Is It a Living Book?

Dear Reader,

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.

Happy reading!



Three Resources for Church History Reviewed

Dear Reader,

We have tried a few different things for studying church history. Here’s my take on each:

Sketches from Church History by S.M. Houghton — I had my then 9th and 10th graders use this book and the additional workbook last year. We abandoned the workbook fairly early on. I thought it would make like simpler to use a workbook for once. I was wrong. It was the sort of thing that asked them to fill in blanks or answer questions about very specific points in the reading and they couldn’t do it. When I asked them to narrate what they had read, on the other hand, they did just fine and clearly could grasp the material. The book itself seems decent. It is not written as one riveting story but, as its title suggests, is a series of brief sketches on the key points. It could probably be used for middle school on up through adults who want a overview of the topic.

History Lives: Chronicles of the Church by Brandon and Mindy Withrow — This is a five volume set with titles like “Perils and Peace” and “Hearts and Hands.” Each chapter covers a different figure with occasion blurbs giving more of an overview of the time. It’s been a while since we did these books. Amazon calls them 2-4th grade level which I have  a hard time believing. They would be great for read-alouds at those ages but I think for reading on one’s own I’d go upper elementary-lower middle school. My kids really enjoyed these books and looked forward to them. That says a lot.

Heroes of the Early Church by Richard Newton – I first ran across Newton through Simply Charlotte Mason’s Spelling Wisdom. They use many of his quotes for their dictation exercises. I liked them enough to look the man up and to buy a couple of his books. The one we have worked through so far is Heroes of the Early Church. He also has Heroes of the Reformation as well as many other books on the Bible and other Christian topics. Newton was known as “the prince of children’s preachers,” and his style is more preachy than the History Lives series. In many ways, the two are similar. They both focus on individual stories as they move through Christian history chronologically. History Lives adds some small intermediate chapters to provide a little more historical context. Newton is very deliberate in drawing lessons from the lives of his subjects. He will say things along the lines of “Chrysostom is an example to us of the importance of piety.” In fact, I found him a bit too preachy and obvious. This was easily remedied in read-alouds, however, by just skipping over the first and last sentences of a section which tended to be where the lessons were made too obvious. If your goal is to learn the history of the church, then this is not the best book. If your goal is to learn about the lives of Christians who have come before and particularly to learn from their virtues, then this book could be a decent choice. The reading level is similar to History Lives – read-aloud to elementary, read alone for upper elementary-middle school.


Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Way of Reason and Living Books

Dear Reader,

I have been reading Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes and find these two very intriguing quotes:

“You can hire logic, in the shape of a lawyer, to prove anything that you want to prove. You can buy treatises to show that Napoleon never lived, and that no battle of Bunker-hill was ever fought. The great minds are those with a wide span, which couple truths, related to, but far removed from, each other . . . Some of the sharpest men in argument are notoriously unsound in judgment. I should not trust the counsel of a smart debater, any more than that of a good chess-player.”

(Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, p.11)

“We can make a book alive for us just in proportion to its resemblance in essence or in form to our own experience.” (p.35)

In the first quote, we see echoes of what Charlotte Mason calls “the Way of Reason.” The best arguer, Holmes tells us, is not necessarily your best source of truth. Conspiracy theories, it seems, are not a 20th century invention. One may produce seemingly rock-solid evidence and arguments that, as Holmes says, Napoleon and Bunker-hill never were or, as some in our day would claim, that Elvis lives and men never walked on the moon, but arguments, even ones that seem solid and convincing at the time, do not make truth. Reason can be contorted to support any position.

Notice as well that in the midst of this first quote that Holmes also speaks of what Charlotte calls “the Science of Relations.” Great minds, he says, have a wide body of knowledge – Charlotte said to “set their feet in a wide room” – and are able to make connections between seemingly diverse ideas.

The second quote above speaks of living books. We often speak as if a book is living or not, and indeed some books seem to be almost universally living books for whoever reads them while others are quite the opposite. At times, we may find books in the middle; perhaps you, like I, have found to your disappointment that your child despises a book you adore. Books may be living for one person and not another. But Holmes adds a new thought: it is our own experience which may make a book alive for us. Do you think Charlotte would agree? It certainly seems to make sense though I think we may also have books come alive for us which have no relation to our own experience, perhaps even because they are so new and different.

What do you think?


Good Books for Beginning Readers

Dear Reader,

Another question I see a lot: “What good books can my kids read after phonics but while they are still beginning readers?”

Let me start by saying that I love the Bob Books. These are really learning-to-read books. The simplest ones are very simple. They manage to tell a story with very few words and with words that beginning readers actually can read. None of those more difficult words thrown in to through your little one off.

Once they are a little more proficient Arnold Lobel’s books make wonderful choices. The Frog and Toad books and Owl at Home are some of our favorites, though he has others as well. They are divided into very short, manageable chunks. They tell a humorous story and often convey ideas as well. Living books in simple language.

Lobel’s books are part of the “I Can Read” series. There are other books in this series that you will see recommended. Some I am not a big fan of. Amelia Bedelia comes to mind. I remember reading these as a child but as an adult, I just can’t take them. Puns are fine in moderation only and I just want to slap Amelia most of the time. I am also not a fan of Berenstain Bears (some of which are done as “I Can Read” books). But Syd Hoff’s books Danny the Dinosaur and Sammy the Seal are worth a read. As with most living books — older is better. Else Holmelund Minarik‘s Little Bear books are charming as well.

If Maurice Sendak illustrated it (as with the Little Bear books) or wrote it , you can bet it is worth a look. Some of Sendak’s books are harder to read or even of more mature content (Brundibar is a favorite of mine) but some like Chicken Soup with Rice and Pierre are more easily readable.

Cynthia Rylant is a prolific author of series for beginning readers. I am not a fan of all of them, but I do like The Lighthouse Family and the Cobblestreet Cousins series. Both is these might appeal more to girls than boys.

Don’t forget those classic Dr.Seuss books — the smaller ones like Green Eggs and Ham and Fox in Socks can work well for beginning readers.

While newer readers are often happier with shorter books, Little House in the Big Woods is actually pretty easy reading. I gave up reading lessons for my older daughter when at 4 years old I caught her reading it on her own (don’t be jealous; of 4 kids, she was my only reading prodigy).

If you are looking for short chunks, Thornton Burgess’ shorter books are wonderful. Look for ones with titles like “The Story of . . .” and then an animal’s name, like “Sammy Jay.” Chapters in these books are often just a page or two yet the story moves along. His Bird Book and Animal Book are wonderful too but are not easy reading.

A more recent author — Dick King-Smith’s books are great stories as well. He wrote Babe  and The Water-Horse, both of which have been made into movies (the latter is nothing like the book), as well as many more. I think they all contain animals, sometimes as speaking characters, sometimes as pets.

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia Maclachan was a favorite of my daughter when she was still pretty young. There are sequels as well.

Need more suggestions? Check out these older posts:

Book List for a Reluctant Reader

Book Series for Tween and Teen Boys

Book List for Girls

Happy Reading!



Living Books on the 1930s

Dear Reader,

This is the latest installment in my series on the living books we have been using in our homeschool. You can find all the booklists here.

Living Books on the 1930s

This segment came for us between Thanksgiving and Christmas so I hope you will forgive me for not making all of it that we could. While I was surprised on how little of value I found on the Roaring 20s, there is seemingly no end of resources on the Great Depression; it is a time that has captured our imaginations and continues to fascinate. My goal in this section was to give more of a flavor of the time, a taste of what life in this difficult period was like, rather than to get caught up in the political and economic details and the barrage of acronyms (CCC, TVA, etc.).

Our spine, as it has been this year, was from the series Our Century. I have discussed the pros and cons of this series previously so I will not get into it again. Suffice it to say it provides a nice, if brief, overview of the major events ans trends.

A few years back I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan which gives a wrenching account of the Dust Bowl. I could not wait for one of my kids to read this book. I assigned it to my 11th grader for this period. It is a non-fiction book but with lots of personal narratives. It is intended for popular reading for adults though it was not hard reading. I would call it high school level.

My 10th grader tends to be very busy with other things near the holidays so I went easy on her. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t read (or didn’t remember reading) Blue Willow by Doris Gates. Though I haven’t looked at it in years, I remember loving this book as a child. It was easy reading for her; I would call it middle school level. Sadly, she did not seem to love it.

My 7th grader read a non-fiction book: A Nation Fights Back: the Depression and its Aftermath by Irving Werstein. This is one of our favorite authors and he did not disappoint.

My 6th grader read Queenie Peavey by Robert Burch. She seemed to enjoy it. It was not hard reading for her. I would call it upper elementary-lower middle school.

I read a couple of long picture books aloud to my younger two. (Side note: Just because my kids are older, we haven’t given up picture books. Sometimes they provide a good introduction to another topic that we don’t have time to get into in depth. And when they are well-done, picture books can be wonderful, living books. By “longer picture books” I mean books that cannot usually be read in one sitting.)

Wingwalker by Rosemary Wells and Brian Selznick tells the story of a family who must leave Oklahoma and finds themselves in Minnesota (I believe) where the father becomes a wingwalker with the circus.

Fire in the Sky by Candice Ransom tells the story of the Hindenburg’s fateful last voyage. I did not think it was incredibly well-written but it was hard not to be moved by the events of the final chapters.

Some other picture books we considered but did not find time for are: When Grandpa Wore Knickers by Fern Brown and Andree Vilas Grabe and What You Know First by Patricia Maclachan.

Longer books you might want to consider: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy, Long Way from Chicago and Year Down Under by Richard Peck, Shiloh by Phyllis Naylor, and Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (and many others) by Mildred Taylor. Many of these we had read previously. They are good books even if you are not studying this period.

And, of course, you can’t cover this era without mentioning John Steinbeck. My oldest read Of Mice and Men recently for literature. It is one of Steinbeck’s more manageable book for length. If you too are limited on time, the old Grapes of Wrath movie is a great choice too (see below).

If you are looking for more non-fiction, especially for older kids (middle to high school), some of our favorite authors have quiet a lot on this period:

Shattered Decade 1929 by Irving Werstein (so also Werstein’s book above; I have not seen this volume but most of Werstein’s books could be used in middle school)

Books by Albert Marrin (Most of Marrin’s books are high school level, but some are simpler and could be middle school.):

Years of Dust

FDR and the American Crisis

Movies on the 1930s:

We watched a number of movies relating to this period. The movie industry really took off in the 30s so one can find both movies made in the 30s and those set in the 30s.

Gone with the Wind – Though set in the Civil War and Reconstruction, Margaret Mitchell’s classic was both a best-selling book and movie in the 1930s. I made my kids discuss why people living through the Depression might have been so attracted to this story.

Bonnie and Clyde – Enough humor and violence for my kids. A slightly older movie, it does not really show much nudity or blood but there are a couple of “adult” scenes and Bonnie and Clyde’s deaths at the end are vivid (though again not bloody). The movie does a good job of showing that crime does not pay though it also hints at why people supported outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde at the time.

The Untouchables – Criminal activity was booming in the 30s. This movie tells the story of Scarface Al Capone and his capture. …

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – We watched this a few years ago. It is the story of Homer’s Odysseus set in 1930s America. Humorous and and ultimately wholesome. I don’t remember how much adult content there was, not too much I think. Great soundtrack too.

The Grapes of Wrath – We didn’t want to take the time to read Steinbeck’s (long) classic but the classic movie covers a lot of the bases. My kids enjoyed it.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl – We watched this movie last time we studied this era, when my kids were much younger. I am not a fan of the American Girl franchise but I think this movie is one of their better pieces. When we watched it, our neighbor’s house across the street was being foreclosed on.

To see what people in the 30s were watching (and for a more wholesome choice), try some Shirley Temple classics. The Little Colonel (set in post-Civil War south) is one of our favorites.

Happy reading (and watching)!


Oodles and Oodles of CM Post Links

Dear Reader,

Have you looked at the top of the page? Did you know you can find all (or almost all) my CM posts in one place? I just updated by “CM Post Links” Page. You can find it here. (Lists of living books are listed separately here.)


The Spirit and the Bride

Dear Reader,

I am reading again some essays by one of my favorite authors, Frank Boreham. Boreham was something of the Billy Graham of his day, a prolific and well-respected minister, first in England and then in Australia and New Zealand. In his time he wrote dozens of volumes of essays and sermons and was popular world-wide. He only died in, I think, the 1950s so I don’t know why one hears so little of him today (though perhaps in other countries he is still better known?). I find his works unfailingly comforting and insightful.  This is not deep theology, no long technical discussions, but it never fails to convict one.

In one of my favorite of this favorite author’s books, A Handful of Stars: Texts that have moved great minds, Boreham discusses the biblical texts that have shaped the lives of individuals, both real and fictional. James Chalmers, a missionary to the South Pacific who was violently martyred, had as his text, Boreham tells us, Revelation 22:17: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (ESV). Boreham speaks of the call on Chalmers’ life — how he felt compelled to go to far distant lands, to be the voice who, having heard, calls others to “come” as well.

I was struck as I read this by the role of the two who call — the Spirit and the Bride. The Bride, we know from Scripture, is the Church; the Spirit, of course, is God the Holy Spirit, the comforter whom Christ left with us on His ascension.  Both proclaim the same message: “Come.” Both call to sinners. Perhaps only the work of the Holy Spirit is truly necessary, but God calls those who have themselves heard to work with Him and to proclaim the message as well. The call of the Church is audible; that of the Spirit is internal. At times one may be saved only through the latter (Boreham tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi’s conversion in another essay, “The House that Jack Built”; this seems to have been such a conversion) but the norm, as God has ordained it, is for the preaching of His Word, the call of the Bride, to play a part as well (this is how Spurgeon was saved, as Boreham tells us also).

The practical application of all this for us is this: as we have heard, so we must declare to others. The call of the Church falls on many ears; we do not know which hearts the Spirit will also call to and which will come to faith, but it is our obligation to call nonetheless. And the message we give must be that which we have received. The Bride calls the same thing that the Spirit does: “Come.” We are not at liberty to make up a new one, neither do we need to embellish it, to make it more attractive. Acceptance happens when the Spirit also calls, not when we dress it up and make it more compelling. The results do not rest with us. Lastly, though some, like Chalmers, are called to far-distant lands and may work for a time singly or in small groups, the charge is for the Church. Not that we leave all the work to our ministers but that we must work within the body of God’s people. It is not an individual mission but a corporate one.


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