Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

Book Review: Landscape with Dragons (updated)

Dear Reader,

It was pointed out to me that I made a pretty grievous error in the earlier version of this post (got the author’s name wrong — whoops!). Fpr some reason wordpress won’t let me edit that particular post, so here it is revised. The original post is from 2014. 

I have heard  a few times over the years about the book Landscape with Dragons by  Michael O’Brien. Most recently it was recommended at the Story-Formed Conference. My expectation going into this book, based on who I had heard about it from, was that it would be great. Having just finished reading it, I am not only disappointed but rather surprised as well (in a bad way)that it has such a good reputation. There is useful material in this book and it did make me think which is the main thing I like in a book, but I can’t say I agreed with it overall.

The author, Michael O’Brien, has some assumptions that are really pretty central to what he has to say. These include:

  • We are in the midst of a spiritual battleground:

“Christian parents must keep in mind that their child is an eternal soul, called by God into a world that is a spiritual battleground.” (p. 19)

  • Children are affected by what he calls “impressionism” (p. 168). By this he means that they are profoundly affected by the books they read (and even more so by the movies they see).
  • Given these two facts, parents have a big job before them:

“The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.” (p. 168)

In essence, I do not disagree with any of these points, and I did initially like the book and think that it would be all I had imagined. My problem comes when O’Brien gets down to the specifics of what he means.

O’Brien gives a list of questions one must ask oneself when evaluating a book:

“A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions when assessing a book, video, or film: Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe? Or does it undermine it? Does it do some of both? Do I want that? What precisely is the author saying about the nature of evil? What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil?” (p. 104)

These again are good questions, but it the application where we would begin to disagree. As I have said many times before in this blog, I am not generally bothered by fantastical or magical elements in books. While I do think books and stories have a great deal of power, I also think that we are capable of setting aside the world as we know it for a bit and accepting the world of the story without ultimately giving up our own values. There is a fine line here and I want to be careful how I say this. It is not that I would like or want my children to read a story which rejects the moral world I know completely. But I am willing to put up with a fair amount of magic and even things that might be labeled occult in our own world in a story-world. For instance, in our world if a wise old woman laid her hands on a hero to heal him of his wounds, I might scream “occult!” and say that the real power was from Satan. But I see no problem with reading a story in which this is part of the plot and is even portrayed in a positive light. Similarly, characters in a story might be able to read one another’s minds, but in real life I would not allow for such a thing to happen without demonic influence. I guess for me there is a distinction between the story’s natural laws and its moral laws. I am perfectly willing for the natural laws to change and for there to be magic which allows healing or mind-communication or other such things, but I would probably not like a story in which adultery and murder are acceptable and treated without disdain or consequences. I think my children also are able to distinguish between things which can happen in the real world and what can happen in  stories. This is why for the most part I am a lot more bothered by books set in this world in which siblings are always snarping at each other than by books with fantastical elements.

O’Brien also allows for some magic and fantastical elements in stories:

“The sun may be green and the fish may fly through the air, but however fantastical the imagined world, there is retained in it a faithfulness to the moral order of the actual universe.” (p. 28)

But, while not opposed to all magical elements, he takes a much harder line than I would in rejecting any story with what he deems occult elements. O’Brien is a big proponent of the works of C.S. lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and George MacDonald (as are many other Christians of all stripes). Though their works are often fantastical and contain magic, he sees a very different use of it in their writing:

“But there is an important difference: the neopagan sub-creation is very unlike Tolkien’s or Lewis’, for they portrayed original worlds in which the use of magic and clairvoyance is revealed as fraught with extreme danger. They demonstrate clearly the hidden seduction in the very powers that the neopagan proposes as instruments for the salvation of mankind.” (p. 106)

He distinguishes also between good and bad magic:

“Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world . . . False religion . . . makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.” (p. 29)

I will admit I am a bit lost at this point as to how he would distinguish appropriate and inappropriate magic in stories. All I can say is that O’Brien clearly is willing to accept magic in some forms but not others.

Thus far, there are a number of points we might agree on: Stories have power. Not all stories are wholesome and good and we should exercise some discrimination in what we allow our children to read. Magic or fantastical elements in and of themselves are not enough to disqualify a story. Where we would disagree is on where to draw the lines. I think O’Brien also gives a lot more power to stories than I do. There are reasons for this will I will get into in a few minutes.

Now I would like to address another major point O’Brien makes with which I cannot accept. A major thesis of his book is that traditional Christian symbols have been inverted in more modern literature and that this is always bad. The biggest such symbol is the snake or dragon. These, O’Brien says, have always been evil symbols in Christianity, and indeed in most cultures, and to use them in positive ways is anathema to him. O’Brien himself acknowledges that the dragon as evil is not quite universal (see p. 31), nonetheless he maintains not just that the dragon or serpent is a symbol of Satan, but that he is identified with Satan:

“Actual dragons may or may not have existed, but that is not our main concern here. What is important is that the Christian ‘myth’ of the dragon refers to a being who actually exists and who becomes very much more dangerous to us the less we believe he exists.” (p. 32)

And then he cautions against ever changing these representations:

“I pointed out that the meaning of symbols are not merely the capricious choices of a limited culture. We cannot arbitrarily rearrange them like so much furniture in the living room of the psyche. To tamper with these fundamental types is spiritually and psychologically dangerous  because they are keystones in the very structure of the mind.”(p. 55)

In other words, there is something very primal and basic about the snake or dragon as evil and it is wrong and even dangerous to portray them otherwise. He would not even allow snakes a pets it seems (see p. 58).

The changing of the dragon image he links with the occult in books, saying that both blur or invert the line between good and evil. He prefers a much more traditional world in which “dragons looked and acted like dragons” (p. 65). O’Brien laments any mixing up of these clear-cut lines. He laments the rise of children’s movies in which:

“‘Bad guys’ were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy. ‘Good guys’ were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed a foolish simpletons.” (p. 72)

O’Brien also rails against stories (particularly Disney films here) in which the bad guys are attractive. He sees this an another inversion of the classic fairytales and prefers that a character’s outer appearance should reflect his or her inner character. He seems to be saying here that God receives greater glory when attractive people praise Him:

“Similarly, when worship of God is done poorly, it is not necessarily invalid if the intention of the worshipper is sincere. But when it is done well, its is a greater sign of the coming glory when all things will be restored to Christ.” (p. 35)

I think part of the difference I have with O’Brien may come from our underlying theological beliefs. It becomes pretty clear as one reads through his book that he is a Roman Catholic. This comes out in a  number of ways. In his instructions to parents on how to choose good books for their children, he urges them to pray for wisdom not only to God but also to the saints and especially to Mary (p. 116). He also clearly believes in man’s free will and ability to choose good (p. 49, 113). These beliefs alone need not influence how we accept and evaluate books, but O’Brien also attributes much greater power to literature than I am comfortable with:

” . . . we must trust that over time the works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a reorientation of man.” (p. 119)

And again:

“That restoration will necessarily entail a regaining of our courage and a willingness to respond to the promptings of the Spirit, regardless of the odds that are stacked against us.” (p. 118)

Here is what I think is really the crux of the issue: Catholics like O’Brien sacrifice God’s sovereignty and emphasize man’s free will and ability to choose good or evil. In my (reformed) world, stories can have a big influence on us, yes, but any power they have is bounded by the immutable will of God. No story is going to save my child, but no story will cause him to lose his chance at salvation either. In the above two quotes, O’Brien makes it sound as if not only individual salvation but even the ultimate salvation of the world can be impacted by the books we read and the movies we see. With such beliefs, I can understand why he feels so passionately about his subject, but I disagree with his fundamental principles.

On the topic of Christian symbolism, we also disagree. I am just not bothered by dragons being good characters. O’Brien thinks stories are more interesting if the symbols are used “appropriately” (p. 65), but I would say stories are both more interesting and more realistic if they are not used in the expected ways. O’Brien doesn’t like when the traditional image of evil is used to portray good. He thinks this will affect the reader’s own ability to distinguish good and evil. I would say the opposite. In our world, evil is often disguised as good and to show attractive bad guys or dragons who are good only helps us to understand that we cannot judge by appearances or first impressions. He laments the complex character attributed to bad guys; I would say that people are complex and few are evil through and through (thanks to common grace). What we learn from stories is not just about good and evil but also about ourselves and our fellow men. Those are pretty complicated subjects.

To sum up, then, I find that I would say many of the things O’Brien says when it comes to generalizations about stories and their power. But when it comes down to specifics, we have a fair number of differences. I find his work somewhat alarmist and his standards too limiting. I would say that I trust more to the grace of God to help us extract good ideas even from imperfect stories (and apart from the Bible, they are all imperfect anyway). This book has some long discussions of specific books and movies including many Disney movies, the Star Wars saga, the works of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. Keeping in mind O’Brien’s starting point, it is still interesting to read his interpretations of these works though I think he often takes things too far. but this book could be useful as a starting point for forming one’s own opinions on these works.



My Literature List

Dear Reader,

Like a lot of you, I have collected lists of books, some form here, some from there. I had one document but it was very rough and unedited. Promoted by a friend, I took the time recently to edit it as best I can. I have tried to keep this list for books that we would consider literature/fiction/free reading/read alouds, but a few non-fiction books have crept onto the list. The line between history and historical fiction is a particularly fuzzy one.

There are many authors who have written more than one good book; some are quite prolific. For the most part, I have not listed every work so if you see an author listed here and then find other books of theirs, you may want to check them out. I have also tried to indicate in the “notes” column if I know the author has more to offer.

The “code” column relates to who in my family has read a book; you can ignore it.

I have gone back and forth on “level” and opted in the end for the simplest divisions. I have four main categories: picture (books), elementary, middle and high school (HS). Picture books are the most obvious. Elementary books are intended to be those an elementary student could read on their own. This includes a wide range from easy readers to chapter books to slightly more substantial but still relatively simple works. Middle is almost a catch-all between elementary and high school. Books on the high school category are placed there for various reasons relating to both reading level and content.  I also have middle+ and HS+ for those books which seem at the upper end of their age brackets; again this may be about content and not just reading level.

One last note: don’t be bound too much by levels. If a book is truly living, it will likely be enjoyed by all ages so your middle schooler can still listen to a picture book. And when read aloud, kids can understand and appreciate books well above their level. Some of our favorite read alouds were books that I thought were well above my kids at the time — I’ve read Don Quixote and Robin Hood and Dickens to elementary students to good effect.

I will try to update this list as we find more books we like. There are a few on the list which we haven’t used but which I have heard of so much that I felt they could stay (we never read Pinocchio, for instance).

Here then is the list:

My Big Literature List (opens a google doc)

If you have suggestions or corrections, let me know. It may be there are books I forgot (I think there must be a lot!) or haven’t heard of and we are always looking for new choices.

Happy reading!


The Best Free-Read Books

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, I ran across this quote:

“By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he reads The Swiss Family Robinson.

This point is worth considering in connection with Christmas books for the little people. Books of ‘comicalities’ cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have ‘funny books,’ but do not give the children too much nonsense reading.

Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” (Home Education, pp. 151-52)

Based on questions I see on CM discussion boards, I would say many of us find that once we have got a handle on how to pick “living books” for school, we are still at a loss when it comes to our children’s “free reading.”

“Free read” is not a term Charlotte used, but the “Christmas books” mentioned above seem to fill the same role. This phrase implies that books were treasured and given as gifts and that they were for the child’s pleasure. Nonetheless, standards still apply. Charlotte allows a place for “funny books,” but a small place.

Part of the problem in our own day is the immensity of what is available. I don’t think Charlotte could have even begin to imagine the large libraries our children would have access to. But even if she had conceived of public libraries with whole children’s rooms, would she have dreamed of how truly awful so many of those books could be? We are as those adrift, surrounded by a sea of undrinkable water. To those of us faced with so many unreadable books, what are we to do? How do we discriminate and find the gems in the oceans of trite chapter books?

Charlotte’s standards here are so much higher than our own. Many of us would be happy with Alice in Wonderland, considering it a classic that has stood the test of time. But Charlotte suggests that, while amusing, it is not reliable sustenance. For her this was a popular silly book (Can you imagine what she would have made of Captain Underpants?!). She recommends instead Swiss Family Robinson. Think about this for a minute: despite its unusual events and fantastical nature, Alice is incapable of inspiring the imagination the way Swiss Family Robinson can.

Lewis Carroll’s classic is too far out there, but other books may be too realistic. Charlotte mentions books about “George and Lucy.” George and Lucy do ordinary things and while the child could well imagine himself in such circumstances, he doesn’t need to. There is nothing new or extraordinary involved. On the other end of the spectrum, Alice is entertaining because it is so silly and unexpected, but one still doesn’t imagine oneself as Alice simply because it is all so extraordinary. Swiss Family Robinson is in the middle. It sucks us in because these are ordinary people like us but in very different circumstances. We can imagine ourselves there and live through the adventures with the characters.

But fantasy is not entirely to be rejected. Charlotte speaks of fairy tales “in which [children] are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” A book like Alice is so bizarre and the events in it are so incongruous that we cannot somehow settle into the story. In contrast, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It includes fantastical elements but we can and will readily suspend belief and imagine that we too have found a Psammead to grant us our wishes. The Lord of the Rings series posits a whole fantastical world, much as Alice does, but again we can imagine ourselves in this world. The key I think is that in this kind of fantasy, though the world may be so different from our own, the characters, the motives and the outcomes are still very much from our world. Though they be hobbits and wizards, yet there is something very human here.

If you are a reader, you probably do not need me to tell you what a good book is like. You have no doubt felt it for yourself — If you are sorry to leave it when it is done, if you are interrupted in your reading and look up surprised that you are not on that desert island or in that igloo, if the characters become friends you are sorry to leave, then you have experienced such a book.

As I prepared this post, I realized that I am reading such a book myself — My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I would tell you more but I am anxious to get back to Corfu so . . .  another time.



Living Books on the 2000s

Dear Reader,

We are finishing up modern/American history! Here is my last booklist on this era. You can find all my booklists here.

Living Books on the 2000s

As we neared the end of the school year, I tried to zero in on the biggest topics to cover from the years 2000-2017. Here is the list I came up with:

  • The Election of 2000
  • The 9-11 Terrorist Attacks
  • The War on Terror including the War in Iraq
  • The Tsunami of 2004
  • Hurricane Katrina (2005)
  • The Obama Years

I am going to save 9-11 and the War on Terror for another post because there is so much to sort through but here is what I looked at for the rest of the 2000s:

Overview of the 2000s:

2000s 1

The 2000s: Decade in Photos by Jim Corrigan — photos but also text. About a 2 page spread on each topic. Not truly living perhaps but a way to get some events covered that one might not find other books on. Upper elementary to middle school. 57pp

The Election of 2000

Elaine Landau The 2000 Presidential Election — Not badly written. Seems relatively engaging. Upper elementary. 40pp. I had my 6th grader read it. She says “it was written well” and “it was fine.”

Election 2000: A Lesson in Civics — Very choppy. Author not easy to find. Not living.

Diana K. Sergis Bush v. Gore: Controversial Presidential Election Case — Focuses in the Supreme Court case. Gives historical perspective. Seems decent. Middle school level. 109 pp. I wish I had had time to have someone read this one.

Ted Gottfried The 2000 Election— Some historical perspective. Straight forward. Not too bad. Upper elementary to middle school. 55 pp

The Election of 2000 and the Administration of George W. Bush ed. by Arthur Schlesinger– Covers both the Election and Bush’s time in office. Seems too packed with names and numbers. Second half is mainly primary sources like speeches. Middle school. 120 pp

The Tsunami of 2004

In contrast to Katrina (see below), I found relatively few children’s book on the Tsunami that devastated Asia in December 2004.

The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis — fiction re two teens surviving the tsunami. High school. 220 pp. I wonder how it deals with religion and romance between the characters.

The Tsunami of 2004 by Gail P. Stewart — Middle school. 89pp. I had my 7th grader read this one. I like this series for modern non-fiction.

Hurricane Katrina (2005)

There are a lot of kids’ books on Katrina. It is one of those topics which seems to have fascinated writers at least. I tried to get all the middle school and up ones that I could from my local library and to at least skim through them so that I can point you to the best ones.


Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick — The title of the first chapter is “My Stupid Trip to Smellyville.” The books says up front it will be gross and the tone, narrated by the tween (?) protagonist, is quite colloquial. I’m sure one can get facts about the hurricane from it but this is not great fiction. Middle school chapter book.

At the Crossroads by Travis Hunter — A longer chapter book, maybe later middle school. The narration isn’t quite so colloquial but the characters’ speech is. I got bored in the first chapter.

Buddy by M.H. Herlong — Though the young narrator uses his own dialect, this one’s a lot more readable. It’s the story of a boy and his dog in the hurricane. The first chapter makes me want to read more though I wouldn’t call it high quality writing. Middle school level again. Updated to add: I am reading this one aloud to my two middle schoolers and we are all enjoying it. The hurricane doesn’t come till at least half way through the book  but it is a good story that gives you a feel for the life of some of New Orleans’ poorer residents. I like that a lot of details, including even the race of the main characters, is implied and can be discerned but is not made too obvious.

Between Two Skies by Joanne O’Sullivan — From the start you can tell this one includes more of the unique culture of Louisiana, but the first chapter doesn’t capture my interest as much. Some concern over content as skimming through one character’s mother is described as “in too-short jeans and a bikini top, clearly wasted, … grinding up against some sketchy guy.” Not hard reading but I’d call it high school level for content.

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods — Another boy and dog story. A shorter book at only about 100 pages. But I can’t get into it and don’t particularly want to read it.

Hurricane Song by Paul Volponi — Life in the Superdome after Katrina hits. A broken family situation is prominent. This is the second most engaging book so far but it’s not that good. Middle school level again.

Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick — After chapter 1, I don’t really like these characters. Three vain kids concerned about trivial things and I’m sure the whole point of the book is that they learn what’s important but I just don’t care.

Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith — Hurricane Katrina and Tropical Storm Irene. Two boys, one from New Orleans and one from New Hampshire (?). I’m intrigued and willing to read more.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers — From the adult section of the library. The main characters are adults, parents, but I think an older child (high school) could get into it. I may read the whole thing myself. Updated to add: I read this book. At times, I couldn’t put it down. But it was hard to read in the sense that there are a lot of tough events. I would not give this to anyone below high school and even then you might want to preview for content. I also did not like the portrayal of Christians. There were a few positive Christian characters but the bad ones stood out a lot more. This is a true story. The writing is not stellar.


The Storm compiled by Barbara Barbieri McGrath — students drawings and writings; picture book

Drowned City by Don Brown — graphic novel look; simply written but powerful because of the images and the glimpses into what people thought and felt. I don’t usually use graphic novels but this book was the right length for the time we had to fill for my 6th grader. She was very excited to read a “comic book.” I was shocked by how much detail she could narrate from such a book.

Mangled by a Hurricane by Miriam Aronin — as bad as it sounds

Hurricane Katrina: Survival Stories by Jeanne Marie Ford — 4 stories from Katrina. Okay but not overly engaging. Upper elementary

Hurricane Katrina: Devastation on the Gulf Coast by Debra A. Miller– I’ve liked some of Miller’s other books. She often gives a good overview interspersed with primary sources and divergent opinions on an issue. One of the better non-fiction books. 87pp. Middle school level

Hurricane Katrina: An Interactive Modern History Adventure by Blake Hoena — a choose your own adventure book. Upper elementary to middle school

The Obama Years


The Obama View by Karen Gibson Bush — re the 2008 election. Seems decent though not great. The style is somewhat engaging. Upper elementary to early middle school. 40 pp. My 6th grader says it was okay.

Happy Reading!






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!



Living Books on the American West

Dear Reader,

In our study of American history, we have reached the latter half of the 19th century. I am dealing with this period somewhat topically; we just finished  a study of the west and will next address industrialization. The are a number of topics subsumed under this heading: Native Americans, cowboys, pioneer life, the gold rush, the settlement of the west and its closing, plains farming and ranching, and the beginnings of the move for conservation. You can find all our reading lists for American history here.

Living Books on the American West

Our Spine

We used, as we usually do, a spine book which I read aloud to all the kids. This book provides and overview of the era and ensures that we don’t have any huge gaps . My children (4 of them, ages 10-15) can then read more in-depth books on specific topics at their own level. Our spine this year has been the series The American Destiny by Henry Steele Commager. It is aimed at a high school level (which two of mine are) and though I am not 100% satisfied with it (it can be a bit dry) and I am content enough with it to see it through this year at least.  Volume 8 of this 20-volume series address the west.

Picture Books

There is no shortage of books on the west; it is one of those topics which captures the imagination. I’m sure there are many good picture books on the subject. We read just a few (my kids are getting a bit old for picture books). Here are some to look for:

Klara’s New World by Jeanette Winter is a long picture book. It is the story of a young girl who emigrates with her parents to America (from Sweden, I think). The book mostly describes their journey, with only a little about their life in the New World, and nothing really on the hardships of being a pioneer.

Dakota Dugout by Anne Turner is another long picture book. As its name suggests it tells about like in a dugout house on the prairie.

Glen Rounds has a number if picture books on the west. We read Cowboys and Sod Houses on the Great Plains. The former was very short and well below my kids’ levels but Rounds’ pictures are nice and it would be good for pre-K through maybe 1st or 2nd grade. The latter was a little more complex (though that’s not saying much) and did give a good description of what sod houses were like.

Fiction: chapter books and beyond

We weren’t able to get to all the books we would have liked. I did not read Smokey the Cow Horse by Will James. My librarian was very excited I was checking it out though and apparently had fond memories of it. It looks like a nice old book but was a little long for us right now. It is fairly thick.

We’ve enjoyed Sterling North’s books in the past but didn’t manage to get to The Wolfling. None of my kids are that into animal books right now but if you have one who connects better with animals than people, this could be a good choice.

I checked out Carolina’s Courage by Elizabeth Yates, but my 10-year-old told me I ad made her read it last year when we studied Native Americans. Like most of Yates’ books, it is a sweet one and not too difficult. I would call it 3rd-5th grade level.

I did have my 10-year-old read Thunder Rolling in the Mountains by Scott O’Dell. O’Dell is an author I always look for; he has many historical fiction books. This is one of his simpler ones; I would call it 4th-6th grade level. My daughter seemed to enjoy the story which is about a Native American girl whose tribe is forced to move. She meets Sitting Bull at the end.

We did not get to Donna Vann’s Wild West Adventures. It is part of  a series which I am tempted to use for geography, each volume being set in a different locale. It looks to be 4th-6th grade level and to be a wholesome, Christian series. It might be a bit obvious on the Christianity bit for my tastes but some like that.

I had my 6th grader read The Bite of the Gold Bug by Barthe deClements. If anything, it was too easy for him so I’d say it is again 4th-6th grade level. I don’t think it’s fine literature but it did give some sense of life in the gold rush.

I had my 9th grade daughter read My Antonia by Willa Cather. This is a classic make-your-high-schooler-read-it book. I had never read it myself and really enjoyed it. I tend to be skeptical of the books everyone reads but this one is well worth it. I also read another of Cather’s books, O, Pioneers! which I also enjoyed. It is slower to get started and I can see why My Antonia is the one most people go to, but it is still a good book if you have the time. Both are about Scandinavian immigrant families on the plains.


I had my 5th grader read The Story of the Homestead Act from R. Conrad Stein. This series, The Cornerstones of Freedom, is a good one if you get the older version. Look for the books with “story of” in the title. I believe there are others that would fit this time period too but I didn’t get them from my library in time.

I also had my 5th grader read Wild and Woolly West by Earl Schenck Miers. It’s one of those lovely older books which do a good job of making a story of history.

My 6th grader read War Clouds in the West by Albert Marrin and Westward Adventure by William O. Steele. Both are favorite authors. War Clouds is one of Marrin’s simpler books and I would call it middle school level (most of his I would use for high school). Westward Adventure is also middle school level and is really six short biographies in one though at the end they all come together.

I also had my 5th grader read Saving the Buffalo by Albert Marrin which, not surprisingly tells all about the buffalo, the extinction they faced, and how they have come back. She seemed genuinely concerned for them which seems like a good sign.

I read Holling C. Holling’s The Book of Cowboys aloud to my younger two. I didn’t used to be a fan of Holling’s books but they are growing on me. Some parts of this one dragged (we weren’t very interested in all the kinds of saddles) but it is not a bad story and is certainly thorough. Two New York City kids go to the west to spend a summer with their uncle on his ranch.

My 9th grader read yet another Marrin book: Cowboys, Indians and Gunfighters. This one is a little harder so I am calling it high school level, though Marrin’s books are well-written and not truly difficult. In the interest of honestly, I’ll tell you my 10th grader, who has done the most Marrin books, balked at doing another one, though his reason was that they are really too thorough which I consider a good thing.

I did have my 10th grader read Ghost Towns of the American West by Robert Silverberg. We have done a couple of his books previously as well and have enjoyed them. He narrated it well and seemed to enjoy the book.

Poetry and Movies


We already owned Tales from Gizzard’s Grill, a long poem by Jeanne Steig. It is silly fun.

We also watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the old movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. We all thoroughly enjoyed it. There are one or two bits that are a bit racy (though nothing is really shown) and you do see that a man and woman are sleeping together. But there is enough humor and plot for a modern kid. We had also watched a number of Gene Autry movies recently (in another context) and my kids enjoyed those as well. They tend to be on the short side which is nice and are completely wholesome.

Next up: the Industrial Revolution


Picking Living Books

Dear Reader,

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.


Is there a place for twaddle?

Dear Reader,

Those new to Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy often wonder if they should allow their children to read “fun” books. Does every book need to be a living one? Is there room in one’s life for Captain Underpants if that is what your child prefers? What about the American Girl books or Magic Treehouse?

From a favorite book of mine, The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham, I find this answer:

“There is a place in life for the novel, the love-story, the frolic of an author’s fancy. It is sometime pleasing and restful to leave a world of facts and sail out on the fairy seas of fiction. The product of a great imagination has its irresistible charm. We are among the shallows of literature, it is true, but then we are only attempting to minister to the shallows of life. The danger comes when we settle down to the shallows; when we never hear the voice of the deep; and when the deep within us becomes neglected and starved. It is good sometimes to get away from the shallows into the deeps; to enter into fellowships with the great masters; to feel the throb of reality; and to grapple with the problems of the universe.” (from The Golden Milestone by Frank Boreham; emphasis his)

Now there are fairytales and such that we would consider living books. The test here is not whether a book is found in the fiction of non-fiction section of one’s local library. I think Boreham uses the words fiction and novel more to denote the sort of books which we would today call “popular fiction” or “beach reading.” Nonetheless, his point, I think is a good one. There is a place for our lives, and our children’s, for these easier, more purely entertaining books.  The danger comes when we do not delve deeper and challenge ourselves with deeper works.

Charlotte Mason uses the analogy fo food and I think it is (if you will pardon the pun) a fruitful one. Those quality living books are the meat and vegetable sof life; they contain the proteins and vitamins which out bodies need and without which they can’t thrive or ultimately even fiction. There are other works which are more along the lines of white bread; they are not awful for one but they would not sustain one in a healthy way for long if they were all one took in. Still others are perhaps the sweets; they may be thoroughly enjoyable and in small doses will do no ultimate harm but in large doses there is danger. And without naming names, I think there are also some which are poison; which should be avoided at all costs.

The lines we draw may be different, even within a  family there may be one child who can tolerate more “sweets” than another. For my own kids, I am willing to put up with a certain amount of Magic Treehouse; I do draw the line at Captain Underpants. But then sometimes if all a child has known is the teeth-rotting books, one must make the transition gradually. And over time, I do find that the palate changes and the child comes to enjoy the “vegetable” books and even to ask for them.

This analogy has probably already been stretched too far but indulge me in one more thought: the good advice which applies to food may also apply here — Avoid battles; Sneak in the healthy things as you can (audio books in the car are one example); Require a bite fo two of the quality nourishment every “meal”; But if you find youself cajoling and wheelding, just stop and back off; and, lastly, Be persistent.


Let’s Play Guess which is the Living Book

Dear Reader,

Ready for a game? Below are the first paragraphs from two history books I picked up for my kids’ schooling this year. You tell me which one is the living book. Bonus points if you tell me which one was published first. Spoiler: this should be super easy. Comment below with your answer. When I get the right response, I tell you what the books are. Ready? Here we go:

Book #1:

“When John Brown was born in 1800, the United States was a young and growing country. Settlers poured into the new territories of the West. They built towns and turned forests into farmland. New states were added to the Union, and the country’s population swelled. Americans were very proud of their country. Many people claimed there was more freedom on the United States than in any other country in the world. However, in the southern states, almost one million blacks wore the chains of slavery.”

Book #2:

“Gunshots cracked the cold grey dawn of October 17, 1859 in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Awakened by the noise, frightened citizens hastily dresses and gathered in the streets. “What is it?” “What has happened?” they nervously asked one another.”

Bring on those guesses!


p.s. Double bonus: tell me which one makes you want to keep reading.

Percolating Thoughts on Kids’ Lit, Fairy Tales, the Occult

Dear Reader,

I have been reading a new (to me) book on fairy tales, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner. I hope to do a more complete book review but I haven’t finished the book yet so it seems a little premature to pass judgment on it. I will say that it is a fairly dense book and not, despite its title, what I would call short. I suppose if one were a fairy take scholar one would read it and think how much more could be said so it may be a short history in that sense, but it is not a short book.

Not being a fairy take scholar myself, and only having a recreational interest in the subject, I find it a bit hard going at parts, but there are gems in there which intrigue me and make me think. I’d like to focus on one of those today. The author, Warner, shows that fairy tales include elements from whatever time and place they emanate from. They are stories for and about the ordinary people and ordinary life (Kindle Loc. 1234). This will seem at first glance, perhaps, quite the opposite of true since the situations and events in fairy tales tend to be so fanciful and, frankly, unrealistic. But, Warner says, “Fairy tales used to transmute the horrors by setting them once upon a time and far away, and in this way did not directly raise the spectre of a killer next door but smuggled their warnings under cover of magic storytelling” (Kindle loc. 1290). In other words, real horrors are dealt with by moving them to extraordinary settings. But they are, nonetheless, real horrors. By doing so, “the plots [or fairy tales] convey messages of resistance — a hope of escape” (Kindle Loc. 1285).

The thought I had, and the reason I bring this all up, is that fairy tale plots and themes are so very prominent in children’s literature today that one must wonder what needs there are among the young that are being met by such stories. I should say that these books are not, by Warner’s definition, fairy tales. But they do contain fairy tale elements, and often build upon well-known fairy tales. If you, like I, have scoured your library’s children’s section, and particularly the young adult section, for new things for your child to read, you have probably seen as I have that there is an awful lot out there that has to do with princesses, vampires, zombies, aliens, magicians, sorcerers, werewolves, . . . the list goes on and on. I do not inherently object to such things; I have written in that previously. But there is a point at which it just gets to be too much. And reading Warner’s book on the role of fairy tales makes me wonder if there is more going on in our society and in the lives of our tweens and teens than we have thought about.

I get e-mails daily from BookBub which gives me links to free and cheap Kindle books in categories I have selected one of which is “Teen and Young Adult.” Here are some of the blurbs from books they have offered recently:

“On her 18th birthday, Katalina Winter’s life changes forever. Alone, she must navigate a warring world, where her only chance at survival is embracing her deepest secret: She is a pureblood wolf shifter. Her status may save her life — if she uses it wisely.”

“This romantic fantasy simmers and soars: Crown Princess Angeline must rely on dangerous rogue Connor to regain control of her kingdom, but all the while opportunistic enemies scheme for the throne.” (from a series called Bloodtruth)

“From a USA Today bestselling author comes a gripping collision between love and destiny… Shane was born to hunt vampires like Maggie, but senses there’s something different about her. Will her dark secret destroy them both?”

These are just a few examples I still had in my inbox, but I think they begin to show common themes. The young protagonist has some special power or is in some way not fully human (vampire, werewolf, etc.). He or she is faced with a challenge, often has to leave their home and enter a new world. And there is often a romantic interest who is also different in some way and who pulls them away from their home and family. I know these threads are not unique or new. What’s a story without some sort of challenge to overcome after all? And kids’ books often have the child separating, or being forcefully separated, from their parents. It’s rather a necessary plot device that allows the character to grow up. I have even blogged on that before here. But I still feel the current crop of kid’s lit goes beyond what was around when I was young. Which leads me to ask, if these kids are feeling the need for escape, what are they escaping from? What are they feeling more or differently than previous generations?

I don’t have the answers to these questions except to think that as a group teens are not being given ay sort of spiritual foundation. They know there is something more, something different which is needed, they know even that there is the potential to be more than human, but they have no outlet for these feelings so they create them, or have them created for them, in books.

What do you think? I am way off base here? Has someone already completely given the answers to all these questions?


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