Living Books on Napoleon

Dear Reader,

We are zipping through history this year which means that you, dear reader, get a lot of booklists. Though our topic is generally American history, I am trying to include key world events as we go along, and if Napoleon does not qualify as one of those, I don’t know what does. I also have a list of books on the French Revolution.

Living Books on Napoleon

Our spine, as for the French revolution, was Helene Geurber’s The Story of Modern France. We have just been reading the relevant sections, picking up where we left off after the revolution and that has been quite enough for 3 weeks. In fact, to end the section I have been reading 3 chapters a day which is a bit more than I usually do in one sitting. Guerber is good, though, and provides a wonderful spine for this time period — detailed but not overwhelming, thorough but interesting. You should be able to find this as an e-book, by the way, and perhaps even for free.

There were two long picture books which I read to my kids, each in one sitting. They are I, Crocodile by Fred Marcellino, the story of a crocodile brought back from Egypt by Napoleon, told from the crocodile’s point of view, not surprisingly a silly book:


and The Emperor and the Drummer Boy by Ruth Robbins, a slightly longer book and  a bit more serious. It has a message about loyalty and shows both positive and negative sides of the Emperor — he puts his men in danger for pride’s sake but then regrets it and praises the young protagonist’s loyalty. I found it a wee bit sappy  and obvious myself.


It does raise an interesting question though — why are there so many books about Napoleon? Okay, I know he’s one of the most important figures in European history ever, but there really seems to be a fascination with him. And more than that, a craving to understand him. There are a great number of books which praise this man who has a megalomaniacal (is that a word?) complex named after him and who tried to conquer Europe and the world. Compare him, for instance to Hitler. Both had great ambitions. Both had initially great success and then great failure. Why has Hitler become an insult — as in every politician compares his rival to him — whereas Napoleon still inspires such awe? Of course, the holocaust makes a difference. It is hard to view Hitler well after that. But there is still something, I maintain, about Napoleon.

Giving in completely to the digression here – compare Napoleon and George Washington. Both became leaders of their countries after revolutions that overthrew kings. Washington remained humble, kept his country’s best interests at heart, and was basically a good man. Napoleon was anything but humble. While he brought France much glory for a time, I think over time we see that his country is not his highest priority. It is not so much that he wants bad things for it as that he cannot accept that anything is good for France but himself. And while he seems to have had some good qualities, like a loyalty and devotion to his troops, occasionally compassion on his enemies, I find more bad than good in his character. And then, of course, he completely undercut the Revolution by making himself emperor. Not that the French Revolution was a smashing success before Napoleon stepped on the stage. But imagine how things might have gone differently if a man more like Washington, perhaps Lafayette, had seized control at this point.

Dont worry, I’m coming to the end of my digression — I read a book once that showed how the Titanic disaster is a microcosm of all our lives and fates and that our fascination with it is just because of this. Somehow that event captured and encapsulated the human story. My contention is that Napoleon does somewhat of the same thing — he is all of us, on steroids if you will. He flames high, his good qualities seem to shine and then he falls, oh so far, and burns out. I think we empathize with him; we want to soar with him and then as he came crashing down we are face to face with our own fallen natures. We are fascinated with Napoleon because we need to understand him; he is all of us wrapped up in one little, vibrant, megalomaniacal bundle. End of digression.

I looked at two books with the plot young girl meets Napoleon in exile (I remember reading another one as a child and liking it; anybody know what it might have been?). One,  Betsy and the Emperor by Staton Rabin, I rejected out of hand as not terribly well-written. should you want to look at it, it is roughly 280 pages, 20 chapters long and is a middle school level.


The other one, Gracie and the Emperor by Errol Broome, I had my 4th grader read. This book was well-suited to her level but was the disappointment of the day (or three weeks). She seemed to like it well enough but her narrations almost never mentioned Napoleon himself and she admitted that she didn’t really know how he fit into the story other than being someone who lived near the main character. So either she was missing something or there is really not much about Napoleon himself in this book.

napoleon10I looked at a number of books which are narrative biographies of Napoleon. My general policy was to select the oldest ones available through our library system. I picked two to actually use:

napoleon7I had my ninth grader read this one, The True Story of Napoleon by Anthony Corley. This book probably could have been done a little earlier. I would call it 8th-10th grade level. My son seemed interested enough in it and narrated it well.


My 5th grader read Napoleon  by Manuel Komroff. It seemed like a decent book. He seemed to understand it and to be at least mildly interested in it. I’d say it’s 5th-8th grade level.

Among my rejects were Audrey Cammiade’s Napoleon, Stephen Pratt’s Napoleon, and Susan Conner’s The Age of Napoleon.

napoleon4 napoleon5 napoleon2

Cammiade’s book appears slim at only 100 pages and it has short, 1-3 page chapters but I thought it seemed a  bit dry and that it delivered facts too quickly to be a good living book, if that makes sense. Conner’s book is thicker and is the sort with lots of footnotes — more scholarly certainly. It would definitely be high school level. Pratt’s had lots of pictures but seemed very fact based and without any story to it.

I had my 8th grade daughter read a biography of Josephine, More than a Queen by Frances Mossiker:


This is not the most lengthy book — she read it in 8 sittings — but she seemed to enjoy it. I got the impression that it made the figure of Josephine come alive. I’d call it middle school level though a high schooler could certainly read it as well.

I’d like to finish by giving a shout out to two other books: Desiree which I read myself and blogged on here and The Court of Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron. Cameron is an author whose other books we have enjoyed. I could not find time to have anyone read this one. It is a completely fictional story of some children who are transported back in time as far as I can tell. It came up in a library search when I looked for books on Napoleon. If you’ve read it, I’d be interested to hear opinions on it. We may come back to it in time for a purely fun read aloud.



Literary Analysis: Babe, the Gallant Pig

Dear Reader,

I am ready to recount to you our latest foray into the realms of literary analysis. Our attempts are based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone which I reviewed here. Our previous attempts were on Charlotte’s Web and Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

This time we return to the world of pigs with Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith. King-Smith is one of my favorite authors for kids. Babe, of course, is well-known as there was a movie based on it. So too The Water Horse (for which the movie version is really quite different than the book). But he also has many other good books, most, but not all, about animals. They fill a nice void of easy to read, not too long chapter books.

Having read the book aloud to my kids over the course of a month or so, we turned today to its analysis. Since we had done this now twice before, my youngest was ready with her interpretation of the book. She said it was about not excluding anyone from jobs because of their species. Lest you think she meant “species” euphemistically for gender or religion or nationality, the child seems to really think she is married to a stuffed walrus. She had a wedding. We have pictures. She has a blog about walruses. Check it out here. Seriously, please do; she loves views. So she said species and she meant species.

My oldest said he had some ideas but they were silly. With some pressing he confessed one — that the dogs were politicians and the sheep the people. With more pressing it was decided that if this were the case that the message of the book would be that kindness works a lot better in ruling over people. I doubt this is what King-Smith had in mind, but I think it’s not half bad. One could certainly get something about leadership from this book.

We turned then to the questions I had prepared (se below). We talked about the setting and I explained what a microcosm is. Then I asked who the protagonist is (a concept we had introduced when looking at Charlotte’s Web). Here we began to have some disagreement. Some said Farmer Hoggett and some said Babe. I have to say I had thought Babe would be a clear answer. My kids thought that Babe just followed orders and never really did anything so he couldn’t be the protagonist. They argued that Farmer Hoggett did something — he made Babe into a sheep-pig. As the protagonist they felt that the action he moved forward was to help Babe change. We listed characteristics for Babe and I got the holdouts to admit that Babe does something — though he does follow the Farmer;’ orders, he is polite to the sheep and that is something new.

We then turned to find antagonists and could not find any for Farmer Hoggett but said that if Babe is the protagonist for showing sheep aren’t stupid that Fly is the antagonist. We talked about how she tells her puppies that Babe is stupid at first even though she has never met a pig and my daughter supplied that she was closed-minded and then we decided that that made Babe open-minded. All this is right in line with what Deconstructing Penguins says.

But when we turned to identifying the climax, we have more disputes. Only one child and I thought, as Deconstructing says, that the worrying dogs attacking was the climax. The other three thought that the dog trials were. We spent a long time on this and had to find the passage that defines climax, but even that didn’t help much. In the end, it came down to if the climax is the height of the action, they prefered the dog trials for the climax, but if the climax is when the most is changed, then the worrying incident was. We also said that if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the trials are the climax ,but if Babe is then, the worrying is because that is when Fly, his antagonist, begins to talk to sheep. We also said that there could be two climaxes and that there could be more than one possible interpretation of a book.

So lastly, we asked for each of these possible interpretations, what is the author trying to say. Here my youngest stuck by her assertion that, if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the message of the book is that certain species should not be excluded from jobs. We paused and mocked her a little for trying to get her walrus husband a job. The others couldn’t come up with much of a message for this interpretation other than pigs can herd sheep which doesn’t seem particularly profound or applicable to anything else in life. If Babe were the protagonist, they said that the message was “don’t assume people are stupid”  or “don’t assume things.”

All in all, it was not a bad discussion. There was not a lot that was hugely profound though our whole second interpretation with the Farmer as the protagonist was not in Deconstructing Penguins so I guess we have that to contribute to the world (though personally I think it is a weak interpretation). I still think there could be more to the leadership idea and what makes a good leader.

Here then are the questions I used to lead the discussion:

  • Define setting (when and where). What is the setting of this book? Where is the farm? Is it a big farm? When is it?
  • The animals are their own closed society on an isolated farm. Why does the author do this? Introduce the idea of a microcosm. What is a microcosm? (a small society that is an example of a larger world) Discuss the Greek roots of the word. Give examples. Does what happens in Babe‘s microcosm have anything to do with us? How does their world relate to ours?
  • Who is the protagonist? List babe’s characteristics. What is the most unique thing about Babe? (he’s a pig)
  • Has there ever been a pig on the farm before? How do we know?
  • What does Fly tell the puppies about Babe? How does she know? Play hangman to have them guess the word prejudice. Note that Fly never tells the puppies Babe is not stupid.
  • List possible antagonists. List Fly’s characteristics. How does she oppose Babe?
  • What is the climax of the book?
  • What is the author trying to say about prejudice and how it is overcome?

Be sure to let me know if you discuss the book and what conclusions you reach.


Law and Government: A Review of Whatever Happened to Justice?

Dear Reader,

I have been guilty of not prereading everything I give to my kids. With four of them all reading a number of different books, this is often impossible. But in this case, it appears I really should have. I noticed earlier in the school year that my older son was getting some odd ideas as he worked through Richard J. Maybury’s Whatever Happened to Justice?, but I still had him persevere and finish the book. Along the way we did discuss the bits he was repeating that I disagreed with, but, honestly, it took a while for me to convince me son of my position, so strong was the effect of what he had read. The subject was dropped for  a while when he finished the book, but now as I plan for the coming year, I have to decide if I will have my daughter read this book or if I need to find something else. So I figured it was time for me to finally read it myself.

Whatever Happened to Justice? is the second book in a series known as the Uncle Eric books which seem to be quite popular with homeschoolers, particularly conservative Christian ones. My two older children have both read the first one in the series, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?, which deals with economics. Though I only skimmed that volume, it had seemed quite good and they appeared to learn quite a bit from it. Which is part of the reason, other than laziness and time constraints, that I did not bother to preread the Justice book. I viewed it as being from a well-respected series that we had used before and I wasn’t concerned about its contents.

Mayhew’s Argument

Mayhew defines his political philosophy as  juris naturalis and is in favor of very limited government, ideally even of no government. There is quite a lot of what he says that I would either agree with or have no reason to disagree with. But I do think that his overall outlook, his world view, if you like, is different from mine. And, more importantly, his outlook  is not biblical. His view of law and government is not in line with that found in the Word of God and his view of humanity is also off.

Let me begin by summarizing as best I can what Mayhew has to say about law and government. Mayhew believes in a Higher Power (though, as we will see, this is not the Christian God not does it seem to be the God of Judaism or Islam either) who has created what he terms Natural Law and placed it in the minds of men so that they are able through reason and scientific thought to discern its principles. The laws which people thus discern he calls Common Law. Common Law, Mayhew says, is founded upon two basic principles from which all the others derive. They are:

  • “Do all you have agreed to do.”
  • “Do not encroach on other persons or their property.”

(Justice, p. 40 and elsewhere)

These two, he says, are agreed upon by peoples from “all major religions and philosophies” (p. 35).

Mayhew idealizes Europe under Roman rule when the government was far away and there was little local control. During this time, he says, there were judges who would settle disputes, using their reason to discover the principles of Common Law. A key point for him is that they would discover these principles which were part of the Natural Law, much as scientists discovered the Law of Gravity and other scientific laws.

In contrast, today, Mayhew says, we have only political law. When our country was founded, our forefathers still believed in Common Law, but over time our government has grown to such an extent that what we have now are politicians who make up political laws. That is, they create rather than discern laws and they do so to further their own political power. Another key point for Mayhew is that political power corrupts. And he seems to believe that it always corrupts; that no one is immune from its effects.

The best government for Mayhew governs least. His desire for America would be a return to a time like was had under British Common Law (at least as he sees that time; I am skeptical that it was as good as he says). He says we need intelligent people to return to the principles of Common Law and to use their reason to discern principles that affect us today so that we can resolve the many undecided issues we face today including abortion, capital punishment, drugs, and many others. Even wars, he believes, could be avoided if nations, like people, obeyed the principles of Common Law. And this is another major point for him — that nations should be held to the same principles as individuals. Taxation he sees as encroachment by the government and therefore contrary to Common Law. A couple of final points: he eschews democracy which he says allows the majority to oppress the minority and he bolsters his claims with evidence that the countries which have the least government interference have the strongest economies.

To sum up, then, these are Mayhew’s main points:

  • There is a Higher Power — though Mayhew rarely refers to Him (her? it?) as God and does not define him/it at all.
  • There is a Natural Law, given by this Higher Power, which we can discover.
  • Human reason and scientific thought can derive the right principles — these principles are Common Law.
  • All peoples agree on the two basic principles (do what you say; don’t encroach) — he speaks of all major religions and philosophies agreeing but also says that, in the many, many talks he has given worldwide, he has never met an individual who disagrees with either of them.
  • Governments should be held to the same standards as individuals. Therefore governments also should not encroach.
  • Political power corrupts everyone.
  • Those societies which have the least government interference are best, meaning most economically prosperous, which shows that Mayhew’s philosophy is correct.

My Response

The first two points above I agree with – though I would word them differently. There is a God and He has a Law which He has placed to some extent in the hearts of men. Certainly, He holds all men up to its standards whether they have overt knowledge of it or not. It is when we come to the third point that my disagreement with Mayhew begins. Human nature is fallen in all its aspects. Though we have some sort of innate knowledge of the Law of God, it is corrupted. Our reason is also fallen and cannot be completely trusted by us. Indeed, people are quite adept at reasoning themselves into all sorts of sinful behavior. Thus, human reason in its current state is not sufficient to guide us infallibly to correct principles.

The two principles which Mayhew cites as the most basic ones are good principles, and as he states, they are biblical. The Old Testament and the New both sum up the Law of God in two principles; but these are not identical to Mayhew’s. In the New Testament book of Matthew, we read:

“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)

Notice that the second commandment cited by Jesus is essentially identical to Mayhew’s principle of not encroaching. However, in both the Old and New testaments, the first and foremost commandment regards our behavior not towards our fellow man but towards God Himself. The second flows out of the first and in biblical terms has little meaning without the first as it is our love for God, and His for us, that allows us to love our fellow man. Nonetheless, I myself would not want to legislate religion or love for God so I would concede to Mayhew that the second commandment is a better basis for human law.

I am very skeptical of Mayhew’s assertion that all people agree to his two basic principles. They may be found in most major religions as he says and it may be also that most people would agree with them when they are put to them. But I suspect that in practical matters there is not such wide agreement. There is a lot that may or may not be included in encroachment and there is a lot as well in the word “persons.” For example, many Islamic countries even today are well-known for restricting the rights of females, even of allowing their most basic rights to be violated with impunity. While a rulers from such a country might stand before us and say that, yes, he agrees witsh te two basic principles, he may mean very different things by them.

We turn then to Mayhew’s statements about government and political power. I am a little surprised, I have to say, by how fervently he maintains that political power corrupts. Indeed, it can. The Bible acknowledges this when Israel asks for a king — God warns them how the king will multiply horses and wives for himself at the expense of his people. But this is a far cry from saying that political power always corrupts everyone so that all politicians are always working for their own benefit.

I also do not agree that governments must be held to the same standards as individuals. It is beyond the scope of this post to look at all the Bible has to say about governments (another post perhaps?), but suffice it to say that the Bible does recognize that governments have powers (like imposing capital punishment) that individuals do not. It also implies that taxation is acceptable.

Finally, there is Mayhew’s evidence to support his view — that the most limited governments produce the most prosperous societies. This may be true; I would venture to say that it is likely true. But I am not sure that the most economically prosperous societies are inherently the best ones. We must ask first what the measure of success for a society is. I have always heard that some very socialistic nations in Europe report the highest levels of happiness among their citizens nor would their citizens willing trade what they have in goverment services for the freedoms we have here. I don’t think happiness would be my measure of what is best either but it is at least as valid as economic prosperity as a measure of success.


My biggest conclusion from all this is that Mayhew’s philosophy is not biblical. He never claims that it is, of course, though he does claim that his two basic principles are in line with the Bible and he does tend to assume that members of all major religions and philosophies would agree with his arguments. But I think the real key here is that Mayhew has underlying ideas, wrong ideas, which inform his philosophy. He criticizes modern-day Americans who look to the government to solve all their problems. I agree that we as a people have a tendency to do so and that it is wrong of us; it is a kind of idolatry that arises from our lack of reliance on God. But Mayhew himself does rather the opposite — he blames all our problems on the government. On the one hand, his view of human nature is too high — he seems to think that if we only could return to Common Law and to a time without government that all would be good and that people would regulate themselves well. On the other hand, he has too low a view of politicians, saying that all those who enter politics are utterly corrupt. We all need in our philosophies to account for the evil in the world, and particularly in ourselves and our fellow man. Mayhew’s solution is to say that while most people are capable of being good and doing good in the right circumstances that political power is the repository of all evil. When I looked at various homeschooling philosophies, I found that for many of them, what they believe comes down to their view of human nature — Are we basically good or evil? If good, where does the evil we see around us come from? So too I find for Mayhew that the point where he goes wrong seems to be at the very foundation of his thinking in his view of human nature.

I do not completely regret having my son read this book; it has provided us with some useful discussions — and of course, at least one very long blog post for me :), but I do not think my daughter will be reading it nor could I in good conscience recommend it to other homeschooling parents. As an adult, I am learning to read books critically and to discern the author’s’ assumptions, but it would be a lot to ask a high schooler to read this book that critically and to pick out the good ideas in it from the bad.

Now if anyone has other book recommendations for government, I am all ears . . .





Living Books for High School Biology

Dear Reader,

My oldest is finishing up his 9th grade year, that first year of the dreaded high school which seems to throw us homeschooling parents into such a dither. While I expect him to take outside classes at some point, for this year we were still doing everything at home (well, almost; see the bit about labs below). Never one to take any curriculum as I find it, I ended up piecing together different bits for his first year of high school science for which the topic was biology. To see the initial plan, refer to this post from the beginning of the year.

There were three parts to his biology course this year: a video based curriculum from DIVE Science, a lab component through Landry Academy, and a number of living books. Though he has done not the lab yet (that’s in about a month), I will say the living books have been the treasure of this year. I am really glad I decided to use them rather than just taking the readings assigned by the DIVE curriculum, which on a brief perusal I had found deadly dull and quite one-sided, and I am recommitted to including living books in future years.

I would like to give you reviews of both DIVE and Landry, but I will save that for a future post (or two). For now, let me share with you the books I had him read and how each of them worked out for us.

Living Books for High School Biology:


Here is the schedule he used. It’s not very fancy, I know, and I am not sure in this picture how much you can read. If you can see at the top I wrote in “Narrate daily – written 1x/week.” I realize in high school he should perhaps be doing written narrations for everything, but I thought this might still be a bit burdensome for him. He’s a great narrator but has always struggled some with the physicality of writing too much. In other words, it slows him down a lot and he holds his pencil in such a way that his hand aches. Maybe next year we’ll up the quota on that. I’d also like to point out that in true Charlotte Mason style, this is a pretty simple, straightforward approach. Yes, I felt the need to add in the video component to make sure we weren’t missing key points and to give more of a method of evaluation (I made him do the tests from DIVE) and to add labs as well because I know colleges like to see those, but to me the core of it all is the living books. There is not a lot of busy work here, no worksheets and reading comprehension questions — just read and narrate, read and narrate. And it is effective. I really feel like he learned a lot this year and took a real interest in his studies as well.

But I know you are waiting for the main course so here it is:

Evolution by Paul Fleisher – To start off with the most controversial, I had my son read this book on evolution. The DIVE curriculum is unabashedly literal 6-day creationist and I wanted him to get a sense of all sides of the issue. You can read my own thoughts on the topic, which are quite rambling and ambivalent, here. Fleishman has a number of books on science topics. Not all are so controversial (not much is, after all). They are all slim volumes and we have found them well-written. He is good at taking what could be complicated topics and explaining them simply. In general I’d say his books are a middle school level.

Not part of his schedule, but I also had my son read part of one of my favorite internet articles on evolution and creationism, ….

To balance things out, I then had him read The Great Dinosaur Mystery: Solved! by Ken Ham. As the title suggests, this book seeks to explain (or explain away, depending on your point of view) the scientific evidence regarding dinosaurs in the light of that literal 6-day creationist understanding. Though intended for adults, it is written at a fairly simple level and is quite accessible to a younger reader as well. The edition I have is perhaps a bit dated but my impression is that the basic arguments remain the same. I do not find this book  convincing myself. As a biblical scholar of sorts (I almost got a PhD in Biblical Hebrew but for a little thing called a dissertation), this book irked me. The whole topic led to a number of good in-the-car-type discussions and also led me to write this post on the evidence (or lack thereof) of dinosaurs in the Bible.

For a little bit of a lighter take, the next book I had my son read was The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. This classic is about a scientist on an isolated island who is operating on live animals to alter them. The results are grotesque and disturbing. It’s a good book.


The World of Biology by John Hudson Tiner — This volume does not on the surface look like a living book. It is laid out more like a textbook and its content would make a good, if slim, middle school biology course. But it is relatively interesting in how it is written. My son after reading a chapter told me not just how food is digested in the various parts of the body but the story of how they found out that chemical reactions happen in the stomach. It was pretty interesting and I learned something as well from his narration. And he seemed genuinely interested and eager to tell me. If that doesn’t make  a living book. I don’t know what does. The content here might be a bit simple for a high school level class which is why I am calling it “Middle School” but combined with others, I think Tiner’s book made a wonderful addition to our curriculum. And he has many others as well that I look forward to using. In fact my 8th grade daughter has been reading his History of Medicine and though she does not tend to be as enthused about her studies, she too seems pleased with her book.


The next book was a treasure: Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself by George Gamow. Gamow is an older writer who has written a number of volumes which teach science in a narrative format. Most of his books are on physics but this one is biology. The premise of the book is that Mr. Tompkins goes about his day, starting with a visit to his doctor’s office, and falls asleep a lot and dreams of, for instance, traveling inside himself with his own blood cells. This is a fairly dense book and I would say it is high school level. My son really took to it and it didn’t seem to go over his head at all. FYI, the book Mr. Tompkins Learns the Facts of Life seems to be a subset of this book and could be worth using if you have less time to spend on it. But if you have time, do the whole thing.


Next up is Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster: The Search for the Smallpox Vaccine by Albert Marrin. Marrin is a favorite author and we get his books whenever they are relevant. He has more on history and I suppose this one is history too in a way but it is medical history. When I asked my son which was his favorite book this year, this is the first one he mentioned. Marrin does a wonderful job of making a story of things, even things one might not expect to be interesting like oil. This is not too long a book and is an upper middle-early high school level.


Lastly, there is Spare Parts :  From Peg Legs to Gene Splices by Wendy B. Murphy. My son has actually not gotten to this one yet but I read it myself and am excited for it. It is the history of what we do to our bodies from ancient prosthetic noses (kind of gross and with pictures!) to modern genetic engineering. The modern stuff is a bit more scanty but the whole thing is pretty interesting. My sister-in-law has a fake leg and I found the part of prosthetics, of which there is quite a bit, fascinating. It really made me realize how much she goes through or has been through that she never complains about.

And that’s the list. Next year will be chemistry and I am excited to use the Life of Fred Chemistry book (we love all things LOF) ut am also looking for living book suggestions.



Jeremiah 13 and 14: The Life of a Prophet

Dear Reader,

This is part of my continuing series on the book of Jeremiah. Find all the posts here.

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a prophet in ancient Israel? Maybe you have aspired to do great things for God and have lamented the fact that the position of prophet is no longer available. Before you go running off to the nearest street corner yelling “The word of the Lord came unto me,” let’s look at what life was like for the prophet Jeremiah.

As we have discussed previously, Jeremiah was from a priestly family. Often in societies it is the people from the fringes who claim to get special messages from God. Whether their particular revelations are real or not, one can see how it would be the disenfranchised who would be most likely to claim to have a special line to the deity or deities. But this was not the case for Jeremiah. He was from a privileged class. He already had a special line to God. Nor was he using the Almighty to boost his own power. His message was not “Hey, guys, the Big One wants you all to listen to me, do exactly what I say, and, um, give me all your goats. Yeah, goats are good. Give me all your goats.”

Instead, Jeremiah came with a message of destruction. They call him the weeping prophet and I will say the sense I get when I read through the book named after him is that Jeremiah was a deeply heart-broken man — heart-broken for his people, heart-broken on behalf of his God, and heart-broken that the priestly class, his own family members, were responsible for a lot of the evil all around him and for the coming destruction. One can only imagine what the reaction of those family members must have been. Maybe there was a secret glee when he criticized the royals. Or maybe they warned him that he was saying dangerous things. Maybe a favorite uncle took him aside and asked him to stop. Ordered him to stop. Maybe they pretended he was crazy. Maybe they were all embarrassed by him.

And then it got worse. It got even more personal. What do you think Jeremiah’s grandma said? Was his mother the sort to call him out or did she cover her face and cry quietly?

That’s the situation the prophet is in when we get to chapters 13 and 14. And then it gets worse. Here’s how chapter 13 begins:

“Thus says the Lord to me, ‘Go and buy a linen loincloth and put it around your waist, and do not dip it in water.’ So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it around my waist.” (Jer. 13:1-2; ESV)

Okay, a loincloth, that’s old-fashioned underwear, right? That’s a little weird, but being a good prophet Jeremiah obeys God. So far so good. But then God speaks again:

“”Take the loincloth that you have bought, which is around your waist, and arise, go to the Euphrates and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.’ So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me.” (vv. 3-4)

Hmmm . . . hide the brand new undies in a hole in a rock in a foreign land? Umm, okay, God, still pretty weird, but Jeremiah obeys. And then:

“And after many days the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.’ Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. And behold, the loincloth was spoiled; it was good for nothing.” (vv. 5-7)

Now go back and get the undies that have essentially been buried and surprise, surprise! They’re dirty! Who would have guessed?

It’s all a little bizarre, isn’t it? Of course, Jeremiah was from a prestigious family; though clothing was not cheap then, he could probably afford to waste a pair of bloomers. But what is the point of all this? Why on earth would God want him to do it? As the Lord goes on to explain, this was an object lesson:

“Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Thus says the Lord: Even so will I spoil the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.  This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.'” (vv. 8-11)

The whole message of this escapade is: My people have become to me like a soiled pair of knickers. Lovely. Very visual, God, thanks. One wonders even what the point is since presumably Jeremiah’s actions were not widely known, at least not until he told them. But, nonetheless, this is how God operates with the prophets. We often think of them as God’s mouthpieces — God speaks and the prophet repeats his words to the people. But talking is only a part of the prophet’s call. Trust me, Jeremiah got off easy here; there are lots worse things that God has asked the prophets to do. Hosea had to marry a loose woman who continued to  . . . err, be loose . . . after their marriage. And then he had to go buy her back from her lovers. Pay money for his own wife. Talk about emasculating! And then there was Ezekiel. He had to lie on his left side for 390 days. Yeah, Jeremiah got off fairly easily. But still the lesson for us is that being a prophet is no cake walk. It is not just about saying things, even dangerous, embarrassing things. It is about living out your message, often in very grimy, personal ways.

So do you still think you’d like to be a prophet?


History Books: Jefferson and Lewis and Clark

Dear Reader,

As we work out way through American history, my kids and I are up to the time of Thomas Jefferson. Not too surprisingly, since it seems to be a hot topic for children’s authors, quite a lot of what we read for this time period was on the Lewis and Clark expedition. You can find my master list of history books here.

Living Books on Thomas Jefferson’s Time

As we have been, we used our two spine books to keep us all on the same page, so to speak. They are This Country of Ours by H.E. Marshall and Story of the Great Republic by Helene Guerber. I find both a bit sparse on this time period which is why I am using them both in the hopes that they will be sparse in different ways. They are good books though a little light for my older kids but that is why, at least in part, I have them reading other things on their own as well.

Another book we always do together us the relevant volume by Mike Venezia:

He has one an each president as well as books on artists and composers. They are silly fun and are even a bit young for my younger kids but we enjoy them.

We also read a couple of long picture books together:

jefferson1A Big Cheese for the White House by Candace Fleming is the story of, well, a big cheese that was given to Mr. Jefferson. It lasted and was served at the White House for years. The book is a bit silly and clearly not 100% true but the basic story is factual.

jefferson2Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words by Dennis Fradin does a good job of telling of the famous and fatal rivalry. I liked that it didn’t make Aaron Burr into the only bad guy. In fact, one could feel rather sorry for him. From what I’ve read of him in this book and elsewhere, Alexander Hamilton sounds like a pretty unpleasant, snooty person to have been around.

jefferson3I had my 8th grader read Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A Novel of Sacagawea by Scott O’Dell. You may know him from Island of the Blue Dolphins. He has a number of novels about historical things and we have found them good. We liked the bit where they wanted Sacagawea to leave her baby behind but she ended up getting her way and being able to bring him.


My 9th grader read Bold Journey: West with Lewis and Clark by Charles Bohner. This was about the same difficulty as the O’Dell book. Both would be good for 7th-9th grades I think. He seemed to enjoy it and it seemed like a pretty decent telling of the story. It was interesting to see what different pieces the kids picked up from their different books. When one was giving an oral narration, another might interrupt with “hey, that was in my book, but in my book it happened this way . . . ” I don’t think it is so much a matter of any particular book being inaccurate as the fact that the authors are piecing together a story from fragmented records and using a tiny bit of poetic license.

Speaking of which, my 5th grader read Lewis and Clark and Me: A Dog’s Tale by Laurie Myers. As its title suggests, this one is told from the dog’s point of view. He is not the best reader and narrator but he did decently with this story. There were exciting bits about battling buffaloes and bears to keep his attention. I would call it 4th-6th grade level.

jefferson5We didn’t actually read The Sea Rovers by Albert Marrin due to a lack of time, but this book on pirates and the like ends with a chapter on the Barbary pirates of Thomas Jefferson’s time. Marrin is  a favorite author of ours so if you have more time than we did, you might want to check it out.

Lastly, I’ll mention Miss Jefferson in Paris by Regina Zimmerman Kelly. My 8th grader read this one when we were studying the French Revolution since it is set in France at that period of time. But it is about Jefferson’s daughter so if you get a chance you might want to include it as well.

Next time: Napoleon!






My Advice to New Homeschoolers: Think about Your Philosophy of Education

Dear Reader,

I really regret not having thought about my philosophy of education earlier in our homeschooling journey. I have heard it said that it doesn’t matter so much in the early years — after all, they are all just learning to read and do basic math, right? You are busy; save those deep thoughts for later on when it makes a difference.

But I disagree. Not only does it make a difference early on, but what you do early on also sets up what you have later. It’s like aiming an arrow — at short distances you think a little variation in the trajectory will not make a difference but as time goes on that little variation becomes more and more significant till before you know it you are not where you want to be. Now, to not be too discouraging before I start, if you do get off track or you come to homeschooling later on, after your kids have had some education somewhere else, all hope is not lost, but it will be harder. You may have to undo what has already been done. Your kids may need to learn that education can be fun again. They may be resistant or have bad habits. So if you are one of those who is so blessed as to have decided to homeschool your kids from an early age, take advantage of that by putting some thought into what you are doing.

But why do you even need to have a philosophy of education? Why can’t you just buy a curriculum that works with your child’s learning style and your personality and leave it at that?

The short answer is that you are going to end up somewhere, or perhaps I had better say your child will end up someone. Even if you don’t think about where you are going and why and how, you are going somewhere. And this is a pretty important journey; isn’t is better to decide what you are aiming for rather than to default into it?

The truth is there are some pretty big issues at stake here. When we throw around words like “a Charlotte Mason education,” “classical education,” “Montessori,” “Waldorf,” and “unschooling,” those are all educational philosophies that have some big ideas behind them — ideas about human nature, who children are, how they learn, and what they should become. You may buy a curriculum without considering these issues. It is quite possible the publisher you buy from is not even considering these issues. But somewhere in the distant past, the people that developed these approaches were thinking pretty hard about them. And they came to some conclusions about what they believed about humanity and built a whole approach to education on them. If you buy and use the materials that their philosophies generated, wouldn’t you like to now what the idea behind them are?

I have done a long series of blog posts on the different approaches to education; you can find all those links here. I am not going to rehash it all now, but let me give you a few examples of what I mean. Let’s take a little issue like, say, oh, human nature. Are people basically good? Are they inherently sinful? Are they some mix of the two? Unschooling says that our children are basically good — they will instinctively learn and acquire what they need to know and our main job is to not get too much in their way. Classical education, at the other end of the spectrum, seeks to impart a large body of established knowledge to children. The implicit assumption is that they do not know what is best for them and that we must shape who they will be. If you read Dorothy Sayers’ article “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which is the cornerstone of modern classical education (see my review here), her statements about children are actually  a bit shocking; she doesn’t seem very fond of them. Of course, I myself follow the Charlotte Mason approach because I think she has the right balance of viewing children as made in the image of Gd and yet being prone to sin and not always choosing the best of their own accord.

These are big issues and I hope you can see that our answers to them will affect not only whether we use workbooks in our homeschools but who our children will grow up to be. So my advice for new homeschoolers (or really any parents, if the truth be known)? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I think human nature is? Are we inherently good or evil or some mix of the two? Is sinfulness inborn or does it develop over time? If the latter, how? Do I even believe in sin?
  • How do children learn? Is it instinctive or do they need to be taught? Is there a fixed body of knowledge that they should be taught? This is one that you might not have much idea about yet if you are just starting out but keep it in the back of your mind and ponder it once in a while.
  • What is my goal for my child? Is it a good college, a good job, enough money, a lot of money? Is it being kind? Is it being godly? Is it happiness? Is it being tough and not being taken in by anyone? Is it salvation? Is it more about what they will do or who they will be?

And then once you have some provisional answers, look at what is behind the major philosophies of education (shameless self-promotion again: my blog series is a great place to start). Find out which ones fit best with what you already think. Pick one or two that jibe with you and delve more deeply into them. Read summaries of them; read the original authors if you can make your way through them. And then think some more; what can you take away? What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? You may find that you like bits from one writer and bits from another; that’s okay. This is about creating your own philosophy of education; it doesn’t have to be identical to anyone else’s. Lastly, come back to the practical details: if this is what I believe, how do I live it out in practice? How do I educate my children in a  way that is consistent with my principles and aims for the right target?

I know this can all sound huge, but the point is to start early and think a little bit about it over time so that you develop a philosophy and know where you are going and why. Developing your own philosophy of education will not guarantee that you end up where you want to be. It won’t solve all your homeschooling problems. But you are a lot more likely to end up somewhere near where you want to go and to have the motivation to make it through the bad days if you know why and how you are homeschooling.


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