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

Building the Habit of Reading Aloud

Building the Habit of Reading Aloudbuildingthehabitofreadingaloud
As a homeschooling parent, there are many things you do to make sure your child is getting the best possible education. You can research curriculum, create the perfect learning space, and search out great learning opportunities in your community. But often, reading aloud to your child slips off the to-do list. Maybe you think that once they can read to themselves, reading aloud is irrelevant. Or maybe, life just takes over and you can’t seem to find a way to schedule it in to your day. But reading aloud is one of the most important things you can do for your children – whether they are 2 or 12.


There are numerous benefits to reading aloud to your school age children. It creates an important family bond as you share favorite books together, it inspires your child’s imagination, and it builds their vocabulary as well as sense of empathy. When you read aloud to your school age child, you can choose books at a much higher reading level to share with them. Your 4th grader might not be ready for the challenge of a book like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg by themselves, but you can read it aloud to them, and simultaneously tackle the issue of running away from home with learning about renaissance era artwork and Michelangelo. When you read a book aloud, you turn a solitary activity into a fun family activity.

If you have a reluctant reader, you can find books that you know would appeal to them, even if they aren’t able to read them on their own. My twins were late readers, one more than the other, and they will often lament that they dislike reading. The act itself feels boring to them. But I can’t tell you the number of books they will list as favorites because we read them together. They love to quote favorite stories and create art based on beloved books like The Hobbit and Watership Down. Both of those books would have seemed overwhelming if I had just handed them off to be read independently. But as a shared experience, they became instant favorites, to be reminisced about and quoted.

I find reading aloud to my children a fantastic way to teach them difficult life lessons. Dealing with a death in the family? Read aloud Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Bullying? Read The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. Want to start a dialogue about racism? Read Darby by Jonathon Scott Fuqua or To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I find it’s easier for my children to grapple with difficult subject matter, like death, war, racism, and the general unfairness of life, when they can pin that subject to a well written story. Somehow, these topics become less scary when they can be found within a story read aloud to them by a person they love and trust.

Well-read children become well-read adults. They are more likely to be highly educated, good writers and great communicators. They will be more likely to pick up a book as an adult, rather than flip on the television or play on their smart phone or tablet. This next generation of children growing up in a time of amazing technology are quickly becoming addicted to screens. Reading aloud to them now is a great way to counteract all the technological “noise” and give them time to develop their imaginations away from screens.
Our lives are busy. We’re constantly running our children from activity to activity, trying to schedule our days to fit in all the lessons and projects and activities. Then we have to squeeze in time to clean the house and prepare meals. Read aloud to my 10 year old? Who has time for that!? I get it. I really do, but when something is important, we shift things around and make room for it. If you can fit in math lessons, then you can fit in time for a read aloud session. Another benefit – reading aloud with your child is a relaxing, soothing activity. It becomes a time to look forward to at the end of a harried day. Who doesn’t enjoy snuggling up with someone they love and hearing a rollicking good story?

But how do you fit reading aloud into your already busy day? First – look at your routine. I bet you have the space to fit reading aloud, even if you don’t realize it. Long ago, in the early days of my homeschool journey, I read about the idea of pegs – pegging things that you want to make happen onto events that always happen. For example – you’re going to eat meals together at least twice a day, every day. So peg a reading session to a meal – poetry with breakfast, or history at lunch. You could peg your current read aloud novel to bedtime. It doesn’t have to be one huge chunk of reading – if you tried that you would likely go hoarse! Breaking it up over the course of the day not only makes it more doable, it keeps everyone’s mind fresh. It’s difficult, especially for boys – I’ve found, to sit still and stay focused for more than 20 – 30 minutes. They start to fidget, their minds wander and before you know it, they haven’t heard a single word you’ve said. Spreading out your readings ensures that they are able to focus on their lessons.

What if you have little ones in the mix? This adds a level of difficulty, but reading aloud is still doable! When my youngest was a baby/toddler, I made sure that she took at least one good nap. This is where we squeezed in all our reading aloud. When she stopped napping, I would give her some special quiet time toys – crayons and a new coloring book, Playdoh, or some other special toy that only came out during reading time. It wasn’t perfect, and she often still interrupted the story, but we still made it work. I was often amazed at the things she absorbed, even if the story was WAY over her head. And of course, she also got her own special story time, with stacks of beautiful picture books at her level.

Reading aloud is a powerful gift we can give to our children. We are showing them that books are important, and we’re leading them into the Great Conversation. We’re giving them the gift of a literary childhood, one filled with a memorable cast of heroes and villains, fantastical creatures, and historical figures brought back to life. We’re showing them that books are powerful tools, worthy of their time and attention. What could be more important than that?

Check out our post on visiting dinosaur national monument 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




The Charlotte Mason Method in the Secular Homeschool

Charlotte Mason

“I am, I can, I ought, I will.”*

If you’ve been homeschooling for any amount of time, chances are you’ve heard the name Charlotte Mason. She has made quite a name for herself in the modern homeschool movement, despite the fact she lived over a hundred years ago. Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923) was a British educator who advocated for improving the quality of education for children. She promoted the idea of a “liberal education for all” not just those of a certain social class.

If you’ve ever searched for Charlotte Mason inspired curriculum or information, you probably found a variety of resources that were nearly all Christian in nature. While it may appear that the Charlotte Mason method of home education is not compatible with a secular lifestyle, I strongly disagree. Even though many of her ideas were based on Victorian era Christian ideals, her education methods can and should be used in any homeschool today – secular or not.

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

When I first began homeschooling my eldest child several years ago, I discovered Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. I was drawn to the idea of educating with living books, so now much of what I do is based on this foundation of teaching. But it’s more than just reading beautiful literature. It’s creating a unique atmosphere of learning. Load your bookshelves with the best literature you can find. Hang beautiful, thought-provoking art work around your house. Watch history and science documentaries as well as good movies and television programs. Listen to beautiful music (which, of course, is open to interpretation). Filling my home with beauty and grand ideas is one of the best ways that I have found to inspire my children with the best ideas the world can offer. And you can too.

“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

There are many basic tenants of the Charlotte Mason method of education that I feel you should try to incorporate into your daily homeschool routine.

Living Books

20150223_112258Literature is the foundation of the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. Rather than studying from dry, formal textbooks, your children will be immersed in lovely prose and vivid writings from authors who care deeply about their subject matter. A living book is one that evokes emotion and draws you deeply into the story. Living books offer much for thoughtful contemplation, not just simply providing information to the reader.

The majority of Charlotte Mason websites, books, and curricula available on the market today focus on Victorian era literature. While those books are quite lovely and can be valuable resources – there have been literally thousands of books written since 1923 that beg to be explored and appreciated. These wonderful books are just as worthy of yours and your child’s time. A few suggestions such as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science by John Fleischman, and George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen from Both Sides by Rosalyn Schanzer are not to be missed.

Living books appeal to all ages – they aren’t childish and they don’t have to be compartmentalized by grade level. You can read them aloud to your whole family, and everyone will get something from it. In a Charlotte Mason style homeschool, replacing your uninspiring textbooks with fascinating and well written literature and non-fiction will bring your studies to life.

Copywork and Dictation

“Perfect Accomplishment.–– I can only offer a few hints on the teaching of writing, though much might be said. First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson––a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later.”

Copywork and dictation form the backbone of language arts in the Charlotte Mason 20150727_141210method. In the beginning, copywork doubles as handwriting practice, and focuses on the neat and careful handwriting of single letters, then words and finally sentences. Once your child is comfortably writing full sentences, choose beautiful passages from the literature you are reading for them to copy. This is “killing two birds with one stone,” in that you are working on their best penmanship, but also filling your child’s thoughts with grand ideas and exposing them to examples of good writing. Consider this learning to become a good writer by osmosis. If your children are immersed in a world full of living books and lovely thoughts, they will also learn what good writing looks like and therefore, learn to write well.

When students become proficient at writing, you can begin dictation (usually around the age of 10). Dictation is similar to copywork, in that you will still choose beautiful passages of literature. But the difference is that instead of just copying the words in front of them, you will read the passage aloud for them to transcribe. This gives them the opportunity to take those passages of good literature and work on learning the mechanics of writing, such as where to place the commas, end punctuation, grammar, and spelling. This cultivates the skills of observation (they must study the passage first), listening, comprehension skills, and learning proper sentence structure.


Narration is the basis for composition in a Charlotte Mason style homeschool. It takes the place of reading comprehension quizzes, inane discussion questions and tedious book reports. Narration is simply retelling, in their own words, what they have read or heard. Children naturally want to tell us about things they saw, heard or watched, so narration is a natural extension of that. Ask your child to tell you what they remember after a reading. By telling it back to you, they will recall more clearly and for a longer period of time. It is essentially an oral composition exercise. They will have to focus their attention on the reading, then organize their thoughts and learn to express themselves clearly and coherently. To keep it interesting, narration can also take the form of creative assignments, such as creating a skit, a piece of art, or a short story – all based on the reading.

Once your child gets older and has been narrating orally for a while, begin written narrations. The method is the same, but now they put their thoughts into writing. Again, to keep it interesting and not merely writing a summary of the reading every time – they can create a character journal, write a letter to the author, conduct an interview with a character, all while developing the skills of literary analysis. Coach them early on, and watch as they naturally pickup better writing skills on their own.

Nature Study

“This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,–when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’”

20150805_144901In Charlotte Mason’s day, nature study was the only science students would study before high school. In Victorian times, there wasn’t much of a need for the average student to deeply study science. It was only necessary to grasp a basic understanding about the immediate world around them such as local flora and fauna. To them, keeping a nature journal was more than just a scientific study, but a piece of artwork with beautiful plants and animals hand-drawn or painted in great detail.

In our modern world, it can feel like nature study is unnecessary. Why bother, when there are more important and interesting sciences to study? But nature study has many benefits that are too important to be overlooked. By getting outside and experiencing the natural world, your child will develop observational skills, a keen sense of wonder, and a desire to deepen their scientific knowledge.

It may be easier to just stay indoors and watch a nature documentary on television, but our children also need the experience of seeing it in the real world and become a part of nature, and own the knowledge by collecting it themselves.

So how do you do it? You can get out once a week for a nature walk, learn the names of all of the plants in your neighborhood, go on a hike or walk along a nature trail once a month, visit a nature reserve or state park, choose a tree in your yard to study for a year, put out a feeder and observe the local birds, or choose a few insects to collect and study. The Nature Connection by Clare Walker Leslie is an excellent resource to get you started.

Short and Varied Lessons

At first mention, short lessons sound somewhat fishy to most people. Considering that most children spend upwards of 6 – 8 hours of their day in school then a couple additional hours working on homework – how can short lessons be a good thing? But the idea of short lessons is such an important aspect of Charlotte Mason’s method, and if used correctly, we cannot overlook it.

“You want the child to remember? Then secure his whole attention.”

Short lessons allow you to keep your child’s attention focused. Remember back to those hour long lectures you would sit through in school – it was inevitable that your mind would wander. Charlotte Mason suggested that a better way would be to spend a powerful 20 – 30 minutes engaging your child’s mind. Rather than completing a page of 50 math problems, assign 10 and be sure your child can do them well. There is no meaningless busy work in this method of education.

Instead of watching the clock and spending an hour on math, an hour on history, and an hour on language arts – spend some time focusing your child’s whole attention on those 10 math problems. When they are done, read a chapter from your history book and add something to your timeline or label a blank outline map. Then spend some time outside in nature. Upon coming indoors, you both go off to do some independent reading for 30 minutes. Short lessons discourage dawdling and encourage your child to give their best effort. Your formal lessons can be completed by noon, and the afternoons can be filled with errands, art, or just leisurely pursuing your passions.

“The end result of a Charlotte Mason education is the children find knowledge so delightful that it becomes a pursuit and source of happiness for a lifetime.”

At first glance, Charlotte Mason’s methods of education may appear old-fashioned and overly religious. It would be easy to dismiss, but the core of the method is still very worthwhile in a modern, secular homeschool. You don’t need to follow her original reading lists, or even follow the method strictly in order to give your child the best possible education. Just fill their environment with beautiful and worthy ideas, spend time out of doors exploring the natural world and pursuing their passions. Give your child a world full of heroes and myths, things to think about and fall in love with, ideas to ponder and inspire them. That is the best education possible – one in which they see learning as a life-long pursuit and not something that must be done within the “schooling hours” each day.

*All bolded quotes are from Charlotte Mason’s writings: Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling series
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. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest