Living Books for High School Chemistry

Dear Reader,

When I tried to cobble together a biology course for my then 9th grader, I discovered that the part that worked best for us was the living books. So this year, his 10th grade one, I declared that I would not be swayed by outside pressures but would keep living books as the center of our curriculum. I plan to use the same selections (with just a few tweaks which I’ll explain below) for my second child next year.

Living Books for High School Chemistry

Life of Fred Chemistry We love the Life of Fred series. It started as a math curriculum but has expanded into early readers, high school chemistry and more. This year my 10th grader was using no less than 4 of the LOF books. When I saw they had a chemistry one, I couldn’t resist. As with the whole LOF series, this book tells the story of Fred, a 5-year-old genius math professor. All the books incorporate the subject matter in Fred’s life. There are 36 chapters and each has a problem set with answers at the end. I let my son work through this one on his own because he can check his own answers (and he’s pretty trustworthy about such things). Because it is only 36 lessons, I had him do it once a week. Mondays were for LOF, the other days for his other books . . .

Edited 5/23/2020 to add: My second child got really bogged down in LOF Chemistry and we ended up dropping it but returned to it with my third who is so far doing okay with it. LOF can be tough and intensive.


The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf We used this book as kind of second spine book in addition to LOF. I chose it mainly because it has experiments which are relatively easy to do with relatively accessible supplies.  For Biology, my son did a 2-day lab intensive course with Landry Academy. It looked like we would not have their chemistry lab in our area this year so I wanted something else that involved labs for him. As it turns out we will be able to do the chemistry labs in October. We were really happy with the biology lab last year and I would recommend their lab intensives if you have one in your area. Since my daughter will be able to do the chem lab in October, I will probably have her skip this book. I did like it though. It is well-written and easy to read. It is really directed at an adult who wants an introduction to chemistry. The supplies for the labs were not too difficult to find. I made a list of all we would need, bought whatever I could from Amazon and the rest at my local supermarket or hardware store. I also had my son lead the labs himself. His ten-year-old sister was his audience/class so he had to read a chapter, figure out the lab and then lead her through it and explain it to her. He also used this book once a week through the whole year.

Exploring the World of Chemistry by John Hudson Tiner I didn’t have my son read this one but it is one I am considering for my daughter next year to replace Joy of Chemistry (see above). We have used Tiner’s books in the past and I have found them easy to read. Though they are thin and are perhaps more of a middle school level, I find that they contain a fair amount of info and that my kids retain them well. A thin book retained well beats a thick one that the child can’t remember in my estimation. My daughter is also less of a science-y type so I don’t mind going a little lighter with her.


The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into the Land of the Chemical Elements by P.W. Atkins Now we get into the living books which my son read. The Periodic Kingdom treats the periodic table as a land with different countries within it. This paradigm allows the author to explain the landscape of the periodic table and the relation of the elements to one another. I’m not big on memorizing things like the elements and their characteristics but this book allows one to get the lay of the land, if you will, and to see how it all fits together very nicely. My son did a great job narrating this book and seemed to enjoy it. An alternative to this book which I looked at was The Mystery of the Periodic Table by Benjamin Wiker and Jeanne Bendick. It seemed a simpler book along basically the same principles. It could also work for younger children.

Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry from Ancient Alchemy to Nuclear Fission by Bernard Jaffe As it name suggests, this book takes a historical approach to chemistry, showing its developments through time.

Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny LeCouteur I love how chemistry can be approached through different lenses. Napoleon’s Buttons looks at a number of molecules and tells their stories. An alternative which I looked at but didn’t like quite as much is The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. If you are looking for an explicitly Christian book, you might want to check out Elements of Faith by Richard Duncan.

Two I didn’t have time for but considered look at the chemistry in specific processes: The Chemical History of a Candle which I believe is a series of lectures by famed scientist Michael Faraday and That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles by Joe and Joseph Schwarcz. Edited 5/23/2020 to add: I have now read Schwarcz’s book and had my third child read it and I have to say this is a new favorite. Short, entertaining blurbs on chemistry-related subjects. It would work well just as a nature lore book for high school too. My third child also read Faraday’s book and it seems to have gone well.

Lastly, another one I wish we’d had time for:  Molecules of Murder by John Emsley looks at the chemistry in crime, specifically at poisons.







7 responses to this post.

  1. […] had my son do some labs on his own (actually with his 10 year old sister). You can read about that here. But it turns out we are going to have Landry labs near us so we are going to do that too. My son […]


  2. […] 10th grader will be doing chemistry using Life of Fred Chemistry, a selection of living books (see this post), and Landry labs two day […]


  3. […] anti-science curriculum. I don’t think you need anything formal until high school and even then I like to keep living books as the core of our curriculum. If you are doing nature journaling (and you should), you will want to get each child a decent […]


  4. Posted by Rebecca Brady on July 27, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    Thanks for listing all these! I am struggling what to do for Chemistry. Could you tell me which of these would be helpful in preparing for the ACT?


    • We chose to have my son do the SAT instead though he did do one ACT practice test. My understanding is that you really don’t need to know ant chemistry to take the ACT science portion. Most of the info is given in the problems and what they are testing is mainly reading, reasoning and graph interpreting skills. Having said which, I think the more you are familiar with basic concepts, the less overwhelming it would be. But I do mean basic concepts. Having had my dd go through chemistry now too, I would say Life of Fred is really just for kids who are serious about science and math. It is fairly intense. Tiner’s book, though simple, is a much better basic preparation. I really like Joy of Chemistry too though it is perhaps less well-rounded.


  5. I just wanted to say thanks for putting this out there, and the Biology post too. I am planning for next year, and considering books. It’s so nice to see a post with a normal amount of books, and how they worked and what you liked and just everything you have written. So many lists seem to have more material than anyone should ever expect, thanks for your real life picture. I am grateful.


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