living books

Bespoke Book List: Books Set in Ancient Rome

My kids are obsessed with ancient Rome, and I’d love to find a few fun readalouds set in classical Roman times. Any suggestions?

My kids are obsessed with ancient Rome, and I’d love to find a few fun readalouds set in classical Roman times. Any suggestions?

Happily, the Roman Empire has been just as fascinating for authors as it has been for your children, and your big challenge will be choosing which of these books set in ancient Rome to start with.

Detectives in Togas
Take seven Roman schoolboys, add a slur scrawled on the Temple of Minerva, a burgled tutor, and a mysterious astrologer, and you’ve got a mystery that’s full of twists and turns and Roman history. (The sequel, Mystery of the Roman Ransom, features the same cast of mystery-solving characters.)


Tiger, Tiger
The author of The Indian in the Cupboard tackles the class structures of the Roman Empire in this story of two tiger cubs: one given to the emperor’s daughter, where he lives a pampered, luxurious life; the other sent to live in a cold, dark cage as one of the kill-or-be-killed stars at the Caesar’s Colosseum.


The Thieves of Ostia
In the second mystery on our list, sea captain’s daughter Flavia Gemina and her friends set out to discover why the dogs on her street in the Roman city of Ostia are dying. The series (now up to 17 books) is a favorite of historian Mary Beard’s.



The Eagle of the Ninth
Historical fiction writer extraordinaire Rosemary Sutcliffe heads to Roman Britain with the story of a boy named Marcus determined to discover the truth of what happened to his soldier father and the rest of the Ninth legion (and their Eagle standard), who set off north of Hadrian’s wall and never returned.


Escape from Pompeii
If you’re looking for a picture book, this deliberately illustrated story of everyday life in a Roman city (and a harrowing escape from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) set in C.E. 79 is an excellent choice.


A Roman Death
Older students will get caught up in the tour de force mystery starring Cicero the lawyer as he defends a Roman matriarch accused of murdering her future son-in-law. The story, based on a historical incident briefly mentioned in Cicero’s writings, features a fictional-but-totally-believable speech by the great orator.


This book list is reprinted from the summer 2016 issue of HSL.

Some of Our Favorite Living Math Books for Tweens and Teens

Some of Our Favorite Living Math Books

Lewis Carroll. Thomas Pynchon. David Foster Wallace. They’re best known now as writers, but all of them started out as mathematicians — a fact that delightfully dismantles a piece of the divide between “math people” and “book people.”

In fact, math and literature have more in common than you might realize. One of the first novels about math was written more than a century ago. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott, published in 1184, is both an exploration of the nature of geometry and dimensions and a satirical analysis of Victorian social structure. Abbott’s story — about a Square whose world view expands when he meets a Sphere from three-dimensional Spaceland — inspired several similar works, including Flatterland by Ian Stewart and The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster.

Bloomsbury offered a $1 million prize to the first person who could prove Goldbach’s Conjecture within two years of the publication of Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, a novel by the Greek writer and mathematician Apostolos Doxiadis. No one claimed the prize, which is no real surprise since the life-shaking difficulty of the conjecture (which postulates that every even number is the sum of two primes) and its affect on one mathematician’s life is one of the key points of the book.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series posits a system of mathematical sociology that can predict the future. Mathematical sociology — also called psychohistory — works a little like economics and can only be used to predict large-scale events. Thanks to mathematical sociology, the mathematician Hari Seldon is able to predict the collapse of the Galactic Empire and the Dark Ages that will follow it — and to safeguard human culture and scientific achievement.

In John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, former math prodigy Colin Singleton is obsessed with proving his theorem, a formula that predicts which of two members of a romantic relationship will be the one to end the relationship. Colin grapples with the challenge that confronts many kids whose early giftedness does not clearly manifest itself as genius as they get older and with the mathematical mindset that failure is just as likely — and ultimately just as important — as success when it comes to proving mathematical theories. Similarly, the autistic narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime uses mathematics to make sense of his world. But making sense doesn’t mean making simple, as Christopher explains in one chapter-long rumination on the Monty Hall program, a probability logic puzzle that baffles even some professional mathematicians.

Colin Adams — you may know him from the Mathematically Bent column in the Mathematical Intelligencer (and if you don’t, perhaps you should) — has collected some of his funniest math stories in Riot at the Calc Exam and Other Mathematically Bent Stories. In “The Deprogrammer’s Tale,” families seek help from a professional when their children are tempted to major in mathematics. In “A Killer Theorem,” a detective investigates a series of murders committed via an irresistible proof method for an unsolvable theorem.

This list is excerpted from an article in the winter 2015 issue of HSL.

Bespoke Book Lists: Books About the Gold Rush

Great list of fiction and non-fiction books about the California Gold Rush. #homeschool

I’m planning a unit on the California Gold Rush for my 3rd and 5th grader. Do you have any book suggestions for readalouds? 

I’m always going to recommend By the Great Horn Spoon, by Sid Fleischman, which is one of the best Gold Rush readalouds (and one of the best elementary school readalouds, period, in my opinion). Bold adventures, leering villains, and a determined twelve-year-old hero make this one of those books that will have your kids begging for “just one more chapter.”

Karen Cushman’s The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, tells the story of a girl (who changes her name from California Morning to plain Lucy) who goes from a comfortable life in Massachusetts to the rough-and-tumble world of a California gold mining town. Cushman’s a pro at weaving well-researched period details into her stories, and this book really brings the experience of a California mining camp to life.

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, California Territory 1849 by Kristiana Gregory is part of the Dear America series and makes a good counterpoint to the merrier Gold Rush narratives. Life in camp was hard, especially for women, and this novel, chronicling the tale of a girl whose family travels from New York to strike it rich, does a nice job illuminating those dangers without getting too scary.

If your kids like funny books, check out How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush by Tod Olson, a tongue-in-cheek look at what prospecting was really like. Though the book’s charming hero Thomas Hartley is completely fictional, the book paints a historically accurate picture of the Gold Rush experience.

In case you want to add a little nonfiction to your list, The California Gold Rush by May McNeer weaves rich details and anecdotes kids will appreciate with plenty of facts in an easy-reading account of the great Gold Rush.

And you didn’t ask, but I have to recommend California Gold Rush Cooking, by Lisa Golden Schroeder, a cookbook that lets you try your hand at making eight simple recipes miners would have eaten during the Gold Rush, like hand pies and chop suey. For extra credit, cook them over an open fire.


Are you looking for some new book ideas? We take Bespoke Reading List requests! Email us with what you’re looking for — “I have a 9-year-old obsessed with dinosaurs” or “what should a teenager who likes military history read?” — and we’ll play literary matchmaker.