“They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” Parents and Children, pg. 263
But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible-even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” Home Education, page 152
“The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times—a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story-books” Home Education, page 153
When I first started looking into Charlotte Mason, I approached her works cautiously. I had found online that many of the enthusiasts of her writing were also enthusiastic about religion, specifically Christianity, and it seemed that a lot of the online chatter and ways people spoke of both Charlotte Mason and of their faith is that there is no room for debate of accuracy, authenticity, or truth. Beliefs that are stated as authoritative, factual statements like “Jesus is the way” or “the Bible is the word of God” are phrases that always set my spidey-senses tingling, and so when I saw that language being used in forums related to Charlotte Mason, I recoiled. While I have no issues with their beliefs and I do share some similar beliefs with this online community, I’ll admit that as a pretty skeptical person, I am skeptical of people who are not skeptical. I was unfairly biased against Charlotte Mason in the beginning because so many of her most enthusiastic supporters are people who don’t share my beliefs and I was worried that I could not trust their judgment. This bias was wrong, but it was there. But still, I was intrigued, so I kept reading.
I agreed with Charlotte Mason’s writings that all books are not created equally and we owe it to our children to fill their minds with great ideas and great literary language. The Bible is a book that is filled with great ideas and great literary language, but I do not believe it is the living book (as so many CM adherents say). So I was curious whether or not I would be able to read what other Charlotte Mason enthusiasts deemed “living books” and come to the same conclusions that they did. I was worried that the living books recommended would be ones published by Christian publishers with a specific worldview and agenda.
I knew right off the bat that I would not always agree with some of the books, as some people recommended books for science that disputed evolution (and they recommended them specifically on this basis) – but I would give it a shot and see if there were any that came highly recommended at my local library.
And I was impressed. There were a lot of books on recommended living book lists that I had never heard of, but there were many that I had as a child, that I love and consider exemplary. Books like:
And so I started checking out some books that I hadn’t heard of, that were more obscure, and I loved those too! None of them had the “agenda” that I feared.
Some books that I discovered through these book lists that are now among my favourites are:
Sheep in a Jeep – Nancy Shaw
(Good for Toddlers)
Make Way for Ducklings -Robert McCloskey
The Burgess Animal Books for Children – Thornton Burgess
Each Peach Pear Plum – Janet and Allan Ahlberg
(Good for Toddlers)
Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney
Pagoo – Hollings C. Hollings
A Child’s History of the World – V.M. Hillyer
Inspired by what I read, I headed to the library one Sunday afternoon. Could I identify a living book for myself out of a pile? First, a refresher, what is a living book?
What is a Living Book? Emily Kiser, podcast host of A Delectable Education, uses an acronym (L-I-V-I-N-G) to describe Living Books:
L: Literary Power
I : Ideas
I : Inspiring
Books are “living” when they are written in literary language that isn’t dumbed down for children. They have big ideas that gives readers something to think about, wonder, imagine or ponder long after the story is over. The characters are not perfect but try to make the right choices, or there are consequences for poor choices. In short, they are virtuous. Living books are written by authors who are passionate and inspired by their subject and their enthusiasm flows from page to reader. Living books are narrative in that you can read them and then easily tell back what you read. They flow and are often written as a story. Lastly, living books are generational – they are the books that have been loved by your parents and your grandparents. They are books that adults and children enjoy reading together.
I walked over to the children’s biography section at my local library and I pulled down every single biography written about Charles Darwin (about 12 books in all) and I started reading. Why Charles Darwin? I figured if there was some truth to Living Books – there would be some written on every subject imaginable. And maybe, since I had the anti-evolutionists running around in the back of my mind, I wanted to make a point to see if I could find my worldview in a living book too.
Many of them began,
“Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire….” and I felt my mind gracefully swing shut. Boring. “Okay next”, I said, quickly closing the book.
And then I came upon one that began, “No one ever said, “Don’t Touch!” in the house where Charles Darwin grew up. And there was so much to touch, because the Darwin household was a scramble of children, odd pets, and wonderful books.”
I kept reading.
“Charles’ mother, Susannah Darwin, raised fancy pigeons known for their beauty and tameness. Dr. Robert Darwin, Charles’ father, was an immense man who weighed 336 pounds. He would drive all over the countryside to visit his patients in a single-seat carriage stuffed with snacks. When he returned from a long day of house calls, his six children would swirl about the huge man like little moons orbiting Jupiter.”
Starts to paint a picture of Charles’ childhood, doesn’t it? Makes him seem kind of relatable, doesn’t it?
This one was my second favourite Charles Darwin biography I read that day. It was called “One beetle too many : the extraordinary adventures of Charles Darwin” by Kathryn Lasky.
My favourite that I read that day began,
“Charles Darwin was too late. His life’s work had been wasted. The exploration of the black land and its mysteries, the years of research, the endless sifting of fact after fact now seemed to count for nothing.
It had been twenty-three years since Darwin, naturalist and future country gentleman, had started his great hunt for the truth. And he was sure he had found it. If only he had managed to finish the book he was writing! If only he had been less painstaking, less anxious to address every possible argument or objection – but it was too late to do things differently now. A rival had arrived at the truth as well: a rival who would soon tell the world what he had discovered. A rival who had, ironically, come to Darwin for friendship and help. As Darwin, stooped and grim-faced, plodded on his midday walk, he knew he was facing the greatest crisis of his life.”
“Charles Darwin, Visionary Behind the Theory of Evolution” by Anna Sproule, written for a slightly older juvenile audience, completely captivated me. It wasn’t just another dry biography that portrayed someone two-dimensionally. Darwin’s life, his motivations, his thoughts, his struggles were written about in such a way that I felt like I was his good friend. I read all 60 pages in one sitting. And I left the library, my mind whirring, eager to find more literary gems.
A second skepticism I had about living books was that a lot of the books in the recommended book lists were old. Like 50+ years old. This is fine for fiction, but for non-fiction? I was concerned. I’ve grown up in a world where technology is obsolete within five years and where libraries cull books older than ten, citing that the information is dated. Sure, research is progressing and we are learning new things all the time – but what have we really discovered about geology or ants or in the past 40 years that is relevant to a child’s education? Is it really dated?
I did another experiment. I ordered online a book that many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts cite as a living science book for learning about Earth. It is called “All About the Planet Earth” by Patricia Lauber and it was published… in 1962. Again, I was skeptical – how could I rely on the information found in a book about the earth published before man even went to the moon!
The book was written in response to the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58 during which more than 60,000 scientists from all over the world worked together to make progress on some of their burning questions about planet earth.
I was skeptical that I would learn much of anything from this book. I was worried I would learn a lot of misinformation or disproven theories. But you know what? This book was fascinating to read. I normally don’t sit down on a Friday night and read a book about continent formation or the earth’s crust – but man, I was into this book! And you know what? I was so intrigued by what I was reading, and it was explained so well that I understood enough to ask further questions, I was able to (and keen to) Google what had happened in the world of earth sciences since 1962 (some, but not much). I read up on it for hours. This book held the lighter fluid I needed to think of earth sciences for more than a single second. It gave me relatable ideas that I could chew on and think about.
Now, many months later, I still think of this passage whenever we go swimming, go the aquarium, go to the beach, fly in an airplane…just a lot actually:
“As you read this, a column of air weighing about half a ton is resting on the top of your head. Similar columns rest on the heads of everybody else in the world. That fact comes as a surprise to most people because we do not feel this great weight pressing on our heads. The reason is that our bodies are made to live under air pressure – and could not live without it. Just as some fish are made to live at the bottom of the seas, so men are made to live at the bottom of an ocean of air.” (All About the Planet Earth, Patricia Lauber, p. 81)
And so, I began to believe in the power of living books to capture the imagination and to teach without “teaching”.
Now, when I choose books for DK, I choose them with intentionality. I don’t want to be a snob about it…but at the same time, there is only so much time, and I want to spend it reading great books instead of just mediocre, cotton-candyesque ones that are painful to read over and over and over again to a young child.
DK has a remarkable appetite for books and a really great attention span for being read to at two years old. When he likes a book, he will sit through the whole thing. When he doesn’t like it, he will close the book and say, “no no no no no”. A lot of the time whether he likes a book or not depends entirely on whether there are cars, trucks or trains in the illustrations, but I do find it remarkable that through reading him high quality books that don’t talk down to him, he will sit and focus and listen for at least 30 minutes, but when I read him “Cow Takes a Bow” or even a simple board book about trucks, he closes it, says, “No, no, no, no” and runs away. Maybe there’s something about the way I’m reading it that’s tipping him off to not liking a particular book, or maybe there really is something to trusting in his comprehension and not reading him books that belittle him.
I’m glad I didn’t let my original preconceptions of “Christian homeschoolers” or “dated books” prevent me from learning more about Living Books and bringing them into my home. I don’t know if Living Books are “the answer” to children’s literacy and interest in reading – perhaps it is better to read anything as opposed to nothing. But I do know that I choose to feed DK a healthy diet of foods full of nutritional value so that his body grows and he has energy throughout his day (although admittedly he does not always eat the lovely feast I spread before him…ahhhh toddlers, that’s another story), so why wouldn’t I feed his mind a “healthy diet of rich ideas” as well?
Just some food for thought…