The online teacher community is full of questions about the best AP U.S. History textbook. Most veterans have a personal favorite, but one size does not fit all. Teachers cover the course in so many different ways, which means some books are better for some approaches. I'll introduce you to the most popular titles to help you make the best decision for your school.
All of the examples below, except one, are on the course audit page
for AP U.S. History. The College Board does not endorse any book, but they state they have “some alignment to the course framework.” I’ve added an additional title, The American YAWP.
Ten Contenders for the Best AP U.S. History Textbook
Newman, John J., and John M. Schmalbach. AMSCO Advanced Placement Edition: United States History. 2020 Edition. Perfection Learning.
AMSCO is arguably the most respected review book for AP U.S. History. This thick paperback summarizes each time period in several short chapters of about 20 pages each. The sections end with skill development activities, eight multiple choice questions, and four short answer questions. Each period includes several long essay prompts as well as a document-based question. The book concludes with a full practice exam.
AMSCO was not designed as a course textbook, but many teachers use it that way. The reasoning behind this is that it's very difficult to get high school students to read college-level textbooks. This has sparked lively discussions in online teacher forums! Many believe that students must learn to read dense nonfiction text. Others feel that the condensed coverage in AMSCO is far better preparation than reading nothing. The College Board quietly responded to the debate by including AMSCO in its list of example textbooks.
Shi, David E., and George Brown Tindall. America: A Narrative History. 10th edition. W.W. Norton and Company.
This is one of the more enduring APUSH textbooks, now in its 11th edition. As the title states, it uses a “narrative” approach, covering topics more like a story. According to online reviews, many students find this style more readable. Some feel the narration becomes too wordy and suffers from too many esoteric details. The publisher’s website
includes an ebook version, a selection of primary sources, and an online review quiz.
Henretta, James A., Eric Hinderaker, Rebecca Edwards, and Robert O. Self. America’s History, For the AP® Course. 8th edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s.
“Henretta” was the first textbook to be purposefully organized around the APUSH redesign back in 2015. It's written at a high level, and some students struggle with this, especially ELLs. My school uses this book. I like the unit introductions because they give a chart of important events organized by theme, which teaches the skill of context. Each chapter ends with a timeline that helps students review the big things mentioned in that section.
The publisher supports the textbook with lecture outlines, powerpoints, pictures, and maps. I especially appreciate the online review feature for each chapter. This gives students an adaptive quiz that forces them to reach a minimum score before they can quit.
Brinkley, Alan. American History: Connecting with the Past, Updated AP Edition. 15th edition. McGraw-Hill Education.
Brinkley follows a very traditional approach for a history textbook by emphasizing the themes of politics, society, and culture. The book is authored by one person, which gives the writing a consistent “voice.”
This has potential downsides, though. First, it exposes readers to a single perspective. Second, some aspects of US history might be overlooked. The book and the publisher’s website
offer several tools that help students develop the AP historical thinking skills.
Kennedy, David M., and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. 16th edition. National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning.
Pageant is the most popular APUSH textbook, and it’s been around forever. It was originally written by professor Thomas Bailey in 1956! In the 1980s, the writing was assumed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kennedy with contributions from Lizbeth Cohen.
Many like the book’s conversational style that is seasoned with opinion and the occasional wry comment. Some feel the authors’ perspectives are too personal and the winding narration can make it difficult for students to pick out key details. Since this is such a popular textbook, there are scads of teacher-created materials available online (many for free and some for sale)!
The American YAWP: a Massively Collaborative Open U.S History Textbook. Stanford University Press.
If nothing else, The American YAWP wins the award for the most interesting textbook title. The title comes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
The main distinction of YAWP is that it’s written and edited by hundreds of historians. Oh, and did I mention it’s free? You can also buy a print version in two volumes at $49.90 for the set. As the book is both new and non-profit, there isn’t much available right now by way of support materials.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty. 5th edition. W.W. Norton and Company.
This is another single-author textbook that follows a traditional approach for a survey course. It’s used by both colleges and high school AP programs.
Foner is a respected scholar, and his theories on the history of freedom come through clearly in his writing. The publisher’s website
states that the book offers seven practice DBQs and an online adaptive quiz tool that helps develop the AP historical thinking skills.
Berkin, Carol, Christopher L. Miller, Robert W. Cherny, and James L. Gormly. Making America: A History of the United States, AP Edition. 7th edition. National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning.
Honestly, I’m not familiar with this book. Although it’s listed by the College Board as an example textbook, it’s not widely reviewed online. The publisher says, “Making America speaks in a voice intended to communicate with rather than impress.”
The 2018 AP version is more recent than many other textbook options. The publisher’s website
provides an online teacher’s guide as well as “a cloud-based, highly personalized, learning environment” for students.
Oakes, James, Michael McGerr, Jan Ellen Lewis, Nick Cullather, Jeanne Boydston, Mark Summers, Camilla Townsend, and Karen Dunak. Of the People: A History of the United States. 3rd edition. Perfection Learning, Oxford University Press.
Of the People is another traditional history book that is widely used in high school AP courses. This is a group effort, which has both pros and cons. On the plus side, multiple authors add to scholarship and depth. On the downside, a group approach can impact the overall synthesis of the writing.
For both good and bad, it’s printed in two volumes. This makes it easier for students to use, but it adds to the burden of a school’s textbook budget. With that said, the publisher offers a variety of free online resources for both teachers
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-2001. HarperCollins.
Zinn strives to avoid “great man history” and to cover the perspectives of ethnic minorities, immigrants, and the poor. Interestingly, this isn't a textbook, but many teachers love it because it gives students a fuller and more honest view of the American experience. Few school districts approve the book, though. Why? Because Zinn is unabashedly radical in his views with elements of both socialism and anarchism.
As this isn’t a popular book for school use, there aren’t many support materials online. However, a full version of the book is available on historyisaweapon.com
(Yes, that is actually the name of the website!).
There are many choices on the market, and this can make selecting the best AP U.S. history textbook confusing and time-consuming. I hope these brief reviews provide some guidance in narrowing down the choices. I’m a veteran APUSH teacher, so if you have any questions, I’m happy to help—just drop a line in the comments below.