What Are Living Books & How to Use Them (Charlotte Mason)
One of the hallmarks of a Charlotte Mason education is teaching children concepts using books that are particularly engaging. These books are called living books and bring a subject alive by heightening a child’s interest in the topic as they become enthralled by the storyline. As children read, they learn about the topic unconsciously. In this way, they retain more information as they can tether it to an interesting story.
In this article, we’ll be looking at:
- What is a Charlotte Mason Living Book?
- An Example of a Living Book
- The History of Charlotte Mason and Living Books
- Where You Can Find a Charlotte Mason Book List for Homeschoolers
Let’s dive in and get started!
What is a Living Book?
A living book is a book that brings a topic to life. Instead of reading like a dry or dead book, a living book has vitality and evokes curiosity and interest in its reader.
Living books are often written by people who:
- have a keen interest in the topic
- know the topic in-depth
- can write about the topic skillfully and in detail
- integrate stories that convey information as well as amuse the reader
As such, a living book is a great read and will encourage children to be lifelong learners and readers. It also gives them the confidence to dive into a tome, knowing they can tackle it (and they may even find it interesting to boot!)
What is Not a Living Book
The opposite of a living book would be an encyclopedia or a dictionary that gives you dry facts about a topic but doesn’t entertain you or let you learn through a story.
It doesn’t interest you (unless you’re interested in the entry) or capture your imagination like a living book would.
A lot of texts children study in school are also not living books. They’re often written by a committee that decide what children are going to learn and when. The committee isn’t always interested so much in the topic, but they’re interested in the child being able to know that information for later or for a test.
They require children to rote learn a lot of information and don’t seek to always capture their imagination. These texts make learning a lot less fun than you might get with a living book.
Examples of Living Books
An example of a living book is Moby Dick.
Although a lot of people groan over Moby Dick (and say it was their high school text they had to study and therefore they don’t like it), homeschools have more time to leisurely work their way through the book and mull over the themes and stories within.
Like many other living books, Moby Dick was written by an author who had a keen interest in the topic at hand (I think you’d have to be keenly interested in whaling to write a 585-page tome on the subject and make it somewhat interesting).
Moby Dick is a great example of a living book as you can clearly see that Herman Melville has a keen interest in the topic, knows the topic well, can write about the topic clearly and in detail and integrates stories about the topic which also teaches his audience about whaling.
I read Moby Dick recently and I loved it. It’s a book you’ll need time to study – but, you’ll have that time when you homeschool!
Charlotte Mason and Living Books
Charlotte Mason believed children should be brought up on books and the study of different things around them. This is what she said:
Children can be most fitly educated on Books and Things…The value of this education by Things is receiving wide recognition, but intellectual education to be derived from Books is still for the most part to seek. – Charlotte Mason
She also talked about how much we need good books and what happens if we don’t get them:
A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find. We must put into their hands the sources which we must needs use for ourselves, the best books of the best writers. For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body. – Charlotte Mason
As such, these great books help children digest and grow from the information they learn in the pages of a living book.
Where Can I Find a Charlotte Mason Book List for Homeschoolers
- searching living book lists and buying them new
- borrowing them from the library
- borrowing them from a friend
- buying used books
- searching for books that are past their copyright that you can freely download
Of course, the books you use will be dependent on how old your children are…you don’t want to start them on Moby Dick at age 6.
What Types of Living Books Are There?
You might be thinking you can only use living books for literature subjects. The great thing is that you would be wrong and you can use them for many more subjects besides literature.
In fact, you can bring so many subjects alive with great books including:
- living science and biology books
- living math books
- living history books
- living geography books
- living technology and engineering books
For a person who struggled with math a lot, the thought of teaching my children math using a living book is a great relief.
Beware…Living Books Require Lots of Reading by Parents
It might be worth mentioning that if you’re going to use living books in your curriculum, you need to be prepared to read these texts to your children for hours on end when they are young. This is because children can’t read them themselves in their formative years so they need parents to do it for them. This is what Charlotte Mason said on the topic:
Every scholar of six years old and upwards should study with ‘delight’ his own, living, books on every subject in a pretty wide curriculum. Children between six and eight must for the most part have their books read to them. – Charlotte Mason
So, if you’re prone to losing your voice or you’ve had throat surgery, don’t bank on being able to read constantly.
I mention this also because I heard of one mother who was thinking of stopping because she was having trouble with the constant reading. She was thinking of using another curriculum for a while due to the strain on her vocal cords.
An alternative to this is, of course, is signing up to Audible (banner below). If you get a monthly subscription, you can have the books read to your children instead. If you want to try it out, you can get two free audiobooks and see if it’s for you.
When You Read, They Listen
Charlotte Mason said children should work towards paying full attention when parents are reading them their living book. Mason would never have thought to allow children to color-in, listen to music or do other activities while the text was being read or listened to.
This is important as children learn to pay attention to what they’re hearing and this is a Charlotte Mason skill that they’ll be able to take into their lives later on, for instance:
- When their boss does a presentation, they’ll be able to listen without wandering off and thinking about other topics.
- When the pastor gives his sermon, they’ll be able to recall the message and take this into their lives in the future.
- When their husband or wife says something, they’ll be able to remember what was said.
As such, full attention is a good habit to train in your Charlotte Mason homeschool.
How Can I Tell If They’ve Understood the Book?
Another tenet of Charlotte Mason homeschooling is narration. Narration was Mason’s gentle form of testing where parents can simply ask their children to repeat back the storyline or parents ask them some questions about the plot.
You can also use cards or cubes to help you test your child with narration. Indeed, I think cards and cubes make testing even more fun. It makes it more like a game!
See the narration video below for more information.
Using Charlotte Mason living books in your homeschool will bring your educational program to life. These books have the power to captivate your child and make them learn and retain information that is otherwise difficult to retain. These books are a way you can train a child’s character and disposition. They also develop a love of learning they can carry their whole lives. As such, these books are an indispensable part of learning if you’re using a CM homeschooling style.