If you’re diving into the world of homeschooling, you’ve probably heard the phrase living book a time or two. We’re here to help demystify this term, and give you some questions to ask yourself as you assess the books you’re using in your homeschool.
The term living book comes from the writings of Charlotte Mason. Charlotte wrote,
“One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.”
In other words, according to Charlotte Mason, providing our children with a steady diet of excellent reading material is one of the best ways we can support their growth and learning.
But what is a living book? I believe that’s something each family must discern with the help of the Holy Spirit. There’s no one authoritative list of living books, and even if there were, it would soon be out-of-date as new books hit the shelves everyday. If you ask your favorite group of homeschool parents for their recommended booklists, you’ll see some titles that appear over and over again, but there will no doubt be some differences of opinion as well. And sadly we can’t assume a certain bundle of books is living just because a particular curriculum company or homeschool influencer labels them as such.
How To Spot a Living Book
The good news is that once you become familiar with the characteristics of a living book, you can spot them for yourself. You’ll begin to develop a preference for solid literature just as you might develop a taste for certain foods through frequent exposure. I’ll link to some lists of my favorite living books at the end of this article, but first I’d like to share these four questions that I think will help you spot living books for yourself:
1. Is it written by one passionate author?
If the book has a team of editors assembling boilerplate text next to flashy pictures (or worse if you struggle to identify who the author is at all), you’re probably looking at a textbook. With a living book, you get the feeling that the author is a trustworthy companion sharing their love of a subject with you and inviting you to see what they see.
2. Does it impart ideas, not just facts?
Charlotte believed ideas have the power to shape our children’s hearts and minds and that these ideas are one of the most vital instruments we have at our disposal in the work of education:
Seeing that we are limited by the respect due to the personality of children we can allow ourselves but three educational instruments––the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit and the presentation of living ideas. Our motto is,––’Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.’
Charlotte believed that children nourished on living ideas, “educated upon some such lines as these respond in a surprising way, developing capacity, character, countenance, initiative and a sense of responsibility. They are, in fact, even as children, good and thoughtful citizens.” A living book helps a child form their own relationship with a topic and puts them in direct contact with some of the greatest minds our civilization has produced. What could be more impactful?
3. Does the story draw you in?
Books that are filled with living ideas stir your heart and mind with a desire to keep reading. Whether it’s through lovable characters that come to feel like dear friends, or a spell-binding plot you can’t put down, living books leave you and your kids begging for “just one more page”! That doesn’t mean a living book needs to be a fictional tale; there are plenty of excellent non-fiction living books from biographies to science books to stories that immerse you in a certain place or culture. Charlotte Mason advocated using the “one or two-page test”: pick up a book, read a page or two. If the narrative isn’t compelling, it may not be a living book.
It’s also possible it is a living book, but it’s just not the right book for your child or your family right now. If that’s the case, it’s perfectly acceptable to set a book aside and come back to it some other time. There have been several books that were a flop with my kids the first time I introduced them, but when I revisited a few years down the road, they quickly became favorites.
4. Do the writing and illustrations point you toward what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable?
Living books fill our minds with captivating images and beautiful language. They do not talk down to children or oversimplify complex topics. As Charlotte put it:
[Children] must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.
Not only are living books well-written, but they grow in us a love of what is good and true. Charlotte believed that living books can shape our character in a way that lectures and direct instruction never will because they allow us to experience moral decision-making at a distance. When we read about the choices of others and see the consequences of those choices play out before us on the page, we gain insights for our own lives that stay with us long after we put the book down. Living books are ones that use this power to call us to live as God intended.
Want to dive deeper into this topic? Check out chapter 6 of Modern Miss Mason by Leah Boden.
Building Your Library of Living Books
We hope these four questions help you understand what is meant by the term living book and equip you to evaluate the books you encounter more effectively. No two homeschool parents will agree completely as to what books make the cut, but as you seek the Lord’s wisdom, I believe you can grow to discern what books are right for your family.
If you’d like some specific recommendations, we’ve created these booklists to guide you to some of the best books written for each age and stage:
- Living Books for Preschool and Kindergarten
- 15 Living Books to Help Your Child Transition from Picture Books to Chapter Books
- Favorite Chapter Book Read-Alouds for Early Elementary Kids
- 50+ Living Books for Late Elementary and Middle School Kids
- 50+ Living Books for High School Students
You might also want to consult some of these excellent guidebooks to children’s literature. Each of these titles contains numerous book recommendations to help you fill your home with worthy books.
- Honey for a Child’s Heart: The Imaginative Use of Books in Family Life by Gladys Hunt
- Honey for a Teenager’s Heart: Using Books to Communicate with Teens by Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton
- The Read-Aloud Family: Making Meaningful and Lasting Connections with Your Kids by Sarah Mackenzie
- Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life by Sarah Clarkson
- Mothering By the Book: The Power of Reading Aloud to Overcome Fear and Recapture Joy by Jennifer Pepito
- Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time by Jamie C. Martin
Enjoy this post? Read on, and sign up for our homeschool newsletter!
This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting the Homeschool Compass by shopping through our page!