The purpose of this series of stories is to show children the home life of the colonists. . . To this end every effort has been made to avoid anything savoring of romance, and to deal only with facts, so far as it is possible, while describing the daily life of those people who conquered the wilderness whether for conscience sake or for gain . . .
– from Author’s Preface.
Young American Pioneers
At Heritage History we focus mainly on “real” histories rather than historical fiction, but there are a few outstanding exceptions to this rule, and the Colonial Children’s series by James Otis is one of them. The series consists of twelve books, each featuring a young teen who is involved in the early settlement of an American colony or territory.
The author of the Colonial Children’s series has an extraordinary ability to weave complex characters and communicate vivid images with exceedingly few words. The series was written to appeal to very young readers, and features short chapters, simple sentences, and an illustration on nearly every page. The books can be read by novice readers, yet the stories are rich with character development, drama, and fascinating observations.
The author’s extreme economy of words, combined with the depth of interest he encourages in pioneering life, make his books a delight to readers of all ages, and are especially good for helping young readers make the transition from fiction to history.
One delightful thing about this series is that the characters themselves are richly drawn and unique rather than being predictable stereotypes. They share common traits of ruggedness and bravery—essential for pioneer children—but beyond that there are great differences in background and disposition: some of his characters are reserved and others outgoing; some are reasonably well educated and others self-educated; some are orphans while others are part of an intact family. All however, are interesting and likeable, and all reflect the attitudes and worldview of authentic pioneers.
The author includes important incidents of local history in the stories, such as the Siege of Boonesborough, and the Denver fire of 1863, but discusses the events in terms of their impact on the characters rather than as they would be observed by far-removed historians. Therefore, students who are not already familiar with an historical era may have a hard time distinguishing between incidents that are historically factual and those that are literary creations, but that is an issue common to much of historical fiction. In terms of creating realistic characters and an authentic aura, the author succeeds very well.
Another great strength of the series is the time Otis gives to explaining how everyday tasks were accomplished with limited resources, but unlimited ingenuity. One of the most interesting aspects of pioneer life is the manner in which people had to make do with very limited supplies. Building homes without nails, crossing rivers without boats, churning butter, preparing flax, making sugar, soap, sandals, brooms, writing utensils, and using every imaginable part of each animal are just a few of the dozens of complicated tasks that filled the pioneers days. The story of how these young people made homemade versions of things we simply buy at hardware and food stores makes for fascinating reading.
Half of the stories in the Otis collection involve young settlers born in Europe who migrate to the American colonies of Jamestown, Boston, New Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Plymouth, and Maryland. The other half follow the stories of children who are born in America, but migrate to new, unsettled territories in the west, including Texas, California, Oregon, Ohio, Kentucky, and Colorado, with their families.
You can see a short synopsis of each book on the Colonial Children’s series page, or view them online by clicking on the images above. The complete set of twelve is included in the Early America Classical Library, and six of the twelve are included in the Young Readers collection.
One minor disadvantage of these books, however, is that they are not the best fit for e-reader technology. The books each contain 70 or 80 very short chapters and have dozens of illustrations. This means that on some e-Readers—especially those with small screens—only a few sentences may appear on each page before a chapter or image break. This problem can be helped by using smaller font sizes or simply by printing the PDF versions which have been formatted to optimize readability.
About the Author
James Otis was born in 1848 in Maine, grew up during the Civil War era, and held various jobs as a newspaper reporter and publicist before publishing his first children’s book in 1880. Over the next thirty years he wrote and published over a hundred children’s books, mostly featuring historical or adventure themes.
Not a great deal is known about Otis’s early life, but he left home in his early teens and supported himself writing and doing odd jobs for most of his youth, so he identifies with the pioneer children he writes about—as they scrap to make do with whatever materials are available to them. It is precisely this talent for seeing things from the point of view of a resourceful child that makes his writing so outstanding.