Have you heard people chatting about living books and wondered what they mean? I was introduced to the term several years ago when I first read Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education. Since then, I’ve been hooked on only reading good, living books with my kids. Thanks to my love of beautiful illustrations and good writing, the picture books I read to them as toddlers were already living books, although I didn’t know to call them that at the time.
When it came time to start formal lessons with them a few years ago, though, I stopped searching for books for our lessons on my own and instead stuck to the book lists provided by the different curriculum I used. I felt paralyzed when it came to choosing books on my own, and was afraid that if I deviated from the list, I’d choose the wrong books. Maybe you’ve felt that way, too? I’ve since learned that there aren’t right or wrong books, there are just living and not living (or what Mason calls “twaddle”). If you’d like to know how to search them out for yourself, here are three simple ways to choose living books:
1. Choose books written in a narrative, or conversational, style.
Narration is the most important learning tool of Charlotte Mason’s method, so the books used must be written in a way that they can be narrated, or told back in the reader or listener’s own words. Narration is a difficult skill to learn as it is, so we need to carefully choose books that lend themselves to telling back. Have you ever tried to read the dictionary? It’s not written as a narrative, which makes it very difficult to read, let alone narrate. We want to look for books that tell stories instead of ones that list facts.
2. Choose books that are well-written with good vocabulary and grammar.
My dictionary defines well-written as an adjective meaning “composed in a competent, and often entertaining, style.” This is an important part of a living book! Competence in writing includes strong vocabulary, proper grammar, and correct spelling. These are things that I used to assume were part of any published book, but I have found that with how easy it is to get published today, it’s no longer the case. Charlotte Mason intended for children to learn about grammar, spelling, and vocabulary from the books they read, so it is important for us to give them books that use these things properly.
3. Choose books that you’ll enjoy, too.
I remember when I first came across a beautiful picture book by Jan Brett, I took it home and read it to my kids, and then immediately put every book the library had by her on hold so that we could read them. Those are the kinds of books we want to use with our kids! I use myself as a litmus test for most of our books. If it meets the other two requirements, then I look at the book myself and if it’s one that I want to read, we use it. If I flip through and find it boring or ugly (because I think that illustrations can be living or twaddle, too!), I’ll look for something better.
Not every family will choose the same books, which is part of the beauty of an education based on living books. Our rule is that we have to read at least the first 3 chapters of any book before swapping it out for a different one. By chapter 3, we’ve usually read enough to get a feel for the author’s style and I can determine whether it’s a good fit for us. If it’s not, we stop reading and try something else. There are too many good books out there for us to force our way through ones we don’t like.
There are exceptions to this rule, especially as kids get older and are reading more difficult books, but for now our rule works well. And you know what? Even if lots of people love a certain book, you don’t have to. There’s no guilt or shame in saying “this one just didn’t fit us!” Every family is different, and the ability to choose your own books is one of the amazing freedoms of home educating.
What about you? How do you choose living books for your family? Have you felt the same paralysis I did? Maybe there’s a popular book that you can’t stand? Tell me in the comments!
Be sure to check out my shop to see some of my favorite living books.
One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.
Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, pg. 270.