Good history books tell the story of history. They are not mere collections of facts, and they don’t get so bogged down trying to include every fact and date that the story is lost. Of course we need those scholarly tomes–but leave them to the historians, not grade school students. Books that are written by committees tend to be collections of facts, but books written by talented authors can hold your attention as well as any novel.
Good history books focus on a limited enough topic to be able to cover it like a story. A history of the world in only one volume is necessarily going to be dry like a textbook.
Good history books do not glorify or villainize people where they shouldn’t. They recognize their humanity. At the same time, good history books discuss the ways in which individual people have impacted history. They recognize that individuals do indeed have power to make decisions and change history. They acknowledge the personal faults of history’s heroes, but they do not discredit them or cast aside their contributions because of it (e.g. discrediting the Constitution because its writers were human and had faults).
Good history books do not treat history as a flow of impersonal forces or economics. They do not represent people as being powerless and guided by such forces. (e.g. Marxist histories)
Good history books do not talk about progress in vague ways without defining what the author’s idea of progress is. Undefined “progress” is usually a sly way for a writer to make his own value judgements while appearing objective.
Good history books do not celebrate groups merely for being minorities. Instead, good history books realistically tell the story of such groups’ struggles so that readers can gain a true appreciation for what these groups have overcome.
7. The Big Picture
Good history books leave the reader with a clear understanding of the big picture, and not merely a sense of what it was like to live in that time period. Political events and famous people absolutely must be studied in order to understand the people and the daily life of any era. A good history book will talk about both and connect the two.
Good history books stem from the result of a great deal of research. A children’s history book may not have many endnotes, but it ought to have been written by an author who does careful research. If you find a self-published history of the world series that lists as its sources a handful of high school textbooks, beware.
9. Generalizations & Connections
Good history books make the generalizations necessary to make connections between events easier to understand, but they refrain from making hasty, unsupported generalizations. For example, I have actually read a book by a conservative author who claimed that Joseph Stalin and FDR were just about equally bad because they both supported more government control. You can certainly compare them and make the claim that they were both leftists; however, one killed millions and the other did not. Making that claim in a children’s textbook without also pointing out some differences is inexcusable.
10. Reading Level
Good history books are at a comfortable reading level for your student. You want your student to love history and not find it a struggle.