by Ali Laing
(a transcript of the speech delivered at Cultivate Night, September 19, 2017)
Last month, we talked about the beauty of a Charlotte Mason education, about spreading a daily feast of ideas before our children and letting them form relationships with everything they’re learning. Tonight, we’re going to talk about the “meat” of the feast: Living Books.
Unlike most homeschooling boxed curricula, the Charlotte Mason method makes use of living books as its main written resource for education. Literature, biographies, poetry, primary source documents (i.e., the Constitution), historic diaries, topical non-fiction (i.e., science texts) – these are all examples of living books used in a Charlotte Mason education. Many people have invested some effort over the years toward defining “what is a living book?” It isn’t a term most people are familiar with, so it begs a definition. Simply stated, a living book brings its subject to life for the reader, igniting a desire to know more. A living book is generally written by a single author who is an expert on the subject of the text, written in narrative form, intended to draw the reader in and awaken new ideas. Though varying other definitions exist, and there are widely-used living book lists available, it’s important to note what Charlotte Mason herself had to say on the subject:
"A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind." (School Education, pgs. 228-229)
You see, contrary to what some people say, a living book is not defined by a rigorous standard, no more than a living soul is defined in such a way. A book that speaks, or comes alive, to one person may not speak to the next person. We as parents know our children. We should choose books we know might grab their attention, then be very careful to discern that “opening or closing of the door of the mind” Charlotte Mason described. We parents mean well in our eager efforts to cover every literary masterpiece on “the book lists”. But we cannot let our tendency to “cram” education overrun the method we seek to employ, which is to spread the feast, then step back and let ideas ignite learning in our children. The Greek philosopher, Plutarch wrote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” Whether we like it or not, children are in the business of developing their own relationships with the world throughout the course of their education. They get to choose whether a book speaks to them or not, whether it will make a difference in their life or spark a new idea. Charlotte Mason said:
“I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated.” (School Education, p. 177)
If we educate our children for the moment, forcing information simply to pass a test, rather than for them to own it the rest of their lives, what value is there? If what we offer them has no impact, if you notice after a page or two that they are completely disengaged, it’s okay to ditch the book, at least for now. But if you think the book has true merit, try again later. Perhaps they aren’t mature enough to assimilate that particular book yet, or they aren’t in the right frame of mind to hear it. Sometimes it isn’t the content, but the presentation that gets in the way. If your children grow weary of hearing your voice (or you are weary of your own voice), audio books might be the answer! My children enjoy hearing different voices reading to them – British is their favorite. If all else fails, find another living book on the subject, remembering it’s not a living book for them if it doesn’t bring the subject alive.
That said, we parents have influence over the atmosphere of learning in our homes and a responsibility to guide our families in all areas of life. Just as children fed healthy foods naturally crave healthy foods, children who, from an early age, are offered daily feasts of ideas through quality literature also develop an appetite for the types of books made available to them. Well-written literature makes wide use of diverse vocabulary, interesting sentence structure, and rich descriptive speech. I read an article recently titled, "Kids Can't Live on Literary Twinkies Alone". I've never pictured poor-quality literature as "literary junk food", but it rings true! Exposing our children to the best of the English language, even from an early age, equips them to excel, giving them literary tools to express themselves well in all areas of life. Have you ever burst forth in song or recited a line from a poem or favorite book when you just couldn't think of your own words? The author of the above article wrote, "There are simply some things that have been said so exquisitely in the past that it is impossible to render them better." I couldn't have said it better myself. Let's teach our children to celebrate the written word.
It is important to set a literary standard from the start, making every attempt to provide the best books we can find on any given subject, even among their first picture books. Poor Dora! She’s such a cute little explorer, but she really needs new writers. Amen? Here is the most practical tool you can employ for literary discernment of children’s books: if you dread reading it out loud over and over, it’s probably not doing your child any favors. It’s that simple. Ms. Mason said:
"As for literature--to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find." (Towards a Philosophy of Education, pg. 51)
Does this require us to spend a fortune? Not necessarily. Aside from making use of the local library, there are many free or inexpensive living books available online, either as downloads or audiobooks.* Also, it helps to shop local used book sales, library sales, garage sales, and used book stores.** Even if books must be purchased, keep in mind that rather than investing in curricula that will likely never be touched after one use, you’re investing in a whole library of living books to be read by your family for years to come.
Using living books successfully is a skill, not a checklist. Your ability to choose good books for your family may improve over time - and that’s okay! Charlotte Mason scrapped her booklists every year and started fresh. Based on the pupils in her care, and after prayerfully listening to the Holy Spirit, she planned her lessons accordingly. Not to say there aren’t living books worthy of being used year after year, but living books may vary a little from one year to another, one child to another, and one family to another. Give yourself grace as you journey through this living education with your family. Borrow suggestions from book lists and other resources. Do your best to choose books wisely, but keep in mind that education is a lifelong process. You don’t have to cram in every lovely book on the planet before your child leaves home. There exists a plethora of living books on every subject under the sun – yes, even math! Enjoy the journey, and teach your kids to love learning, giving them the best books at your disposal. With your wise and prayerful guidance, they’ll develop their own filters for living books. And then they will feast well for the rest of their lives!
*audio book websites:
www.mainlesson.com (The Baldwin Online Children’s Literature Project)
Born Again Used Books, downtown Colorado Springs
Hooked on Books, Colorado Springs
Poor Richard’s bookstore, downtown Colorado Springs
Why Not Books? Colorado Springs