenous cast. This is something Sonlight does really well: including books with diverse characters, not as part of a trauma-centered lesson, but often purely for the sheer joy and readability of the stories. That’s not to say kids won’t read difficult books — they definitely will, and the characters in The Corn Grows Ripe face many challenges, too — but not every diverse Sonlight book presents diversity as framed by conflict. This is crucial.
Sonlight’s HBD D tells US history from multiple perspectives
Of course, any study of American history inevitably is a story of conflict. So when the stories of the settlers and the Native Americans begin to intertwine, a good American history curriculum absolutely needs to tell those stories from both sides. While our previous experiences with Sonlight made it clear how committed Sonlight is to diverse perspectives, I was still really nervous about how HBL D would handle this. (You can blame my second-generation homeschooler experience with really bad American history curriculum.)
My past experiences left me so spent with stories about Jamestown, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to read Blood on the River. But once I started, I was hooked. I couldn’t put it down, and read the whole thing in two days.
Set in the early days of Jamestown, including the bluntly-named Starving Time, Blood on the River reveals how completely the settlers’ very lives depended on assistance from the First Nations, and yet how arrogant and presumptuous some of those settlers continued to be, sabotaging the already-tenuous balance of peace.
There’s an incredible amount of nuance packed into this 272-page book. Each chapter of Blood on the River begins with a quote from a primary source document, and as the plot unfolds, the primary quotes effortlessly support the story. The reader quickly leaves overly-simplistic explanations of Jamestown behind, entering instead a gritty world of betrayal, survival, and starvation.
Blood on the River was the book I didn’t even know I needed. And it gave me a tremendous amount of confidence that Sonlight’s HBL D was neither revisionist nor feel-good, but rather deeply rooted in nuanced, complex, reality.
In fact, so many of the books in HBL D turned out to be books I didn’t even know I needed.
I found myself alternately laughing and dabbing away tears as I read through the stack of brand-new additions to HBL D:
- Peacemaker and Blood on the Water as outlined above,
- Fever 1793 with its vivid descriptions of life in early Philadelphia,
- Alamo All-Stars in its comical –almost irreverent — treatment of the contradictions in Texas history,
- The Story of the Amistad‘s heartbreaking depiction of the slave trade and iconic Supreme Court decision,
- Jericho’s Journey slice-of-life peek into the hardships of wagon travel, and
- The White House is Burning‘s ability to bring primary source documents and eyewitness accounts to life.
As much of a bookworm as I am — especially for learning about history — I have rarely ever picked up a book about American history of my own volition. (Exploring US history just not something that occurs to me, despite history books taking up a a huge percentage of my personal reading-for-pleasure.)
And yet HBL D is causing me to genuinely enjoy learning American history. That’s a triumph.
Sonlight’s HBL D uses more than one history spine for well-rounded, not one-sided, education
In the History / Geography section of the Instructor’s Guide, you’ll find the titles which are commonly referred to as the spines of the course. Spines are not novels, but more substantial or hefty volumes which provide a chronological skeleton for all the fantastic stories. Look at this stack! While there are 6 spines in this course (more in the 5-day version), the student is only reading selections from 2-3 during any given week, so the workload is very manageable.
- American History: A Visual Encyclopedia
- The Beginner’s American History
- The Bill of Rights: A True Book
- The Constitution of the United States: A True Book
- The Lewis & Clark Expedition
- The Landmark History of the American People: Volume 1
As well as
- Timeline Figures for HBL D
- Timeline Book (you’ll need to purchase this separately if you don’t already have one)
By presenting multiple spines, Sonlight ensures kids are receiving a well-rounded, not one-sided, education.
Who reads all these readers and read-alouds in HBL D — parents or kids?
Each Sonlight level is broken down into four subcategories:
- Bible, and
- History / Geography Spines
Students and parents share the responsibilities of reading. I love that this a joint process of discovery!
The readers are books students read independently, while the read-alouds — as the name implies — are the titles parents read aloud. Parents will also read aloud most of the history spines, with the exception of the Visual Encyclopedia, due to the wonderfully image-rich format. And parents and children both share the task of reading the Bible assignments.
Student Readers in History / Bible / Literature D
Throughout the course of HBL D, kids will read 17 books independently (more in the 5-day version):
- Blood on the River
- The Cabin Faced West
- The Corn Grows Ripe
- Fever 1793
- Jericho’s Journey
- Naya Nuki
- Phoebe the Spy
- Sarah, Plain and Tall
- Sarah Whitcher’s Story
- Secret of the Sealed Room
- The Skippack School
- Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims
- The Thanksgiving Story
- Timmy O’Dowd and the Big Ditch
- The White House is Burning
- Alamo All-Stars
Read-Alouds in History / Bible / Literature D
Parents will read these 11 books aloud (more in the 5-day version) —
- Adoniram Judson
- Carry On, Mr. Bowditch
- A Child’s Introduction to Poetry
- Johnny Tremain
- Justin Morgan Had a Horse
- The Sign of the Beaver
- The Story of the Amistad
- Toliver’s Secret
- Walk the World’s Rim
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond
That’s in addition to the
- 6 history spines (more in the 5-day version)
- 2 Bible texts and Scripture music.
And the hardcover poetry book — which contains work from such marvelous poets as Langston Hughes and Octavio Paz — has an awesome audio component.
Remember, a Sonlight education isn’t just a lot of reading without context: the Instructor’s Guide provides robust discussion prompts for all the books: readers, read-alouds, Bible, and spines. That’s my favorite thing about Sonlight: the books and the heart-to-heart talks.
(And a personal note? I know the readers are intended for your child’s independent reading, but they’re really good. I even read the graphic novel, Alamo All-Stars, and learned a ton. So definitely add some student readers to your own personal TBR pile, like I did. You won’t regret it!)
How does Sonlight HBL D handle the Bible?
Each day, parents and students alike read assigned Scripture passages from the Bible — the NIV Discover’s Bible is included, although you can certainly swap out a different translation if you prefer. Kids also memorize various verses, with the help of the included music CD, Sing the Word: Great in Counsel and Mighty in Deed. And — unique to HBL D — parents and students also read daily from the American Indian Prayer Guide.
If you’re like me, you might be saying, “What on earth kind of book is the American Indian Prayer Guide?!”
It’s totally different than what I expected.
This unique little book is organized into 36 weeks, featuring 36 different tribes throughout North and Central America. Many of the short daily passages, designed for easy reading aloud, humbly summarize the ways in which the United States government and policies have harmed and mistreated indigenous peoples, and offer a suggested prayer of healing for these deep wounds. It also teaches a bit about the religious beliefs of various Native American tribes.
And in HBL D, as in every other level of Sonlight I’ve encountered, kids will continue to learn about missionaries. (I love how even in a US History course like this, Sonlight still makes sure there is a global anchor.) In this particular level, the focus is on Adoniram Judson, American missionary to Burma, now called Myanmar.
Do I recommend HBL D for elementary US history? Yes!
HBL D delivers a robust, well-rounded, and rich America history education through
- narrative history,
- thrilling historical fiction,
- Bible reading, memory work, oration, poetry, and songs
- geography, maps, cultural literacy and timeline work —
all this with the powerful addition of deeply nuanced discussions.
Sonlight’s elementary American History curriculum really does set the stage for a broader understanding of the world.
It’s a tall order to put together a literature-based course like this, and navigate all the complexities inherent in a study of American history. Like I said, it’s one I’ve avoided tackling for a long time! But I really do think Sonlight takes on this behemoth task well.
When an assigned text takes liberty with the truth, or sugarcoats aspects of history, the Instructor’s Guide doesn’t shy away from pointing out this out, and urges you to make sure your kids realize this as well. This really helped seal the deal for me.
I appreciate how upfront the Sonlight Instructor’s Guide is about distinguishing between the commonly retold lore of American history, and what actually happened.
What ages are best for HBL D?
Not all the books you’ll read during the course of HBL D will be cheerful and rosy; if they were, they would not be truthful. Because of this, I think Sonlight’s recommended age, grades 4-7 or ages 9-12, is a good place to start.
I wouldn’t use this course for a child younger than 9 years old; instead, I’d point you to the feast of choices available for you in the earlier levels instead. Since HBL D is so rich, deep, and complex, I would be fine using HBL D with a child even older than grades 4-7 or ages 9-12 as well. It wouldn’t feel too juvenile at all.
Students who finish this — or who have already covered this time period with another program– will want to continue on with the second half of US history, HBL E, which covers from the Civil War through the late 20th century.
There’s also a one-year condensed option which spans pre-colonization through the end of the 20th century.
Sonlight’s FREE homeschool consultations can help
Sonlight’s academic advisors can help you choose exactly the right level so your kids will thrive. They can also help you figure out how to effectively teach multiple kids at once, or even customize a level to meet your kids’ unique needs. Click through for your FREE Sonlight consultation!
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Still want to learn more about History / Bible / Literature D? You can do that too! Click through to see what’s included, download samples, chat with an advisor, see special offers, and more.
You might also enjoy
- my full review of HBL P (coming May 24)
- my full review of HBL A, and
- my archive of articles on the Sonlight blog.
And my comments are always open as well! Ask me anything, and I’ll do my best to answer.