Secular Homeschool Recommended Book List

Secular Homeschool Reading and Book List

Secular Homeschool Reading & Book ListOn any given day you will find multiple conversations focused on books in our online community. Rich discussions of authors and subject matter, innovative ideas for related lessons, and always a plethora of recommendations for more books. Reading back through hundreds of threads in various SEA Homeschoolers Facebook groups these 25 books have been recommended time and time again. Having read nearly every book on this list I can certainly understand why. This book list is secular homeschool approved.

Secular Homeschool Reading & Book List

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall – A funny, insightful, and colorful story about being true to your inner self and following your own path despite obstacles that may come your way.

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty – Rosie may seem quiet during the day, but at night she’s a brilliant inventor of gizmos and gadgets who dreams of becoming a great engineer in this book that celebrates creativity and perseverance.

Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book of Evolution by Johnathan Tweet – Told in an engaging call and response text this book takes children and adults through the history of life on our planet and explains how we are all connected.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo – Somewhere between fairy tale and fable is the tale of a China rabbit named Edward, transformed by the lives he touches as he learns about love, loss and consequences.

Matilda by Roald Dahl – A brilliant, but lonely girl with special powers and neglectful parents finds courage and friendship while facing off against surprising characters from her daily life.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters – The roots of our family tree reach back millions of years to the beginning of life on earth. In this family album you’ll meet some of our oldest relatives–from both the land and the sea–and discover what we inherited from each of them along the many steps of our wondrous past.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – Inspired by the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, this unforgettable illustrated novel told from the point-of-view of Ivan himself is a story of friendship, art, and hope.

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen – An ecological mystery made up of endangered miniature owls, Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House scheduled to be built over their burrows, and the owls’ unlikely allies–three middle school kids determined to beat the system.

Holes by Louis Sachar – Stanley Yelnats, a kid who is under a curse. Now he has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake: the warden is looking for something. Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and humorous tale of crime, punishment, and redemption.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – This epic trilogy tells the story of Lyra and Will, two ordinary children on a perilous journey through shimmering haunted otherworlds. They will meet witches and armored bears, fallen angels and soul-eating specters. And in the end, the fate of both the living and the dead will rely on them. Philip Pullman unlocks the door to a world parallel to our own, but with a mysterious slant all its own. Dæmons and winged creatures live side by side with humans, and a mysterious entity called Dust just might have the power to unite the universes–if it isn’t destroyed first.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio – August was born with a facial difference that had prevented him from going to school. Starting 5th grade he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid, but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. What follows is a powerful story of a community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan – This exciting series follows the demigod son of Poseidon and his friends on a quest that will have them meeting gods, battling monsters, and taking on the Titans from Greek mythology.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – Jacqueline Woodson, the acclaimed author of Another Brooklyn, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse. In vivid poems she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.

The Giver by Lois Lowry – This story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini – This 4 book series follows 15 year old Eragon who believes that he is merely a poor farm boy, until his destiny as a Dragon Rider is revealed. Gifted with only an ancient sword, a loyal dragon, and sage advice from an old storyteller, Eragon is soon swept into a dangerous tapestry of magic, glory, and power. Now his choices could save or destroy the Empire.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – At the dawn of the next world war, a plane crashes on an uncharted island, stranding a group of schoolboys. At first, with no adult supervision, their freedom is something to celebrate. This far from civilization they can do anything they want. Anything. But as order collapses, as strange howls echo in the night, as terror begins its reign, the hope of adventure seems as far removed from reality as the hope of being rescued.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it takes readers to the roots of human behavior, to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – Imagine a school in a castle filled with moving staircases, a sport played on flying broomsticks, an evil wizard intent on domination, remarkable friends, limitless secrets and surprises, and an ordinary boy who’s the hero of a whole world he doesn’t even yet know. This is the story that comes to life in this marvelous series as each of the seven books chronicles one year in Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – In Nazi Germany, 1939, the country is holding its breath. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett – Armed with only a frying pan and her common sense, young witch-to-be Tiffany Aching must defend her home against the monsters of Fairyland. Luckily she has some very unusual help: the local Nac Mac Feegle–aka the Wee Free Men–a clan of fierce, sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai – Inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee, fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama. This coming-of-age novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.

1984 by George Orwell – The year 1984 has come and gone, but Orwell’s prophetic, nightmarish vision in 1949 of the world we were becoming is timelier than ever. A startlingly original and haunting modern classic of “negative utopia” that creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing, from the first sentence to the last four words. No one can deny the novel’s hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions -a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – The story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, he leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art. This powerful tale based on the author’s own experiences chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – A masterwork of twentieth century literature set in a bleak, dystopian future. In a world where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. Their job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. When a fireman meets an eccentric young neighbor who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television, then she suddenly disappears…he begins to question everything he has ever known.

Animal Farm by George Orwell – As ferociously fresh as it was more than a half century ago, this remarkable allegory of a downtrodden society of overworked, mistreated animals, and their quest to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality is one of the most scathing satires ever published. As we witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals, a razor-edged fairy tale that records the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible.


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Secular Homeschool Reading & Book List

The Importance of Reading Aloud

The Importance of Reading Aloud

Reading aloud to your children is so important. I cannot stress that enough. It may be one of the most important things you do for them, educationally speaking. Most parents can find the time to read a picture book or two with their infants and toddlers, but once a child learns to read, that snuggly read aloud time usually ends. But, I think it’s actually more important to continue that read aloud time, well into their school years. 

But my child is fully capable of reading their own books. Why should I read aloud to him?

There are a number of reasons, but I’ll list my top 5 (plus one):

5. Reading aloud creates a family bond, especially if there are siblings listening as well. Your children will fondly look back on their memories of listening to you read aloud, giggle over how you did “all the voices,” and fondly recall favorites stories heard at your knee. Just because a book is considered “children’s” literature, doesn’t mean it’s childish. Many of my favorite books are written for children! A good story is a good story, and you may find that you enjoy many great books just as much as your children (if not more!). Some of my favorite memories are of reading aloud to my children.  Getting to share my favorite stories with them means I get to enjoy those books in a whole new way. I get to see their excitement when Harry learns that he is a wizard, laugh with them at the ridiculousness of Gandalf trying to sneak a dozen dwarves into Beorn’s hall, and cry with them when Wilbur loses his best friend. We can have big, juicy discussions about the unfairness of death, the realities or racism, and how media affects our lives all while snuggled together on the couch enjoying a good story.

4. Reading aloud will help to stimulate their imagination. When you read aloud, you don’t have to choose books at any particular reading level. When your daughter is still just getting comfortable with easy chapter books, you can also read aloud books far above her level. You can expose them to fantasy worlds full of talking animals, knights and battles, distant countries… the literary world is open to you! Literature is peopled with characters that your children will want to emulate and filled with places they’ll want to pretend. Poetry will fill their minds with beautiful language and spark their own creativity with words and stories. Reading fairy tales and mythology with show them how stories have evolved over time, and give them the cultural background to understanding many of the novels they will read over their lifetime.

3. Literature will expose them to difficult ideas and situations in a safe way. Life is full of hard truths, and what better way to learn of them than from a beautifully written story read to them by someone they love and trust? Charlotte’s Web shows that sometimes, a beloved friend dies, not from any terrible illness or violent act, but simply because it’s part of life. Literature will also build empathy – they’ll put themselves in the characters place, wondering how they would react in the same situation. Our world desperately needs more empathetic people. So read to your children widely, about people who live far differently from them so that they can grow into compassionate and empathetic adults who will change the world.

2. Reading aloud to your children can increase their vocabulary. Again, because you aren’t limited to choosing books within their reading level, you can expose them to a world of beautiful language. This will also help build their thinking skills – rather than interrupt the story to ask about a particular word, they’ll be more apt to use context clues to try and figure it out themselves. When you read good books together, you no longer need a separate vocabulary curriculum. If you want to go deeper, you can choose a word or two from a book every day, or just pepper your normal conversations with those words that you want them to pick up. The more they hear, the richer their vocabulary will become.

1. Reading to your children, daily, starting when they are very young, will build their attention span. A child who’s been read to his whole life will be able to concentrate and pay attention to something for far longer than a child who spends all of his time playing video games or watching television.

I want to share some of my family’s favorite read alouds:

The Importance of Reading Aloud - Secular Homeschooling @ SEA HomeschoolersWhere the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jaqueline Kelly

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Watership Down by Richard Adams

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

But most importantly – reading to your children will give them a love of literature.  I mourn for the children who grow up thinking Winnie the Pooh is just a brightly colored cartoon character and never get to meet Charlotte and Wilbur, Sara Crewe, Charlie Bucket and Tom Sawyer. Reading aloud will give them a respect for the written word, introduce them to the wide world and the great conversation and build their cultural literacy. It will give them a legacy of great literature to pass on to their own children.

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Emily Cook is the author and creator of the secular homeschooling curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-10 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been a secular homeschooling parent of four children in Southern NH for 14 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others. She and her family also makes incredibly dorky videos about homeschooling, books and more on Youtube at ARRRGH! Schooling. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. You can also check out her author page on Amazon.

The Importance of Reading Aloud - Secular Homeschooling @ SEA Homeschoolers

A Day in the Life: Charlotte Mason Inspired Homeschool

Charlotte Mason

A Day in the Life:
Charlotte Mason Inspired Homeschool

Every homeschooler wants to get a peek into another’s day. We’re always curious about how other mom’s manage. Maybe your homeschool tends toward very school-at-home, or classical, or project-based. We all picture every other homeschool mom as being a Pinterest-worthy super-mom, but really, we’re all pretty much the same – just doing our best to educate our children as well as we possibly can.

This school year, I am teaching a 11th grader, two 8th graders and a 1st grader. My plate is FULL. I can honestly say, this has been my most challenging school year, as it’s the first time I am teaching all four of my children.

I would call what we do Charlotte Mason inspired. I am by no means a die-hard Charlotte Mason homeschooler. We don’t do handicrafts, I get to nature study once a month (twice a month if I really push myself!), I haven’t touched Plutarch’s Lives since my oldest was 10 and it drove her to tears, and we get around to Artist Study maybe once or twice a year. Those things are all wonderful, but they just don’t rank very high in priority around here.

My twins are musicians, so a great deal of their day is devoted to practicing. Robbie plays the drums and piano and Riley plays guitar, and they practice around 3 – 5 hours a day. My oldest – Sarah takes piano, but isn’t very devoted and only practices around 30 minutes a day, and my youngest, Regina, just started taking drum lessons and Robbie helps her to practice about 20-30 minutes a day. The drummers have their lessons on Tuesdays for about an hour, Riley goes for his lesson on Wednesday, and Sarah and Robbie take piano on Thursday afternoons. Riley might be adding piano as well, since both boys are considering going to Berklee College of Music for college, and piano is a requirement. All three teens also just started First Robotics, so that’s another huge time commitment. They currently have team practice 3 times a week, for 3 hours on evenings and 5 hours on Saturdays. To say our days are full would be an understatement!

Let’s take a look at what an average day looks like at our little homeschool!

I try to get a good start on our school day, so I get up around 7:15 am to take a shower and get myself moving. When I’m done, I start a load of laundry, then wake up the teens (the 6 year old is usually up by then and watching tv while she waits for the rest of us to wake up), make myself a cup of English Breakfast Tea, and feed the kids breakfast. While they are eating, I tackle our morning reading. I like to break up our reading in chunks – in the morning I read our History of Science spine – Joy Hakim’s The Story of Science, and whatever our current read aloud happens to be; right now we are reading The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. This is also where I’ll go over our day, we’ll discuss any assignments they are supposed to be working on, appointments, errands or activities that might be happening later in the day.

After we’re done with our reading and we’ve talked about what we read (usually I prompt the kids with questions, but occasionally they’ll ask a question and it gets a good discussion started), I send the kids up to get dressed. My oldest is pretty independent this year and is taking classes through an online school. She gets herself started and checks in with me throughout the day. We chat throughout the day to make sure she’s staying on task, but I’ve seen a huge improvement from last year already.

As soon as the boys are dressed, they alternate an hour and a half of morning music practice with math, grammar, spelling and reading. They use Teaching Textbooks for math, so I just check in to get their daily grades and that’s it. I love this program because I am pretty math phobic, and it’s very hands off for me. We also add in Khan Academy if they need extra practice with something. My high schooler does her math through Khan Academy. We do grammar around 3 times a week using Giggly Grammar, and for spelling I pull words from our weekly dictation assignments that I think will trip them up. I give them a different spelling task each day of the week – copy the words 5 times, write them in alphabetical order, write the definitions, etc. They also use the dictation passage for copywork once or twice a week depending on the difficulty level of the passage. On Fridays, we do the dictation passage which also doubles as their spelling test. They do almost all of this independently – I’ll usually go over the grammar lesson to make sure they understand, but otherwise, they can handle all of this on their own. I will often give them a writing assignment here too – generally something to do with their History of Science studies or the book they are currently reading.

While the big kids are all occupied, I work with my 1st grader. We are going through Story of the World 1, which we do about twice a week. Then she does a reading lesson through Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and a few pages of Explode the Code book 1. We’re slowly working our way up to copywork – some days I have her practice just her name, other days I might write the names of her favorite video game or TV characters, just one or two words at a time. She had some motor delays, which she’s mostly on track with now, but we’re not quite up to writing sentences yet. She’s also ambidextrous and is leaning towards being left handed, so she tends to write some of her letters backwards. Slow and steady, we’ll get there eventually! We are using Mathematical Reasoning Level A for math this year and we both really like it. She loves all the colorful pages. I love that it is just the right amount of practice for her – we do around 3 pages a day. She has a very short attention span, so that’s usually all we get to on an average day. I read her a picture book or three when she finishes her work. We are slowly working up to chapter books, but we aren’t quite there yet. Occasionally we’ll do something fun and messy, like a science experiment or an art project, or we’ll get outside and take a nature walk, but those aren’t average days. 😉

By the time the twins have finished their music practice/math and reading rotation, it’s about time for lunch. If my oldest doesn’t have a class, she’ll eat with us, otherwise she gets something a little later. At lunch, I grab a glass of iced tea and we do our second big reading chunk. This is generally where I’ll read aloud some poetry, or we’ll read from The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, which we’ve been reading in little snippets and discussing. I’ll also read another chapter of our read aloud. After I eat, I squeeze in some housework – I wash the dishes, sweep the kitchen and fold laundry. I also have the teens do some of their chores here – bathroom clean up, dusting, vacuuming, etc.

After lunch and chores, I work with my twins on history and science. Since we are doing the History of Science this year, this is the part of the day that we’ll do experiments or projects for that. We’re also slowly working through Big History Project, and I need to go over their lessons with them. I usually set up my 6 year old with something – playdoh or a puzzle, to keep her occupied while I work with the twins. If Sarah isn’t busy, she’ll take her outside to play for a little while. Around 1PM the boys do their second music practice rotation – this is usually a 2 hour session. When not practicing, they work on projects – art, work for Robotics, unfinished school work, etc. My 6 year old has free time – her morning lessons usually take about an hour and a half, and she’s free the rest of the day to play. If it’s a rough day I might put on a movie for her at this time.

This is also when I work – I give myself the hours between 1 and 4 to get to any work I need to do – answering e-mails, writing, filming and editing videos, etc. Then I start working on getting dinner started.

Dinner is also where my husband will ask the kids to tell him something they learned that day. Everyone is expected to tell something different and add to the discussion. It’s a fun way to sneak in a narration because everyone wants to tell something interesting. Almost all of the kids activities are in the evening, so after dinner, the kids help clean up and then get ready to go out to either Robotics or music lessons. On nights that the boys are home for the evening, they add in another hour and a half or so of “band practice” where they play together or work on original compositions. While the teens are out (my husband does the chauffeuring) I play a game with the 6 year old or we might bake a treat or do an art project. After she goes to bed, I catch up on reading, work, or maybe just veg out and watch some tv.

And that’s our day folks! This is a very typical day – some days we drop everything to work on a project, or if the boys have a recital or performance coming up, we’ll just do the basics and they’ll spend most of the day rehearsing. We do tend to be home more often than not, as the majority of us are homebodies. I’ve also learned that if we’re out of the house, we get less school work done, and we get behind. So, we save our out-of-the-house activities for the evenings so that we have plenty of time to get our lessons done. I’ve been doing this for so long now (we’re in our 13th year!) that it has become pretty routine. The kids all know what they are supposed to do and when, and my role is mainly to be their mentor and guide, ushering them through their day and leading them down the path that will take them to successful adulthood.

Check out our post on living books and how to choose them here.

Emily Cook is the author and creator of the homeschool curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-8 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been homeschooling her four children in Southern NH for 13 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others.

Living Books and How to Choose Them

Living Books and How to Choose Them

What makes a book “living?”

written by Emily Cook

I should start out by explaining what I mean when I call a book “living.” I know you may be thinking, “Doesn’t everyone teach with books?” Well, yes and no. I’m referring to what Charlotte Mason called “living books.” I am of the belief that what actually makes a book “living” can be subjective. But the basic idea is that a living book is one that is written by an author who cares about the subject matter which he or she writes about. The author will write about his or her subject matter with a love and enthusiasm which excites the imagination and compels you to care about what you are reading. These are the books that will have lasting meaning and memories in the mind. The kinds of books that would stand the test of time.

The opposite of a living book would be “twaddle.” Twaddle is a book that is dumbed-down and/or poorly written. A good example of this type of book would be anything commercialized, for example, Dora the Explorer picture books or books written in a very long series such as the Magic Tree House books or the Babysitters Club. But, I would like to add a note here about twaddle. I have read articles and books about how we must avoid all twaddle as it will turn the mind to mush. But I look at twaddle like junk food, a little bit won’t hurt you. My twins went through a phase of devouring all of the Magic Tree House books they could get their hands on – and I let them. They were reading on their own and enjoying it! Now that they are more comfortable with reading, I can give them a better selection of books to choose from. My rule about twaddle is that I don’t read it aloud – if they want to read it to themselves, fine. But I have better books to choose from for read alouds. I liken it to enjoying a cookie after eating a healthy supper. It is a book that is devoid of rich meaning, giving you nothing to think about, and sometimes we all like to enjoy something mindless, but it certainly shouldn’t be a book we use to educate our children.

Unfortunately, many textbooks could also fall under the twaddle category. Let me present you with an example. This is from a popular homeschool world history textbook:

“In 1042, a Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, returned to the throne of England with the help of the English nobles. When Edward died in 1066 without and heir to inherit the throne, his kinsman William, duke of Normandy, a vassal of the king of France, stepped forward to claim the throne of England. Ignoring William’s claims, the English nobles made the most powerful among them, Harold Godwin, king.

“William decided to settle the issue in battle and sailed with an army of 10,000 or more men to England, where he met Harold’s forces at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. After a savage, day-long clash, William’s Norman knights finally defeated Harold’s infantry, and Harold himself was killed. Victorious, William marched to London to be crowned king of England. William became known as William the Conqueror, and his victory at the Battle of Hastings as the Norman Conquest.”

There are several paragraphs devoted to the topic of William the Conqueror as king – just under a page total. So if you are studying this text, what would you take from this passage? There isn’t much there to narrate from, and all you really need to know is what they’ve so helpfully bolded for you – the names and dates. This is the perfect example of “pump-and-dump” learning. Pump their brain with meaningless facts, remember it for the test and then immediately dump the information when you no longer need it. That is not true learning.

52011_10201632106980346_2006624025_oNow compare this to a living books education. While studying this time period, you might read a the chapter in your spine book (The Story of the World: Volume 2 The Middle Ages, for example, contains a full 4 pages to tell the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings), and then you could read a biography about William the Conqueror (there’s a nice one included within Famous Men of the Middle Ages), add in a novel like The Striped Ships written by Eloise Jarvis McGraw about a girl whose life is turned upside down by the Norman Conquests and helps to create the famous Bayeaux Tapestry, which might then lead to reading a book like The Bayeux Tapestry: The Story of the Norman Conquest 1066by Norman Denny.

As you can see – by reading real books, written by someone invested in the subject matter, your child will gain a deeper, richer understanding of the history being studied, and hopefully, they will care because they’ll feel empathy for the characters they are reading about, whether factual or fictional. By using beautiful literature as opposed to “to-the-point” textbooks, your child will have big ideas to chew on, a richer vocabulary, and heroes to care about. You can teach any subject with living books – from science to history and even math. Good literature can breathe life into any of your child’s studies.

But a real books education is more than just reading a lot of books. It sounds deceptively simple: if I provide piles of literature and my child will magically become educated! Having an excellent home library is part of it – studies have shown that children who grew up among books, grow up to be more successful than those who didn’t. But there’s even more to it than that. We need to give our children big, meaty ideas to chew on; we need to teach them how to find information for themselves so that they can further their own education; and we need to teach them how to express themselves in order to share what they have learned. These three things are really the foundation of a literature-based education.

How to Choose Living Books

Now that I’ve touched on some of the virtues of using rich literature in your homeschool, you may be wondering how to choose books for your child to study. I have a few rules when it comes to choosing books. Again, this is fairly subjective, but for me, for a book to make it into my home library it has to be well written, it has to be interesting, and it has to be something I myself would want to read. Just because Charlotte Mason used it in her schools over a hundred years ago does not mean your modern child must read it. And just because someone else claims it is a must read or you were forced to slog through it in high school, doesn’t mean it’s worthy of your child’s time. There is a fine line between challenging your child and boring him to tears. We need to be fully aware when we’re crossing it.

Another thing to consider is that more is not always better. It’s easy to get excited about a subject and order 15 books, because they all look great. There is so much beautiful literature available today! We really are spoiled. However, to try and read everything would be overkill. We will never be able to read all of the books, and not every book is worth your particular child’s attention. So how do you choose?

The first step is to narrow your topic. Saying you want to read about the Middle Ages is far too broad. However, narrowing it down to a focus on just knights or castles makes it much easier to find good literature to teach those topics. For example: you could read The Making of a Knight by Patrick O’Brian or How to Be a Medieval Knight by Fiona MacDonald and then maybe throw in a read aloud such as Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess by Richard Platt or The Kitchen Knight: A Tale of King Arthur by Margaret Hodges. That’s not to say you can’t cover other topics under the umbrella of “Middle Ages,” but by narrowing your search, it becomes much easier to find books that are specific to the topics you wish to study.

Once you’ve narrowed your topic, look through the available literature. Is it well written? Is it lively and engaging? With rare exception, you should avoid books that explicitly claim to be educational or teaching something. Most likely, these books were written by a committee rather than an author devoted to writing about their pet topic. You want to present your child with powerful literature: Charlotte Mason said, “Their lesson-books should offer matter for their reading, whether aloud or to themselves; therefore they should be written with literary power.” And: “Not with dry bones of fact, but with fact clothed upon with the living flesh, breathed into by the vital spirit of quickening ideas.” Literary power – I love that. We want to give our children powerful, meaningful books to read. Good literature has a solid, interesting plot; vivid characters that come to life and leap off the page… it makes use of various literary elements and has rich vocabulary. A good, well written children’s book should hold your interest just as much as your child’s. If you find it dull and simple, chance are good that your child will too.

2014-08-05 10.59.26Start with a reliable book list – there are many to be found online to get you started, or books like Book Crush: For Kids and Teens by Nancy Pearl, 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up or any other Charlotte Mason website. The one caveat I would give with Charlotte Mason sites is that many of them assume that for a book to be living, it must be a classic at least 100 years old. However, there are plenty of beautifully written modern books of all genres. I think there is a danger in only allowing old-fashioned literature into our homeschools – many are full of outdated ideas and are therefore hard for children to relate too, and because the language is often unfamiliar it can make comprehension more difficult. Especially with younger children, this could turn them off of reading. You never want reading to become a chore. You want it to be something that they look forward to – the best part of their day. That isn’t to say that you should avoid all classics. There are many that you absolutely should read. Some of my favorite children’s books are classics – Winnie the Pooh, A Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables are by no means current, but are beautiful works of literature that should not be missed. But to ignore books like The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, simply because they weren’t available in Charlotte Mason’s day would be a travesty.

1505217_608583169225235_3878848422959547709_nBut there are too many books! I can’t decide which ones to use! I go through this all of the time. Sometimes you have to let this process happen naturally. It’s especially hard when I’m excited about a subject. I’m a bit of a World War II buff – especially when it comes to the Holocaust. I know, I’m morbid. If there is a book about it, I’ve probably read it. So when it came time to cover that time period with my own children, my book list was a little ridiculous. I knew we wouldn’t really get to all of it, but I planned it all out anyhow. And in the end, we only read a third of the books. My kids aren’t missing out because we didn’t read everything on my original list. They gleaned quite a lot of information without them. And they’re still young! They may come across those unread books later. And sometimes, you’ll start a book that you thought would be a hit and your children are just not on the same page. The rule at my house is that you have to read at least 4 chapters of a book, and if you are still bored, it’s OK to stop reading it. There are just too many books to force yourself through something you aren’t enjoying. Now, I do adjust this rule a bit when we hit high school age, because sometimes you do have to make it through a book whether you like it or not. But when they are young, you want to keep reading an exciting, enjoyable experience. Sometimes just reading one good book is enough to cover a topic.

Living books can form the heart of your child’s education. I have spent years filling our little homeschool with books that would fit that purpose. My home is brimming with literature – from Tomie de Paola’s folk art style picture books to Shakespeare and Tolkien to A.A. Milne and Madeleine L’Engle. I have shelves of science books and history books, poetry, art and geography, I’ve tried my hardest to hit all “subjects.” But I always hold each book to the Living-Books-Test. Is it written by an author who knows their subject? Does it hold my attention? Does it bring the subject to life? Does the story live and breathe? If the answer is yes, that book earns itself a place on my shelves.

Choosing great literature for your child doesn’t have to be a challenge. Once you begin collecting great books, you’ll start to notice certain authors that become family favorites, as well as certain books that everyone recommends. When you take the time to choose the best books for your children, they’ll be surrounded by some of the greatest children’s literature and you will fill your shelves with beautiful thoughts and ideas for them to dwell upon.

Check out our post on the Norton Simon Museum here.

541489_10201946477719418_1965114942_nEmily Cook is the author and creator of the secular homeschool curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-8 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been homeschooling her four children in Southern NH for 13 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others.She and her family also makes incredibly dorky videos about homeschooling, books and more on Youtube at ARRRGH! Schooling. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest