5th Grade Chapter Books to Make Social Studies Exciting

Books for Kids to Make Social Studies Exciting

I’ve had to think for a long time how to make American Social Studies exciting for Dee’s son in fifth grade. My own kids give mixed reviews about social studies at their schools and I think that the only way to make it exciting is to:

  • Turn it into a compelling story (a.k.a. Historical Fiction)
  • Make it personal
Hi, Mia!
Over the summer, I’m trying to spark an interest in history and social studies with Dylan.  He’s going into fifth and finds the subject so boring.  I’ll admit, the way they teach it is not exciting.
This past year, it was American social studies, mainly focused on regions.  He came alive when we’d read the snippets of stories, like the one recently about a young girl moving with her family from the city to the prairie.  So I was thinking of Willa Cather for that.  But it could be about the Gold Rush, about pilgrims, about the Alamo, you name it.  Anything history or culture related.
I envision us reading them together and I’ll definitely end up doing a lot of the actual reading.
Thanks, Mia!
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” – Ignacio Estrada

So, I thought I’d try two things. An immigration unit in which Dee’s son gets to research his own family’s roots and hopefully discovers when they immigrated to America. THEN, we find some historical fiction that somewhat mirrors his ancestors’ experience to make this both personal and exciting.

My hair stylist has been researching her ancestors using Ancestry.com and has spoken highly about it. She also hired someone professionally to help her confirm the ancestry she discovered. Bottom line: Ancestry.com is a great place to start! Dee and her husband will have to help him get started and guide him through this process. Let’s see if he can discover when and where his ancestors immigrated from.

Dee says his ancestry is largely European so I’ve found some great historical fiction that is Reluctant Reader Approved and perfect for 5th grade.


Book Lists for Kids on Immigration for 4th Grade and 5th Grade

Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse

“America,” the girl repeated. “What will you do there?”
I was silent for a little time.
“I will do everything there,” I answered.
Rifka knows nothing about America when she flees from Russia with her family in 1919. But she dreams she will at last be safe from the Russian soldiers and their harsh treatment of the Jews in the new country. Throughout her journey, Rifka carries with her a cherished volume of poetry by Alexander Pushkin. In it, she records her observations and experiences in the form of letters to her beloved cousin she has left behind. Strong-hearted and determined, Rifka must endure a great deal: humiliating examinations by doctors and soldiers, deadly typhus, separation from all she has ever known and loved, murderous storms at sea—and as if this is not enough, the loss of her glorious golden hair. And even if she does make it to America, she’s not sure America will have her. [4th grade or 5th grade chapter book]

The Orphan Of Ellis Island (Time Travel Adventures) by Elvira Woodruff

Grade 4-6. Dominic Cantori has spent most of his life in foster care. When a guide asks Dominic’s fifth-grade class to talk about their families during a field trip to Ellis Island, the boy is embarrassed because he has no heritage to discuss, and hides in a storage closet where he promptly falls asleep. Waking after the museum is closed, he panics until the prerecorded voice of one of the exhibits soothes him back to sleep. When he wakes again, he finds himself in Italy in 1908. He is befriended by three orphan brothers who are waiting for sponsors to pay their passage to America. Dominic becomes part of their adventures and gains a new sense of family. When one of the brothers dies tragically, Dominic accompanies the other two to America and discovers that the boys may actually be related to him in more than just spirit. He arrives on Ellis Island, first as a new immigrant, and finally as a boy returning from a long journey, or perhaps a dream, that has given him a new sense of himself as well as hope for his future. Easy to read and hard to put down, this convincing novel gives a poignant and believable picture of the lives and motivations of some of this country’s immigrants, and of one boy who learns about himself. While the time-travel element and subsequent plot twists occur almost too easily, the characters and situations are too involving to quibble about story construction. An enjoyable and informative tale.?Susan L. Rogers, Chestnut Hill Academy, PA from School Library Journal [4th grade or 5th grade chapter book]

I think that Dee’s son might like a video on Ellis Island as a multimedia approach to learning. Here’s a video from TeacherTube on a Virtual Voyage to Ellis Island.


Other books that I researched from teacher units on immigration for 5th grade:

I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project by Veronica Lawlor

The story of Ellis Island comes alive through the memories, personal accounts, and impressions of the immigrants who passed through it from 1900 to 1925, in a study enhanced by full-color illustrations.

Where Did Your Family Come From?: A Book about Immigrants (Discovery Readers) by Melvin Berger

Discusses immigration, past and present, focusing on how four children from different countries came to live in the United States.

Turn Immigration into a Song

Here’s Neil Diamond’s song Coming to America. Why do you think this song became popular? Does your son want to write and/or sing a song about his ancestry?

America Lyrics
Artist(Band):Neil Diamond

We’ve been travelling far
Without a home
But not without a star

Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

On the boats and on the planes
They’re coming to America
Never looking back again
They’re coming to America

Home, don’t it seem so far away
Oh, we’re travelling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm

Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace
Freedom’s light burning warm
Freedom’s light burning warm

Everywhere around the world
They’re coming to America
Every time that flag’s unfurled
They’re coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They’re coming to America
Got a dream they’ve come to share
They’re coming to America

They’re coming to America
They’re coming to America
They’re coming to America
They’re coming to America
Today, today, today, today, today

My country ’tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Of thee I sing




p.s. Two other great immigrant novels in verse: Call Me Maria! and Inside Out and Back Again.


Books Kids Should Read Where American History and Science Collide

I found some fun books that combine science with social studies for your son to review his past Social Studies units called The Adventures of Munford series. I read one of them and thought it was great.


The Adventures of Munford: The Klondike Gold Rush by Jamie Aramini

Although he’s just two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, Munford is all adventure. He can be rain, snow, sleet, or steam. He has traveled the world in search of excitement. Throughout history, he has been present at some of the most important and world-changing events. Fun and educational, Munford will inspire your children to learn more about many of history’s greatest moments. These readers make a great addition to your learning experience in areas such as history, geography, and science. This book series is written on an elementary reading level, but provides plenty of read-aloud entertainment for the entire family!

In this adventure, Munford finds himself slap into the middle of the Klondike Gold Rush. He catches gold fever on this dangerous, yet thrilling, adventures. Meet some of the Gold Rush’s most famous characters, like gold baron Alex McDonald or the tricky villain named Soapy Smith. Take a ride on the Whitehorse Rapids, and help Munford as he pans for gold. This is an adventure you won’t soon forget!

The Adventures of Munford: Munford Meets Robert Fulton by Jamie Aramini

The Adventures of Munford: Munford Meets Lewis and Clark by Jamie Aramini

The Adventures of Munford: The American Revolution by Jamie Aramini

Educational Books for Children on Civil Rights Movement

Finally, I wanted to offer up some book selections on the Civil Rights Movement that really speak to a child’s perspective and offer another point of view. I know most kids have heard of the Civil Rights Movement and are familiar with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr, but sometimes this makes history seem like something Other [Famous] People Do.
In these books, one person, and often a child, are in the midst of their own neighborhood civil rights movement and it’s up to them how things will change in their world.
I’d ask your son to pick one or two books and decide if one kid can make a difference in the world. Why or why not? How about now in our time? You might even consider hosting a book club for him and just a few of his friends based on one of these books.
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

John Henry swims better than anyone I know. He crawls like a catfish, blows bubbles like a swamp monster, but he doesn’t swim in the town pool with me.

He’s not allowed.

Joe and John Henry are a lot alike. They both like shooting marbles, they both want to be firemen, and they both love to swim.

But there’s one important way they’re different: Joe is white and John Henry is black and in the South in 1964, that means John Henry isn’t allowed to do everything his best friend is.

Then a law is passed that forbids segregation and opens the town pool to everyone. Joe and John Henry are so excited they race each other there…only to discover that it takes more than a new law to change people’s hearts.

This stirring account of the “Freedom Summer” that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 powerfully and poignantly captures two boys’ experience with racism and their friendship that defies it. [advanced picture book]

The summer doesn’t necessarily mean fluffy reading. The Civil Rights Movement is presented in a simple but powerful way in this advanced picture book.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood

A Mississippi town in 1964 gets riled when tempers flare at the segregated public pool.

As much as Gloriana June Hemphill, or Glory as everyone knows her, wants to turn twelve, there are times when Glory wishes she could turn back the clock a year. Jesslyn, her sister and former confidante, no longer has the time of day for her now that she’ll be entering high school. Then there’s her best friend, Frankie. Things have always been so easy with Frankie, and now suddenly they aren’t. Maybe it’s the new girl from the North that’s got everyone out of sorts. Or maybe it’s the debate about whether or not the town should keep the segregated public pool open.

Augusta Scattergood has drawn on real-life events to create a memorable novel about family, friendship, and choices that aren’t always easy. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]

I like how a child can relate to this compelling of the Civil Rights Movement as it’s told from the point of view of a girl who just wants to have her birthday party, AS USUAL, at the town pool which is now closed so that it doesn’t have to desegregate. Trying to make sense of right from wrong makes this summer a pivotal one for Glory.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, One Crazy Summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 in search of the mother who abandoned them. It’s an unforgettable story told by a distinguished author of books for children and teens, Rita Williams-Garcia. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]

The Civil Rights Movement is most often told as an event taking place in the South, so this chapter book’s setting of the Black Panther Movement in Northern California already interests me. And there are layers and layers of additional stories that make this chapter book one to read. And it’s won every award on the planet if you need further proof. But I’d read alongside my 9-year-old just to help give context since it’s also a gritty, realistic story.

And these two books have the more well-known story of The Civil Rights Movement

The Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary Edition by Robert Coles

Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first African-American child to integrate a New Orleans school with this paperback reissue!

The year is 1960, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her family have recently moved from Mississippi to New Orleans in search of a better life. When a judge orders Ruby to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school, Ruby must face angry mobs of parents who refuse to send their children to school with her. Told with Robert Coles’ powerful narrative and dramatically illustrated by George Ford, Ruby’s story of courage, faith, and hope is now available in this special 50th anniversary edition with an updated afterword!

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

A wonderful middle-grade novel narrated by Kenny, 9, about his middle-class black family, the Weird  Watsons of Flint, Michigan. When Kenny’s  13-year-old brother, Byron, gets to be too much trouble,  they head South to Birmingham to visit Grandma, the  one person who can shape him up. And they happen to  be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown  up.

p.s. For historical background to the Civil Rights Movement, try reading these 10 African American Picture Books. I think picture books are a great way to learn about history and the brevity plus images are a nice way to make this enjoyable for a 5th grader and younger siblings.

To view any book at Amazon, please click on image of book.

image is a print of Ruby Bridges painting by Norman Rockwell from Wikipedia called The Problem We All Live With.

The problem we all live with — by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978), depicting an incident in the American Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s, when Ruby Bridges entered first grade on the first day of court-ordered desegregation of New Orleans, Louisiana, public schools (November 14, 1960). Originally published in Look magazine.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. I think that Dee’s son might like a video on Ellis Island as a multimedia approach to learning.

  2. vanita

    i won’t lie, i hated history as a kid. it was all facts and dates. but these books would have been awesome. i would actually remember stuff now if i’d had these on hand. thanks for this great list!
    vanita recently posted…Too Hot For Weight Loss? Retrofit has your backMy Profile

    • Hi Vanita,
      You must have been more of a math/science kid then? It’s too bad someone taught you history in a boring way … that’s just wrong! I hate the fact/date memorization approach to education. There’s no learning there! Ok, I need to find YOU a great historical fiction novel too so you’ll find history exciting as an adult!

  3. Ann

    It’s that an incredible NW painting!

    This is a fantastic resource and I can’t imagine any child not getting into social studies this way! Adding music and movies – great!

    We know lots about where we are from and I am definitely doing this with my kids!
    Ann recently posted…Sparrow PreeningMy Profile

    • Hi Ann,
      Thanks so much! We bring Ruby Bridges to our school as a speaker every 4 years and she’s truly living history. I remembered seeing the Norman Rockwell painting and realizing just how significant that event was and is. She’s really lovely too!

  4. Michelle

    I’ve been reading Story of the World to my kids by Susan Wise Bauer. I was never a fan of History, but I find myself reading ahead, AND the kids love it.

    • Hi Michelle,
      Thanks so much for the book recommendation. I’ll add it to the list. It sounds like a great book that Dee’s son will really enjoy! Thank you again!!!

  5. Vicki

    Brain research provides lots of suggestions for parents and teachers who want to increase student motivation. Check out a post (entitled ‘Preventing School Boredom’) on my blog that includes a document I prepared with details. Dee might find them helpful with her son Dylan. Others may find them useful as well.

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