Monday, November 4, 2019

Learning About History While Reading Fun Children's Books: A Review of Two Books from the Goldtown Beginnings Series

book covers of first two books in Goldtown Beginnings Series

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Our six-year-old loves to read. So I was very excited when we had the opportunity to review two new books from Kregel Publications. Popular author Susan K. Marlow has released two new books in what will be a six-book series (the Goldtown Beginnings Series). The books we read together were Jem Strikes Gold and Jem's Frog Fiasco. Be sure to bookmark the series link because there will be more books coming out in 2020.


The Goldtown Beginnings Series is written for ages 6-9 with an emphasis on them great beginning reading for boys. They are paperbacks, 80 pages long, and contain black and white illustrations. In the first book, Jem Strikes Gold, we learn about the Coulter family and follow Jem and his sister, Ellie, on their day-to-day tasks. In Jem's Frog Fiasco, we see Jem trying to solve the problem of how to provide scraps for his dog, Gold Nugget, that became part of the family at the end of Jem Strikes Gold.

Potential Spoilers Ahead! 

Jem Strikes Gold book cover

Jem Strikes Gold

Over the course of ten chapters, children read about the adventures of Jem and his sister Ellie as they deliver pies for their Mama and face the town bully, Will Sterling. Some of the new words introduced before the story include canvas, contraption, and prospector. Readers learn the gold camp rules that the community lives by and learn how one pans for gold. The illustrations by Okan Bülbül help tell the tale, especially when Will shoved Jem and Jem fell into the pie wagon—what an awful mess for poor Jem! And having to return to his Mama and explain what happened. And the joy on the faces of Jem and Ellie when they meet Nugget for the first time and then play with him is evident both through the words of Susan K. Marlow and Bülbül's illustrations.

book cover of Jem's Frog Fiasco

Jem's Frog Fiasco 

Jem Strikes Gold book cover and study guideIn the second book of the series, Jem is trying to figure out a way to earn money to buy scraps to help feed his dog, Nugget. He shared several ideas with Ellie, including running errands for the miners and the saloon, wood chopping, and sweeping. While on their usual Saturday chore of delivering pies that their Mama made and sold to the miners and townsfolk, Jem stumbled upon a job offer from Mr. Sims, the cafe owner. Mr. Sims offered to pay Jem 5 cents for each frog so he could cook frog legs for the miners. Jem thought this was a great job. (And, really, what boy wouldn't want to spend time in a pond hunting for frogs for money?)

Mama asked Jem to take Ellie with him to go froggin'. On the second trip Ellie had her own pail courtesy of Strike and Jem was told to "look after your sister" by Mama. This would have dire consequences. While froggin', Jem ended up yelling at Ellie because she yelled and the frogs went hopping and swimming away. This led to Ellie running away from the pond leaving Jem alone to look for bullfrogs. After getting a full pail, he headed home only to find that Ellie had not returned home. Where was she? Was she playing hide-and-seek? Did she get lost? Pa and the rest of the miners went looking for her but Jem finds her in a coyote hole in an abandoned gold digging field. He learns the importance of taking care of his sister.

How Did We Use the Books in Our Homeschool? 

There are a number of free resources available to accompany the books along with lapbooks that you can purchase. I downloaded both the coloring books for our children and the two free guides (which you can also purchase as spiral-bound guides). We worked through the activity guide for the first book, Jem Strikes Gold, and then read through the second book, Jem's Frog Fiasco. We will use the study guide in a few weeks.

coloring page from Jem's Frog Fiasco

Jem Strike's Gold book cover and study guide activities

At first, I had our six-year-old read Jem Strikes Gold by himself but then I decided to use the book as a read-aloud to include his four-year-old sister. She quickly wanted to know all about Ellie. We would read a chapter and then answer the questions that were part of the free guide. Each chapter had a few comprehension questions to accompany it. Comprehension questions ranged from multiple choice, fill-ins, matching, yes-or-no, and short answer questions. One question asked "how many pies fit into the wagon?" while another asked "why is Jem so tired?" Some of the other activities included geography, labeling a map of Cripple Creek from the book, mathematics/answering word problems, introducing the times table, and examining the character trait of kindness.

For the Jem's Frog Fiasco, I read several chapters at a time aloud to our two younger children. They were both very eager to find out what happened next, so we kept reading. In fact, when I had to take a break to give my throat a rest, our son kept putting the book back in my hands.

The activities for Jem's Frog Fiasco follow a similar pattern with comprehension questions for the chapters and questions for new vocabulary. I am excited to work on the following pages with our son in the near future: Contractions, A Kid's Life in a Gold Camp, Bullfrog Pond graph, and baking cornbread with our kids. We will examine the character of trait of determination at the very end of our study.

Jem's Frog Fiasco book cover and study guide questions

Our Thoughts 

I read the stories aloud to both our younger children. When we reached the end of each chapter, both our six-year-old son and our four-year-old daughter wanted to know what would happen next to Jem and his sister, Ellie. The illustrations helped encourage our children to keep reading as they wanted to know what happened in the story to go along with the picture.

I really liked that the free guide had a lesson plan so we could schedule the worksheets and reading into our homeschooling day. This made it very easy to plan what we were going to do each day.

schedule for Jem Strikes Gold book
The schedule for the first book's activities.

I also liked the new words listed and defined at the start of the book as well as the history provided at the end of the book. These two sections provided just the right amount of information without feeling overwhelming to either of our children. I also felt that the stories were the perfect length. Great choices for read alouds or for children to read independently.

Prior to reading Jem's Frog Fiasco, I looked through the book with our four-year-old to anticipate what the story would be about with her. She read the chapter titles and we looked at the pictures for clues. I really like that the books are designed in such a way that children can look through the whole thing and get a basic idea of the story but the entire plot is never spoiled or given away by the chapter titles or illustrations.

Our son said: "I liked the whole thing (Jem Strikes Gold). Mostly the end." He liked when the dog scared Will. Our daughter really liked Ellie and kept asking questions about what she was doing when she wasn't in the story. She didn't like that Jem yelled at his sister in Jem's Frog Fiasco. This, of course, was necessary to present one of the lessons discussed in the book.

Reading Jem Strikes Gold and Jem's Frog Fiasco

I would recommend Jem Strikes Gold and Jem's Frog Fiasco for families with first and second graders looking for fun, historical fiction. There is a lot to be learned from these books and many discussions that can be had during your homeschool day. When asking our son if he would recommend them, he said yes, "they are like the best books I have ever read." I look forward to when the other books in the Goldtown Beginnings Series are released.

Do You Want to Learn More? 

Kregel Publication logo

Other families from the Homeschool Review Crew also had the opportunity to review Marlow's new books from Kregel Publications. Don't forget to check out their thoughts about these fun books.

Crew image for reviews


  1. We thoroughly enjoyed these books, too. My daughter loved Ellie and my boys liked Jem.

    1. Yes! My daughter wanted to know all about what Ellie was doing in each scene.

  2. I love the Goldtown and Circle C books! Can't wait to read these!

    1. We need to read the others. I have some of them on my kids wishlists.

  3. Thanks for the fun, thorough review of these first two books. :-) It was especially nice that you also took the time to speak about the extra "school" activities to enhance the books.
    --Susan Marlow

    1. We loved reading them! My son has already asked about the next ones in the series. And I love that we could use them to enhance our history lessons.