Posts Tagged ‘living books’

Method vs. System in the Law of God and Living Books

Dear Reader,

In the very CM spirit of making connections, I would like to discuss educational methods,  living books, and the Law of God.

In Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education, she urges parents to consider the “method” behind their parenting but not to be sucked into accepting a “system.” Following a method, she says, implies “an idea, a mental image, of the end of object to be arrived at” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education; Wilder Publications, 2008; p. 18). But, Charlotte warns, a method may degenerate into a system which “is pledged to more definite calculable results” (p. 18) and “is mischievous, as producing only mechanical action instead of the vital growth and movement of a living being” (p. 19). Notice the contrasts: A method is an idea, a system is mechanical; a method aims at an image whereas the results one gets from a system are quantifiable. With a method, you have a picture in your head of where you are going. With a system, you can use a checklist: Have I done this or that? You can assign a number (a test score perhaps).

A system is not living and should not be used on living beings; it is for things. But a method takes into account the needs of living beings. It accounts for personality. If a method is an idea, it follows that a system is fact-based. So we see the first connection: as a method is to a system so living books are to textbooks. The one gives ideas and feeds a living soul; the other is mechanical and fact-based. It is not fit food for a living being. The attraction of a system is that it is quantifiable — you can measure it and you know what you are getting. So too when we assign a non-living book, we can give fill in the blank questions. We know what we want — specific facts — and we can check off whether the student has learned them. Not so a living book which demands narrations. One test of a living book is that Jane and Bob will get different things out of it or even that if Bob rereads it he may get new things out of it. Its results are unpredictable, but of far greater value than the facts we get from our textbooks.

I am indebted to one of the members of my local CM discussion group for the second connection. She equated method and system to the Law and Gospel. I am going to alter this slightly. I think the line is not between Law and Gospel but between what God’s Law truly is and how we portray it. God’s Law (and have said before in this post and this one) is a perfect image. God in  His being defines what is good. His Law is not a list of do’s and don’ts but is a perfect picture. If we were doing picture study, I would show you a picture — let’s say it’s the Mona Lisa — and ask you to describe it. You might do a wonderful job and tell me about the woman and what she is wearing and how she is smiling and even maybe say something about the artist’s brushstrokes and how he achieved his effect (if you are very good at these things). But if I took your description and handed it to another artist and said “now paint this,” would he produce the Mona Lisa? Of course not. No matter how good your description of the picture is it cannot truly convey the picture itself. So too our synopses of the Law of God do not accurately convey the Law. Even the best of them — of which the 10 Commandments is one — are only approximations. This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees when He chastises them for obeying the letter and not the spirit of the Law. It is what He teaches when He says that “Thou shalt not murder” also means don’t curse your brother or that lust is akin to adultery. The best summation of the Law is the briefest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” But we don’t like this because it is hard to see if we are doing it. We want that checklist; we want quantifiable results. God humors us in that to a certain extent; He does give us the Ten Commandments, as well as various other summations of His Law, but they are all imperfect; they cannot truly encapsulate a Law that is just as full and perfect as its Creator.

I started with Charlotte Mason’s discussion of parenting philosophies so I will end there. Parenting is a big, important job. It’s not one you can do over (at least not with the same child) and, because we love our children, we consider the outcomes vitally important. We really, really don’t want to mess this one up. I think we often start with a method in our heads; we have some picture or where we want to go. But we get tense about the results and whether we are really getting there so, as Charlotte says, we let it degenerate into a system with quantifiable results. It doesn’t help that this is a long-term project and the outcomes are not easily or soon visible. But — just as in our efforts to keep God’s Law — the answer is not in ourselves. The answer is in the Gospel. It is Grace. It is God doing for us what we cannot do ourselves.


Living Books on Anatomy and Medicine

Dear Reader,

Rather inadvertently, my 7th grader has ended up reading a number of books this year on anatomy and medicine so I thought I would share what he has read this year as well as some books we used in the past. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Though not the first book he read, John Hudson Tiner’s History of Medicine would be a good place to start.


Tiner’s books are generally middle school level though I have used them in high school as well (especially for non-science kids). Though they have lists of questions at the end of each chapter, we just use them as we would any other living book — read and narrate, read and narrate. Though they may appear textbook-y, they really are quite readable. I like the history of science approach of this one.

Another middle school age book — I am Joe’s Body by J. D. Ratcliff — goes through the body systems one by one. Though older (and perhaps harder to find), it is quite detailed. There may be some things which have changed in our understanding over the years though I think it’s always nice to be able to point these out and show that science is not static.  I would not use this book for elementary but you could use it in high school as well.

One of my favorite books was a use book find from a number of years ago: Spare Parts: From Peg Legs to Gene Splices by Wendy B. Murphy (pic below) is about all the ways we alter the human body, from ancient prosthetic noses to modern genetic engineering. Middle school level again though I use it as part of my high school biology reading list.


Another winner: Phineas Gage by John Fleischman. This is the true story of a New Hampshire man who got (I think) a railroad spike through his head, the problems he faced and what his doctors learned about the brain from him. It is not long and is engaging reading.

Albert Marrin is one of our favorite authors. Many of his books are on history, but he has a couple on science. One I’ve used for high school biology is Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster, a book about smallpox. Another to consider is Little Monsters: The Creatures that Live in Us and on Us. I may have my son do this one next.


Again, probably a high school level book: Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself by George Gamow. My Tompkins literally goes inside himself and explores all his bodily systems.

Lastly, a few books for younger kids: The Brain: What it is, What it does –well, you can guess what that’s about and Your Insides by Joanna Cole (oh she of Magic School Bus fame; I won’t even begin to list Magic School Bus books; you can look them up on your own if you like them). The latter is one of these flip and see inside books. Both are elementary level. Blood and Guts which is from The Brown Paper School has text and simple experiments. We used it a few years ago. I would call it upper elementary to middle school level. Not perhaps a true living book but it is written in an engaging manner. There is one illustration of mammals and their brain sizes that I can still picture in my head. Lastly, if you have a boy resistant to reading, you might try the Andrew Lost series by J.C. Greenburg. My oldest enjoyed them for a time. They are chapter books on about the level of Magus Treehouse. I am sure they will strike some as not real living books. A boy and his friend (cousin? It’s been a while and I’m not sure) get shrunk and go on some gross adventures — but at least they are gross in a finding out about anatomy and plumbing sort of way.

Happy reading!



Living Books on the 1950s

Dear Reader,

This is part of a continuing series as we work our way through American history. You can find all my booklists here.

Our spine series this year is called Our Century. Though perhaps not living by some definitions, it is well written. You can read the earlier posts for more on why we are using this series (which has a lot to do with availability).

I am finding that there are some eras for which little is available. The 1950s is one of these. When we come to the 60s and Vietnam, there is a ton out there, but there seems to be a dearth of good books for kids on the 1950s. Even in the Truthquest guide for the period (which I use as a bibliography), I couldn’t find much. We are only spending a week or two 50s, but I will still disappointed with the selection.

The two big topics for this decade are the Cold War and Civil Rights. I am trying to give my 11th grader a more global perspective so I am him read The Long Peace by John Lewis Caddis.

The book really covers much more then just the 50s and it will take him at least a month to read so this will be his history for a while. We had this book on our shelf, I assume from some class my husband did in college. I read the beginning and while it is dense I found it quite readable.

My 6th grader read The Story of the Cold War from the Cornerstones of Freedom series. I like this series for upper elementary and early middle school to get a brief introduction to a topic we can’t spend a lot of time on (see this post for more on the series and why you should look for the older editions).

My 7th grader read The Berlin Wall by Lisa Mirabile. He says it was a “decent sort of book” which is high praise from him 😉 It could be used for upper elementary as well. I think it does a pretty good job of showing the impact of the wall.

The second big topic from the 1950s is Civil Rights.

I had my 10th grader read The Barred Road by Adele Leeuw. It is fiction — the story of a white girl who, against her mother’s wishes, works with black children and makes friends with the new black family next door. This is a book to give the feel of what it was like to be black, or white, then, not to get specific historical information from. She seems to be enjoying the story.

My 6th grader also read Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli. The book itself was not hard and could be used at a younger age. De Angeli is a well-known author so I had high expectations but I’m not sure my daughter got as much from the book as I would have liked.

I read North Star Shining aloud to my two younger ones. It is poetry showing the plight and progress of African Americans in the US. It talks about both the general and about specific people. I enjoyed reading it for the sound of the poetry. One could certainly use it with elementary age but you could also use it even in high school I think if you wanted to take the time to learn a little about each of the people it mentions.

I looked at but did not use two other books on the plight of African Americans: Going North by Janice N. Harrington and Time of Trial, Time of Hope: The Negro in America, 1919-1941 by Milton Meltzer. The former seemed too simple for my children; it has relatively few words but might be good for lower elementary. The latter, as its subtitle suggests, really covers the period of the world wars. It looked good but wasn’t quite what I was looking for right now.

That’s all I’ve got on the 50s. Next up: the 60s and the Vietnam War (lots of books there!)


Living Books on WWII

Dear Reader,

We spent four weeks on World War II which is a lot for us this year with more than 100 years to get through (1900-present). Still there are so many books I wish we had gotten to but didn’t have time for. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Living Books on WWII

We continued with our spine series Our Century. I won’t dwell on it; you can read my reasons for using this series in earlier posts. To this I added another book that covers the scope of the war:


The Good Fight by Stephen Ambrose covers the major battles and movements of WWII in a page each. It doesn’t look too much like a living book on the surface, but I was pleasantly surprised by the content. Though Ambrose gives sidebars of “quick facts” and only spends a page on each subject, his writing is good. He incorporates quotes and little tidbits from those involved and manages to make each little segment a bit of a story. FYI this appears to be the same Stephen E. Ambrose who wrote Band of Brothers and other adult books (which you might want to consider if you have a high schooler).

My 11th grader read Hitler’s Cross by Erwin Lutzer. I’m a little jealous; I wanted to read this one myself 😉 Lutzer is a retired pastor and writes about Hitler’s Christianity and his theological import (is he the/a antichrist?). My son ate this up. He even went online himself to look up Lutzer and his church to check his credentials.

I love Albert Marrin (my children are of mixed opinions). His books tends to pick a specific aspect (Stalin, the war in the air) but to nonetheless cover pretty much all of a topic. We only made use of one this time: my 10th grader read Uprooted about the Japanese internment camps in the US. Generally Marrin’s books are high school level though he has some that are simpler.

Another favorite author, Irving Werstein, writes at a slightly easier level; most of his books are middle school level. He too has a lot of books on specific subjects within the broader heading of WWII. I had my 7th grader read The Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.


My 6th grader also read a Werstein book, The Long Escape about children escaping from Belgium during the war.

The stories of people escaping and/or hiding from the Nazis have given any authors many wonderful stories. I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the books available. But here are some we used or considered:

Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan tells the story of Norwegian children helping to secret their country’s gold out of the country right under the noses of Nazi soldiers. We happened to have a long car trip so we listened to the audio-book version.

Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop is a charming story about some children who having fled the city themselves, help hide Jewish children from the Nazis. I read it aloud to my two younger children (though it is really elementary level).

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is upper elementary-middle school level. Again, a girl’s family helps her Jewish friend escape. We did this one as a read-aloud as well (trying to squeeze in as many books as possible).

My 7th grader also read Silence over Dunkerque by John R. Tunis. It tells the story of a soldier and his family during the British and French evacuation of France early in the war.

Books we considered but didn’t have time for: The Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert, When the Sirens Wailed by Noel Streatfield (at one point my older daughter read a number of Streatfield books), and That Denmark Might Live by Irving Werstein (again).

Next up: the 1950s.


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.


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!



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