What Makes a Living Book?

Dear Reader,

I think this is something we all wonder at some point– How do I find living books? How do I know which ones are living? Is it okay to let my children read some twaddle? How twaddly is too twaddly?

In her third volume, School Education, Charlotte Mason addresses the question of what is a living book. Here is what she says:

“A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict . . . ” [p.164]

The key here is that the book must reach the mind of the child. It must seep into them and grab hold. As educators we have the very important job of selecting books to try, but ultimately the child himself is the best judge of whether a book is living for him. So if you get a book off the most wonderful Charlotte Mason booklist that everyone raves about but your child isn’t into it, drop it and find another. It needs to be a living book for them. And the decision, according to the above quote, can be made very quickly though I might be tempted to give it more than a page.

And once you have  a living book, step back and let it do its work.  Charlotte says, “Boys get knowledge only if they dig for it” (p.165). Personally, I find this very hard to do–to step back and let them get what they will, and only what they will, from the books. I think part of this is that I am being educated at the same time. A lot of what we are reading now about the Middle Ages, for example, I was never taught and I find myself wanting to talk about it too.

I wonder also how to inspire kids to want to dig. If it is a living book, will their natural interest in it keep them attentive even if the langauge is hard? Or is there a tendency to say “I don’t like this book” to avoid doing the work of really trying to understand it? I also think that Charlotte, teaching a class of children, must have had the same problems that I might with my four. That is, what if you are doing a book with a group of children and some like it but others don’t? In real life, with multiple children, there will be times when not everyone is happy. Or what if there is a subject area for which you just can’t seem to find a book that captures the imagination? Do you skip it altogether? Do you make do with what you have even if it does not seem to be for them a living book?

I know one area where parents find themselves compromising a lot is in their children’s free reading. There are certain times when it is just hard to find decent books at your child’s level. I hear this a lot about the early reader and chapter book stages. Personally, I always found it harder to find things for boys than for girls. For girls, there are always classics like Little House on the Prairie (longer books but not hard reading) and my daughter’s one-time favorite, Sarah, Plain and Tall. For boys, there just seem to be a lot of gross-out books. Right this minute, I feel that this is not an issue for us. My kids are all reading books that I think are at least decent. But I can understand giving in to the desire to compromise as long as it gets one’s child to read. When it comes to their personal reading, I think my kids tend to pick books that are somewhere in the middle–they are not complete twaddle and yet they may not contain much in the way of real ideas. I aim for good, well-written stories though I am also learning that the ideas can be small things. They can be little tidbits that catch one’s imagination; they need not be grand ideas about human nature., at least not every time.

The most important thing, I suppose, as with all of CM’s approach, is to respect the child’s mind. That is, not to assume that they cannot appreciate real books and to remember that it must be their mind which connects with the author’s; we are but facilitators.


6 responses to this post.

  1. My son isn’t a fluent reader yet, but we have worked through aO’s year 1 free reads and are on year 2’s, with me reading to him. He has loved Little House series, Heidi and more. I think it’s important to not avoid giving a boy excellent books just because the main character is a girl.


  2. That’s a good point, Laurke. It can be tempting to think of boys’ books and girls’ books. My sons are willing to listen to books about girls (we do a lot of audio books in the car). Perhaps I need to encourage them to expand their own repertoire too.


  3. […] elders who didn’t ever let them have any fun.  Of course most of these books are not living books anyway. They are very Usborne/DK-y (if you know what I mean) and quite sensationalized to […]


  4. […] Be Your Own Rock and Mineral Expert by Michele Pinet and Alain Korkos — This book is more textbook-y. Well, maybe that’s not quite the right word for it but it is one of those books with lots of little boxes of disjointed text. It also contains experiments and things to do. I had my 10-year-old read this and the level was fine for him. I skipped over the practical, hands-on parts. I think it gave a nice introduction to the kinds of rocks and how they are formed, but it is not a living book. […]


  5. […] Constitution in our homeschool, but I wanted to share with you the books we used. A few are good, living books; others are not but they were the best I could get my hands on from our library system. This seems […]


  6. […] love living books. They are the cornerstone of our homeschool. I love when my kids make a real connection to what […]


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