I have been doing a very loose series on “questions that get asked a lot on lists/forums” (anybody noticed?). We have discussed, for instance, how to get started with a Charlotte Mason education and how must does a CM education cost? (Okay, in reality, those are the only two posts in the series so far . . .)
Another question I see a lot is “Is a living book?” with the name of some popular series or favorite book in the blank. If you are new to CM, you may want to sit down for this next bit — there is no hard and fast standard for what makes a living book. A book can be living for one person and not for another. But we can also say that some books are clearly not living while others really, really should be read by everyone. I will try, however, to give something of a checklist to help you decide for the book in front of you and for your family. In fact, I will give two checklists — one for the question you are asking (is it living?) and one for the question you really mean to ask (keep reading for that).
Is it a living book?: the checklist
- How many authors does it have? One is best; the more, the worse. Real living books can’t be written by committee. This is because living books convey ideas from mind (the author’s) to mind (the reader’s). If there are 20 minds on the giving side, this is not going to work well.
- Is it well-written? If you as the adult are new to CM, or to the world of good literature, you may not have much of a sense yourself if a book is well-written. There are some more obvious things to consider like: Does it use proper grammar and spelling? But there are also more subtle criteria that have to do with style and sentence structure. Very early readers may need short sentences but by the time a child can read a decent chapter book, they should not be talked down to . . .
- Which brings me to the next question: Do you enjoy reading it? That is, you as an adult, do you look forward to reading this book? If you dread it, even if your kids love it, there is a good chance it is not a living book. This is a wonderful test for picture books, by the way – if you don’t want to read it more than once, don’t; it is not a living book. On the other hand, if you love the way the words flow off your tongue, if you snicker every time at that one clever sentence, then it probably is a living book.
- Does it convey ideas? This is why we choose living books. Ideas are to books as blood is to animals. If there is nothing flowing through it, it is not living. You don’t need to be able to say what those ideas are; the ideas we get from books can’t always be put into words. These ideas are not one size fits all; you may get different ideas than I do. If you can read it twice and get new things from it, it is likely a living book. We can have relationships with living things. And my relationship with Johnny is not going to be the same as yours. All relationships are as unique as the people involved in them.
Don’t be fooled into thinking a book is living just because your child learns something from it. If we can all look at a book and say that its message is x, then it probably is not living (I am thinking here of so many books that are written for children these days with names like “XX goes to the dentist” and very profound messages like “the dentist is your friend”). It is just an obvious, preachy book. A real living book has ideas but it is not obvious. If you can argue about what it means, it is probably a living book. If you want to argue about what it means, it is definitely a living book. Be careful – facts are not ideas! Your child may read a book of historical fiction and learn that the Romans had aqueducts. They mean even learn quite a lot about aqueducts. They may be able to tell you different kinds of aqueducts. These are all facts. (And, in line with my test above, you could probably read the same book and get the same information; there is no disputing what the book teaches – it’s about aqueducts.) If, on the other hand, your child begins making different kinds of aqueducts out of his building blocks or starts playing Roman soldiers with his teddy bears, you may have hit upon a living book.
- Do you (or does your child) want to tell people about it? Charlotte Mason had children narrate because narration is such a natural thing to do. If you find a book or see a movie you love, you want to tell everyone about it. A good story is worth sharing. Children may “narrate” by acting out their stories, not just by telling. I give this one with a bit of hesitation; we all know children who will bore everyone in their lives to tears by reciting facts about dinosaurs. Look for signs that they are telling (or acting out) the story, not just reciting facts.
- Some quick questions to consider:
- How old is it? There are many exceptions on both sides, but generally speaking older books are more likely to be better. If something is widely considered a classic, there is probably a reason why.
- Is it part of a series? How long is that series? Does the series have more than one author? Being part of a series need not be inherently bad but it should at least cause you to pause and look further. A series that goes on and on, beyond say 6-8 books raises suspicions. If it has multiple authors, particularly if one author took the series over at some point in time, then you likely don’t want at least the newer books. If every book in the series has basically the same plot and there is no character development, it is likely not living, at least beyond the first couple of books of the series. Some examples to show what I mean:
- C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series – these books together form one extended story. They do not all tell the same story and we can see that the characters change through the books (they age and they mature). There is also an end to their story.
- The Boxcar Children series – This series was begin by Gertrude Chandler Warner and continued later by other writers. Altogether there are well over a 100 books. There are two red flags here: the sheer number of books and the multiple authors. The first book is a charming story and well worth reading. The next few books are also decent. But with more than 100 books and the same basic plot — kids solve a mystery – it is no surprise that there are no new ideas after the first few books.
- Questions not to ask: Can my child learn something from this book? (See above on facts vs. ideas on why I say this is not a deciding factor.) Does my child like it? Charlotte tells us that kids will like things that are basically intellectual fluff, particularly if they have not developed a taste for the finer things. If books are the diet of the mind, some books are going to be junk food. Kids love junk food (who doesn’t?); that doesn’t mean it is what they should be ingesting. (On the other hand, I am not advocating forcing children to read something that they hate just because you have deemed it living. Remember a book can be living for one person and not another; if your child really rebels against reading a certain book, my advice is let it go and find another.)
So much for “Is it a living book?” But if you are asking, I think what you really mean is “Should I let my child read this book?” If it is a living book, of course you can go ahead and let them read it (assuming it is age-appropriate and all that). But there are times when it is okay to let one’s kids read some not truly living books. This is especially true with those who are newer readers. It can be hard to find good books for this stage (but see this post) and it can be hard to motivate some children to read on their own at all. What kind of reading we are talking about matters too. Schoolwork is not free reading. Yes, it would be nice if everything they took in were a true living book of impeccable quality but a little fluff now and then will not kill anyone. Again, the diet analogy helps us. One can’t go months without nourishing food chock full of vitamins, but a little dessert once in a while doesn’t hurt either.