While fact books, picture books, and reference materials all have their place, the real meat of history study is found in spines and surveys, those books that bring lots of important people, events, and dates together to lend context to an entire period. For instance, you might need a book on Civil War battles to adequately understand the military aspect of the struggle, but that's not going to help you grasp the overall significance, scope, and breadth of the war.
Just like a human spine which forms the basic core of a person's anatomy, history spines form the basis for subsequent study. They don't come complete with all the details (muscles, bones, skin), but they do provide a sound framework from which to build. Spines generally cover a fairly broad spectrum of times and places, with plenty of room for further research and gaps that outside study can easily fill, and link major events that otherwise might seem disjointed.
Surveys go a little further than spines. For the most part, surveys offer more information from the beginning, and present as a single narrative the major events as well as the connecting pieces and many of the details. Because there tends to be more information, these are probably better for older students, who don't need as much opportunity for switching between texts or using less structured material.
As mentioned before, the best thing either spines or surveys offer is context. This makes it a bit more imperative to find books you approve of on a worldview and ideological level. If the context a book is offering is completely humanistic, atheistic, and naturalistic, and you're doing your best to train your kids in biblical precepts, you'll probably want to avoid that title. Of course, this becomes less of an issue the older your kids get, and reading from a different perspective even becomes important.
For upper elementary and middle school students, Genevieve Foster's books offer an excellent spine format for important periods of United States and world history. Each volume is built around the period of one man's life, but describes people and events of global significance that may or may not have had anything to do directly with the title figure. These books are extremely informative, fun to read, and make excellent central texts for a Charlotte Mason approach to history.
In a similar vein but more on the survey side, the H. A. Guerber Histories offer a solid general introduction to the scope of world history, beginning with the ancient world and progressing all the way through the 19th century. Guerber was a Christian, and these texts are written from an obviously Christian worldview, so you don't need to run much damage control, if any. The books are written in story form, but also work in plenty of relevant cultural facts and perspective.
Also from a Christian perspective but a bit more doubtful in its theology, the Light and the Glory books from Peter Marshall and David Manuel trace the trajectory of United States history. These books are unique in that there is a series for younger readers, and another series for older students and adults. Each series parallels the other directly, except that there's more information (and often more dubious doctrinal content!) in the series for older readers.
If you're looking for a secular perspective on United States history, Joy Hakim's History of US is a good choice. It covers prehistory through the 20th century in a broad survey of both the essentials and many of the less-known but fascinating details and stories. Christian readers will want to know that Hakim is pretty biased and very humanistic, but there's still a lot of first-rate content and a plethora of full-color and black-and-white illustrations.
A survey or spine should always form the core of your children's history study. Without a solid foundation, they'll just be memorizing facts without context, and more than likely those facts will slip out as soon as they take the test, if not sooner. To make history both come alive and make some kind of reasonable sense, you'll need a book that's more than a list of facts or just fun to look at. For both broad-spectrum titles and those more specific in scope, we hope you'll browse our selection.