My method for homeschooling history is to get a stack of books on our topic — usually whatever comes next chronologically — from the library, to skim them, and to pick one or two for each child to read (as well as possibly some read-alouds). If there is a lot in our library system, one trick I use is to sort the results by publication date, from oldest to newest, and to request the older ones first.
Next up for us is a brief detour from our study of American history to touch on Victorian England. I need to get more books still, but I have a few here sitting on my counter so I thought I would share a paragraph from each to show how I pick a living book.
“One Friday in August, late in the morning, Susan Shaw came into my life again, more than a year and a half after she had vanished from Ward Street and the twentieth century.” (All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd)
“Almost one hundred years after her birth in 1819, ad novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie slyly points out, Queen Victoria’s image might have called to mind pocket change rather than pomp and glory, and the place of her birth was merely an architectural backdrop to promenade and play. From this perspective, the old queen signifies little to Edwardian children. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the narrator compresses the widely known facts and fancies of Victoria’s life at Kensington Palace from birth to accession — her solitude, love of dolls, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s audience with the newly made queen, and her public coronation — into a child’s version of Victoria’s life-story: ‘She was the most celebrated baby of the Gardens . . .'” (Becoming Victoria by Lynne Vallone)
“‘I will not learn my lessons!’ Princess Victoria stamped her tiny foot. ‘I want to sing and dance and playa s other children do. If my father were alive. he would not make me spend all of my time in the schoolroom!'” (Queen Victoria: English Empress by Sally Glendinning)
So which of these three would you pick? I find the first and third most engaging. Their first paragraphs make me want to know more. The first, if it isn’t obvious, takes a modern child and, by some stratagem, I don’t know what yet, has them travel back to Victorian times. I find this plot device a bit overdone and it tends to make me skeptical of the book as a whole. Nonetheless, the story still sounds intriguing and I want to read more.
The third strikes me as not being overly well-written, but, on the other hand, it also makes me want to continue reading. And in the first few sentences it has given me a taste for Victoria’s personality and a fact about her: her father is dead.
I couldn’t even bring myself to type out the whole first paragraph of the second book. I was bored reading it and I was bored typing it. It’s not that it’s completely dry, it is trying to be interesting. But it is also slipping in too many facts in too small a space without really giving me an interest in the subject. It does make me want to find and read Barrie’s book though 🙂
An key point here, I think, is that while there are some guidelines for living books, there are no hard and fast rules. One book may be living for me and not for you or vice-versa. This is important to keep in mind as we pick books for our children especially — just because I like a book doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for my child. On the other hand, we do want to gradually challenge out children’s reading and understanding skills so one needs to use discernment and not let them off immediately if they squawk about a particular book.
As for me, I am back to the library because I have only two books I like so far and 4 children.