Practical Stories About How Everyday Things are Made: Reading with Kids Who Don’t Like to Read

Household and Cottage Industry

What is it?

After being stuck home so much during the last few weeks of the COVID-19 quarantines, you might think that there isn’t a thing left to do in your house with your kids

Let me see if I can surprise you.

Ever heard of the term cottage industry? These days, it’s often used more as an expression, so you might hear it without thinking about what it meant.

But once upon a time, many people lived on “cottage industries”. They made products in their homes, often coming from raw materials that they grew themselves, and either used the items to live or sold them to make money to live.

The best examples that come to my mind are Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Woods (neither is free but both should be readily available in any American library, in multiple copies), in which many “cottage industries” that young Laura Ingalls, in a log cabin on a small farm in Wisconsin, and her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, on a larger farm in New York State, learn from their parents as a part of their educations.

Of course, we make very few of the items we need live now because the Industrial Revolution changed all of that. Once it became cheaper and easier to mass produce goods in factories, got our current system, where we outsource pretty much everything, including the academic educations and job training of our kids, to schools.

But learning about how to make all of these things, and what they are made of, remains interesting for kids (adults too, I bet) and will make them more self sufficient when they are older.

While they will neither want nor need to make their own soap, for example, knowing the properties of what makes different agents good for different types of cleaning will help them know what they need…and do not need…to purchase to keep their homes clean.

These books, which are organized into series of stories, explain the practicalities of many things in the home, and, by extension, a bit about farming (where our food comes from) and construction (how our homes are made) as well.

These book are especially great for kids who aren’t that interested in story books. To be honest, it stuns me how much children are taught to read stories and how little they are given books about practical, everyday things because nonfiction books are so interesting!

Seriously, anyone who has had to deal with a kid asking “why” all the time should know this!

But also seriously, if you have a kid, especially a boy, who isn’t interested in books, these might be just the thing.

Remember, The Messiah was Christ’s second career. He learned his trade, carpentry, in his parents’ home in Nazareth. John Everett Millais / Public domain “Christ in the House of His Parents ‘The Carpenter Shop’.

Remember, The Messiah was Christ’s second career. He learned his trade, carpentry, in his parents’ home in Nazareth.

John Everett Millais / Public domain

“Christ in the House of His Parents ‘The Carpenter Shop’.

Little Folks’ Land by Madge Bigham

Madge Bigham was a part of the “free kindergarten” movement in the late 19th century that itself was a part of the movement to end child labor. She founded the first free kindergarten in Atlanta, Georgia (US).

Her book Little Folks’ Land is a collection of over 100 stories about a boy named “Jo-Boy” and how his family builds him a house and how things in the house are made. As the book progresses, Jo-Boy grows up and more and more “household industries” are explained as the farm develops.

Two things to keep in mind:

  1. Bigham identifies the family as “Gipsies” (sic), but her portrayal of them is positive, at least in the stories I’ve read. I think the idea was to start with a family that didn’t have a home at all…the Gipsy lives in a tent at the beginning of the story…and to show how each thing was made.

  2. Unfortunately, although this book is in the public domain, it has not been digitized by Project Gutenberg. The paperback version is a little expensive, but there is a Kindle version available for $5.99 at this writing.

    A link to a few of the stories that are freely available is provided below.

    These stories are good as a read aloud for Kindergarten (ages 5-6).

Free Read

Link to the first six stories of Little Folks Land.

William J. Hopkins’ Unusual Bedtime Stories

I had a terrible time finding any biographical information about William J. Hopkins, so I am going to let him speak for himself by sharing the preface from The Sandman: His Farm Stories:

Whatever may be thought of these stories by older people, they have served, with some others, to induce a certain little boy to go to sleep, and for nearly three years my one listener has heard them repeated many times, and his interest has never flagged. As the farm stories slowly grew in number, they entirely displaced the other stories, and that farm has become as real in the mind of my audience as it was in fact when little John was driving the cows, or planting the corn, seventy-five years ago.

The detail, which may seem excessive to an older critic, was in every case, until I had learned to put it in at the start, the result of a searching cross-examination. If the bars were not put up again, the cows might get out; and if the oxen did not pass, on their return, all the familiar objects, how did they get back to the barn? It is the young critics that I hope to please, those whose years count no more than six. If they like these farm stories half as well as my own young critic likes them, I shall be satisfied.

These stories and this explanation just cracks me up because I can totally imagine my dad doing something like this: Not being able to think of what to say, I’m guessing, Hopkins told his kids about everyday things and how they were made.

Do you remember how concerned Ramona was about Mike Mulligan’s bathroom breaks when the teacher read Mike Mulligan and the steam shovel to her kindergarten class in Ramona the Pest?

But that Ramona gives a pretty positive review of Mike Mulligan because the story is practical, not frou-frou and flowery?

Hopkins got the same reviews from his kids and went with it…more than 50 years before Beverly Cleary (P.S. I despise the new illustrations for Ramona. Where’s the grungy kid I grew up with??).

Hopkins was a pretty awesome dad, right?

Not only can I picture my dad making up stories like these, I can picture my brother loving them. In fact, I’m pretty interested in the sea stories myself.

Note on acquiring these books: I’ve provided links to free digital copies that I could find. You will pay a few dollars for the Kindle versions on Amazon: you are basically paying for convenience. Before paying for any book in the public domain, try to check a sample to make sure the formatting is good.

The first book shown, The Doers, is good for ages 5 and up as a read aloud. The Sandman Series is better as a read aloud for ages 6 and up as a read aloud.

Because of the high-interest, practical subject matter, try these books with older struggling readers or English language learners.

In The Doers, a young boy follows the workers around as they build a house next his, and finds out all about their different skills.

The full text of The Doers with illustrations is FREE at Project Gutenberg.

The Sandman Stories are for children a little bit older.

When you were little, were you ever told that the Sandman comes at night to help you fall asleep? I don’t think I ever told my daughter that…she has always been a great sleeper…but my mother told me to lie still with my eyes closed (I was NOT a great sleeper) so the Sandman would come and help me by throwing sleepy sand on me.

You would know he had come when you woke up in the morning and had to wipe the “sleep” out of your eyes.

Full text of The Sandman: His Farm Stories is available here with illustrations at Project Gutenberg.

The full text of The Sandman: His Sea Stories is available FREE with illustrations at Project Gutenberg.

Selected stories from each book are available here, at Gateway to the Classics.

Note: there are further titles in the Sandman series, written by a variety of authors, if you can find them. The list of titles is included with the full-text books at Project Gutenberg.


Jean-Henri Fabre Applies His Scientific Method to the Home

Jean-Henri Fabre was an important naturalist who was known for his study of insects, but he also wrote several books about things that children would see and experience around their homes or farms.

As he DIED a hundred years ago, his work is in the public domain, but his children’s books are a bit more difficult to find than his adult oriented work.

Jean-Henri Fabre 1880. Nader/Public Domain.

Jean-Henri Fabre 1880. Nader/Public Domain.

There is a children’s biography, Small Wonders, about him that explains the scientific methods he pioneered, which are based on observation. At publication time, it is available on Kindle Unlimited.

In addition to his research methods, he is known for the lively style of his various books on insects.

Fabre’s books are good for kids ages 8 and up, and like other titles in this article, are excellent for older kids who struggle with reading or language learners…the vocabulary is a little formal, but there are numerous clearly labelled diagrams, which are the best.

Also, some of the “everyday” things in Fabre’s world aren’t so “everyday” in 2020 (e.g. a spinning wheel) so the diagrams come in handy, ELL’s and fluent speakers.

FREE full text links to The Secret of Everyday Things

Links to the first two chapters of Field, Forest and Farm.

The first two chapters of Our Humble Helpers are available here. Our Humble Helpers is about working animals.

The Naturalist Movement, which involved studying nature through observation, was big 100 years ago.

Read The Lois Level’s FREE Stories for Exploring Nature with ages 4 to 8 for many more resources.

FREE links to two other of Fabre’s books for children that might be of interest:

The Life of the Spider

The Storybook of Science

If you run across any facts that you think might be outdated, be sure to check them with your kids online. Most of the ideas explained are basic concepts based on the observation of animals, so despite the age of these books, there are a lot of important ideas that are explained in a way that children can understand and probably aren’t as outdated as one might assume.

Helping Children Know When They are Making Money

A part of any industry is being able to figure out if you have made any money.

Most “business ventures” involving kids frustrate me because the adults “donate” everything or overpay for the products, which results in the kids’ having a pretty skewed idea of business.

The kids don’t get practice with the most important concept: Even if you have a lot of money coming in, you aren’t making money if your expenses are more.

The idea of a household as a small business is also important. You need to know how much you have coming in and going out. If you can’t meet realistically meet the needs of the family with that amount of money, something needs to change. You either have to make more or spend less…and there are only so many hours in the day to earn more.

A modern book that is a favorite of mine is Gary Paulsen’s Lawn Boy: if you know a practical kid who isn’t into reading, it’s sure fire.

You might know Gary Paulsen’s more famous wilderness adventure stories; Lawn Boy is a bit far fetched as a narrative, but each chapter explains a different, and often complicated, business concept in a way that kids can understand.

Believe me, you will probably learn a thing or two as well. I did.

Now I know an old mathematics book might not sound that exciting, especially with the photo shown here, but the lessons are clear and straightforward.

They involve a lot of reading, but again, kids who don’t like to read often like to DO, and they may like math as well, so you might be surprised.

Also keep in mind that math problems, especially when they involve “word problems”, are actually reading problems.

If your kid does well with “regular” problems but can’t do “word” problems, work needs to be done on close and careful reading. And it’s not ok to dismiss word problems: remember, all of the real math problems one does in life are word problems.

The biggest issue with this series is that the amounts used are waaay out of date, but the small numbers also serve to make the problems easier.

AND they are all free.

Strayer-Upton Practical Mathematics complete FREE full text for the series.

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