The term “living books,” originally coined by Charlotte Mason, has become well known among homeschoolers. But just because a term is familiar doesn’t mean it’s automatically understood. So, what exactly are living books?
Simply put, living books are those that breathe life into learning.
For instance, living books bring history to life by telling the stories behind the history. Biographies, historical fiction, and classics, whether in picture book style, unabridged format, or anything in between, are all examples of living books. Even science and math can become clearer to a young mind by using living books to bring to life the people and processes behind concepts.
How do I know if a book is a living book or not?
Do you remember some of the textbooks you had to read in grade school or college? Books that reduce the learning experience to a list of dry facts or memorization of key points typically do not fit the living books description because they distance the facts from life. Well-written biographies and vivid historical fiction, on the other hand, help readers grasp real-life context for the information they are attempting to learn.
The distinction between dry textbooks and vivid biographies and fiction is pretty easy to see. But, other books that fall outside the living book category are not always dry and boring. In fact, many of them are quite fun and entertaining. This is where we must distinguish not between dry and interesting, but between rich and what Charlotte Mason referred to as “twaddle.”
Merriam-Webster defines twaddle as silly, idle talk or as something insignificant or worthless.
In literary terms, twaddle refers to a book that has no intrinsic value other than pure entertainment. It does not breathe life into history, clarify a concept, teach a philosophical or spiritual lesson, or introduce the reader to an important individual, past or present. Some people say that all twaddle is bad while others believe that reading some books just for the sake of fun and entertainment is a healthy thing.
How do I find living books?
You might be feeling a little overwhelmed right now, thinking that you have to pre-read every book that comes into your home to determine whether or not it qualifies as a living book. Fortunately, there are so many easy ways to find living books! Here are a few ways to get started.
Dive into the Classics
Did you ever read A Little Princess or The Secret Garden? What about the Little House on the Prairie series, titles by Louisa May Alcott or Jules Verne, or even Black Beauty and Swiss Family Robinson? And don’t forget a little Shakespeare here and there! Titles and authors like these can be found in formats ranging from illustrated children’s versions to free public domain e-books, and they draw children into a delightful world of classic literature.
Choose lesson plans built around living books. Many families avoid this option because of the cost of buying so many books. But there are ways to pursue this option without breaking the bank! You can check with your local library to see what books you can borrow, even if it means that you have to juggle timing a little bit to fit with availability. Used book sites are also a very helpful and cost-effective way to build your living book library.
Ask fellow home- schoolers to share their favorites. But, beware! If you ask for a list of book suggestions from a living book lover, you might get more than you bargained for!
If you enjoy one book from a series or fall in love with a book by a particular author, head to your local library and look for the rest of the series or other titles by that author.
A quick Google search for living books can provide a wide range of book lists for you to peruse. The best lists are those that help you see what books are best for what age or grade.
As you explore books, keep in mind that what some readers think of as dry and boring, others may love and devour! This can vary from family to family but also from child to child, so pay attention to what piques your unique child’s interests—and remember that it very well might be different from what captivates you.
Also, when considering recommendations from friends or other sources, remember that there are even times when one person may consider a novel to be twaddle while another person can point out all of the amazing things they learned from that novel.
With that in mind, here are two additional factors to consider when looking for a living book:
The personality of a reader often dictates what differentiates dry from rich. For instance, a child fascinated by ships might find a ship encyclopedia to be thoroughly engaging while one of his parents would be bored to tears by such reading. Some readers devour everything Jane Austen ever wrote while others struggle to find value in persevering through the first chapter.
Learning styles and preferences also play strongly into the evaluation. Some fully engage with non-fiction while others learn best through story. Some love information presented in fun blips while others find that approach chaotic.
When you’re looking for living books to fit a certain personality or learning style, ask yourself two questions:
- What is being learned?
- Is the learning engaging and captivating, or is it a struggle?
The first question eliminates twaddle while the second ensures a lack of dryness.
How to Use Living Books
The final piece of the puzzle is how to use living books once you’ve found them!
Because living books draw students into a time period or a person’s life, they naturally cement information in ways that textbooks and the memorization of facts cannot accomplish. This makes them an amazing component of any homeschool curriculum.
With that in mind, here are three ways to use living books:
Use living books to supplement a unit study or textbook. Look at your lesson plans for the coming month and select one or two topics to explore further. Take your topics to the library and ask your librarian for great, age-appropriate titles that coordinate with those topics.
Are you ready to replace your dry textbooks with living books? The easiest way to do this is by exploring history chronologically. Pick a timeframe (such as ancient history), establish a timeline of topics, then head to the library to find books that flow with your timeline.
There is no easier way to incorporate living books into your curriculum than with read-aloud time. No matter what teaching style you use, read aloud daily. You might have to start with just five or ten minutes, but before you know it your children will be begging for “just another chapter!”