Learning With Living Books

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When I started homeschooling my children, I was most excited about the BOOKS. Doesn’t every homeschooler develop a bit of a book obsession? When I learned about living books, and what it looked like to educate my children with them, I knew I’d found my heart’s home.

Learning with Living Books - By Beth

What is a living book? A living book is one that is written by one author who is passionate about their subject and is usually written in a narrative (storytelling) style. The language is beautiful, not dumbed-down or childish. It’s a book that draws you in and changes you. I love this word picture from Charlotte Mason’s book, Ourselves:

There are libraries, too––such libraries! containing every book of delight that ever was written. When anybody sits down to read, the author who made the book comes and leans over his shoulder and talks to him. Vol. 4, p. 3

That is the essence of a living book, don’t you think? The author whispers in your ear, shares something precious with you, a living idea, which inspires truth, beauty and goodness. Children connect with these ideas, internalize them, and the world opens before them. It’s amazing to behold.

Charlotte Mason's Twelfth PrincipleHow do you identify a living book? That can be hard to define sometimes. Brandy Vencel, author of the Afterthoughts blog, said in her post about living books that it can be easier to think of a living book in terms of what is is not. It is not what Charlotte Mason called “twaddle,” or a book that has no value; they are also not textbooks. Another good way to identify whether a book is living or not is whether you’re able to narrate it. If you have nothing to say when you’ve read a chapter, if nothing affected you enough to give you something to say, it wasn’t a living book.

I’ve certainly read my fair share of twaddle (and still enjoy it sometimes). When I was a child, I read all kinds of fluff. However, I also read excellent books like A Little Princess, Heidi, Little Women, fairy tales, and more fairy tales, thanks to my parents and grandparents who made sure I had access to them. I still have the beautiful copy of Little Women my grandmother gave me, and my very tattered paperback of Ozma of Oz. I recently read Anne of Green Gables for the first time, and wondered how on earth I missed it as a child.

I hear lots of parents say, when their children read books that are… less than excellent, “At least they’re reading.” I disagree. There is so much that is excellent for children to read, there is no reason to have them read books that are not worthy of their incredible minds. There are wonderful books written even for early readers. Truly. Run far, far away from Captain Underpants! Children will enjoy reading twaddle, of course; it’s easy, and require them to think. It’s a bit like candy. Of course they like it, and it’s all right for an occasional treat, but you wouldn’t let them only eat that. If you give them good books, they will learn to love them, and to want to read them more than they want to read twaddle. I love to hear my girls discussing books. They’ve gone from saying, “My mom doesn’t think that’s a good book,” to being able to determine what they want to read for themselves.

Take the The Burgess Bird Book for Children, for example. If you’ve read my nature study posts, you know I love this book. From reading it, my children have learned about bird colors and camouflage, nesting habits, and migration, just to name a few things. We read Our Island Story for history, and felt as if we really got into the flow of British history. One of my daughters described it as “a fun, interesting history of Britain that does not bore people to death.” Ha! I can tell you we enjoyed reading that book far more than any textbook we’ve tried, and because we connected with the story, we remember a lot more of it.

I have tried nearly every curriculum under the sun, it seems, but we always come back to living books. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around learning from books written like stories, even for science, when all I remembered from my own education was textbooks. However, I have seen how my children have connected with and learned so much from living books that I’m now a firm believer and can’t bring myself to use anything else. *

If you’re new to the idea of living books, I have some resources for you:

  • Ambleside Online is a site that provides a free, Charlotte Mason curriculum. Many of the books they recommend are available for free online. They have excellent book lists and are my go-to source when I look for books for my own children (we mostly use AO for our homeschool) and to give as gifts.
  • The 1000 Good Books List, maintained by the Classical Christian Support Loop, is organized both by age group and by author. This is a tremendous online resource.
  • The Baldwin Project is a website with a wealth of excellent children’s books, all in the public domain, available to read online. You can search by author, title, and genre. Lisa Ripperton put together that site, and also has Yesterday’s Classics, where you can purchase both print and eBook versions of many of the books from the Baldwin Project, as well as Gateway to the Classics, a subscription site that allows you to put together a customized curriculum for your child you can use on your computer or tablet. I use Gateway to the Classics with my son, and it is an excellent resource.
  • All Through the Ages – This book was put together by Christine Miller at Nothing New Press, and contains books for every reading level organized by historical period.
  • TruthQuest History – These books contain excellent lists of living books to help you plan your history studies.
  • Who Then Shall We Read, Vols. 1 and 2 – Jan Bloom put together these amazing books. They are organized by author, and list all the books by a particular author, as well as series titles. They are coil-bound, 8.5″x5.5″, perfect for carrying along in a purse or tote when you’re out book shopping. If you wonder if a book you’ve found is a good one, you can check and see if the author is in these books. If they are, you can feel confident you’ve found a good book! Her books are not exhaustive, because that is nearly impossible, but they are my #1 resource for collecting books.

*That is not to say that textbooks have no place in a Charlotte Mason education. She certainly used them; they have their place, but that is a discussion for another time.


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