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10 Engaging Explorer Biographies for 4-8 Social Studies

Explorers and exploration are a huge part of upper elementary and middle school social studies curriculum. This is especially true in world history, but there are also famous American explorers as well. Share stories of exciting explorers from around the globe with your social studies students. These 10 explorer biographies for 4-8 graders are perfect for social studies!

Sir John Franklin: The Search for the Northwest Passage (In the Footsteps of Explorers) by Joan Elizabeth Goodman

First, Sir John Franklin's biography is great for students interested in sea explorations. Sir John, a respected naval officer, explored the Arctic with his crew. He had two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. Unfortunately, the voyage ended in tragedy for everyone involved.

Matthew Henson (Graphic Biographies) by Blake A. Hoena

Of course, graphic novels are a hit with 4-8 graders! Students love this graphic biography of Matthew Henson. Henson was one of the first people to reach the North Pole but received little recognition until much later in his life.

Amelia Earhart: Flying Solo by John Burke

Amelia Earhart is one of the most famous aerial explorers in American history. The book has colorful pictures and also engaging content about Earhart's life. In addition, it follows the timeline of Amelia’s life from her childhood to her mysterious disappearance in 1937. Overall, the book captures the interest of young aviators and those interested in early feminists who challenged stereotypes.

Journey to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop & Mammoth Cave by Elizabeth Mitchell

Another lesser studied explorer is Stephen Bishop. He was an African-American slave who became known the world over for his exploration of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The book is based on firsthand accounts of the people who were guided by Bishop. An engaging storyline and beautiful illustrations help to bring Stephen Bishop’s contributions to underground caving exploration to life.

The Great Voyages of Zheng He by Demi

While some naval explorers set out in search of glory, China's Zheng He was different. His mission was to spread a message of trade and also friendship. Zheng He’s fleet of scarlet-sailed ships helped to expand China’s empire. In addition, they increase China's prosperity through establishing trade routes. The gorgeous illustrations enhance the storyline and provide a window into Chinese culture during that time period.

Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air by Stewart Ross

This illustrated biography of fourteen different explorers helps middle readers to not only learn more about their lives, but also about the “how” and “why” of each voyage and adventure. Compelling narratives are interwoven with snippets of information about the technology and know-how that was needed for survival. This is an excellent starting point to engage interest and prompt further research.

Who Was Christopher Columbus? by Bonnie Bader

Christopher Columbus is a hotly debated explorer in recent years, which is why I suggest this particular biography. It provides a detailed overview of Columbus’s voyages and explorations. In addition, it also discusses some of the negative things about Columbus. Overall, the biography introduces Columbus to young readers as an intrepid, yet flawed, adventurer whose contributions shaped the history of our nation.

Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden

This illustrated biography tells the story of Bessie Coleman. She was the first African American and Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license. The book is geared towards a younger audience but upper elementary students also love the story. This is the perfect resource for research projects or for students interested in the achievements of women of color to the world of aviation exploration.

Explorers of North America by Christine Taylor-Butler

Readers interested in North American exploration love this book. Also, it is a valuable resource for further study on the explorers mentioned. The volume is filled with primary and secondary sources, interesting visuals, and little-known facts on each explorer. Sections are divided by time period and highlight the most well-known men and women of that era, from Christopher Columbus to modern day.

A World of Her Own: 24 Amazing Women Explorers and Adventurers by Michael Elsohn Ross

Next, any reader interested in the natural world enjoys the stories of these heroic women explorers and adventurers. These amazing women also set records in land, air, sea, and even space. Overall, their stories come together in one captivating read. Finally, the profiles of each explorer are written based on original interviews and historical research for accuracy. They really do highlight the challenges each woman had to overcome to fulfill their passions and dreams.

Explorer Extension Activities for Students

Your students are exploring the world in their social studies classes! In addition to these engaging texts, share explorer escape rooms with your students to extend their learning.

What is an escape room?

An escape room is a series of puzzles students solve in order to learn important facts! The explorer escape rooms are some of my favorites to use with students! Overall, these are also a fun break from traditional worksheets and textbook reading.

Explorer Escape Rooms

First, each of the explorer escape rooms is no-prep! Just print and go. Also, each escape room lets students work together to break codes and solve puzzles. Of course, you can share the resources digitally in Google Classroom for online learners or to promote social distancing in the classroom. The codes are ciphers, Morse code, cryptograms, and a final 4 digit code based on the decoders/clues. Check out all of the explorer escape rooms!
  • Ferdinand Magellan
  • Captain James Cook
  • Henry Hudson
  • Vasco da Gama
  • Sir Francis Drake
  • Hernan Cortes
  • Ponce de Leon
  • Overall, these explorers have so much to teach your students. Share books and also escape games to help them explore their own learning!
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