There's an education buzz-word used to describe books that fill up American classrooms: "high-interest." These books often have sparkly fairies, vicious monsters, and lots of cultural references. I have a tub full of these books in our basement. If I ever return to public school teaching (which isn't my plan, but you never know!) they'll be irrelevant. They are a part of pop-culture, and can only stay popular for so long. When I got this stockpile of books, I was more interested in quantity than quality.
Quite a transformation was made within me in just a few short years!
When I packed up my public school classroom and was led into my new, beautiful school-year-long home away from home, that transformation took root. Instead of having to supply my own books, the room was stocked with beautiful books; titles and authors who have stood the test of time. This beauty soon overflowed into my home, and I committed to seeking out better books for my children.
This is not to say that my home only consists of living books. In the early years, silly "high-interest" books abound. But, we Charlotte Mason moms can make an effort to put in front of our children books that are well-written, inspiring, and meaningful.
This post has some thoughts on choosing living books, as well as resources for you.
This post was updated April 2019
First, What to Avoid: Twaddle
Before we dig into what a living book is, let's talk about what it isn't. I can't make a generalization about all current books, but many of them are what Charlotte Mason would have considered "twaddle". According to Mirriam-Webster, Twaddle is:
1. silly, idle talk
2. something insignificant or worthless
In Parents and Children, Charlotte Mason says that twaddle should never be put in front of a child's eyes.
They 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..." Parents and Children
There is some debate on what this means today. During the Victorian age, children's books were in fashion. which means many children's books were created to keep up with the style. It didn't so much matter that they were beautifully written, but that they were aesthetically pleasing. Charlotte Mason referred to these as "pretty books." But would she still think that the books we have today for young children are twaddle? I'm sure many would qualify!
Twaddle is basically junk food for the brain. Yes, it's entertaining, just as junk food is tasty, but there is no nourishment. I usually don't like to point out twaddle for people, because I think that people should think this topic through and decide which books qualify for themselves. But! This book by Edward Lear, Book of Nonsense, seems like a good example to me, mostly because of the word "Nonsense" in the title. Here's what I think makes this twaddle:
- It is admittedly nonsense, which, according to the above definition, qualifies it as twaddle.
- The "poems" (limericks) are not well written. Many of them don't make sense, and the language used is not rich or beautiful.
- Each poem starts with the same phrase "There was a..." which shows repetition. Overly repetitive story lines and phrases show a lack of creativity. Writing should not be formulaic.
So, now that we've discussed what are NOT living books...
What are Living Books?
- Meaningful- "Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential." Towards a Philosophy of Education
- Well-written; literary quality- "We do not mean by a book any printed matter in a binding, but a work possessing certain literary qualities able to bring that sensible delight to the reader which belongs to a literary word fitly spoken." Parents and Children
- Not overly repetitive or predictable- "We feed them upon the white ashes out of which the last spark of the fire of original thought has long since died. We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people's thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. They complain that they know how the story will end! But that is not all; they know how every dreary page will unwind itself." School Education
- It isn't dumbed down- "If a child talk twaddle, it is because his elders are in the habit of talking twaddle to him..." Home Education
But, I think, most importantly, we can have these ideas of what a living book is, but if it doesn't inspire our children, then it isn't living to them.
"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
In short, choosing living books is subjective.
In My Little Robins' Facebook group, we did an exercise once in which people posted the titles of their favorite books and reacted with an emoji according to whether it is a living book, twaddle, or gray area, often referred to as light reading. It was so eye-opening to see how different people perceived the books! What is twaddle to one person was living to another. Does it mean one person was wrong? I don't think so. Does it mean that too often "experts" are proclaiming titles twaddle without considering what might inspire a particular child? Yes!
How I Choose Living Books
I try to avoid:
- Books with spelling or grammatical errors
- Lots of useless repetition
- A lack of plot (with the exception of non-fiction or vocabulary books)
I gravitate towards:
- Classic books that have withstood the test of time (although not all classics are living- Charlotte Mason called Alice in Wonderland a delicious feast of absurdities! (Home Education, pg 152).
- Classic or current books with ideas that we can discuss
- Stories and non-fiction texts that I can read repeatedly without getting bored (I notice that high-quality texts take much longer to grow sick of!)
Another thing to keep in mind while choosing living books is your child's vocabulary. While the general Charlotte Mason wisdom is that no book is beyond a child's reach, I don't agree with that. In fact, Charlotte Mason herself said that a particular book, The Sciences, may have chapters that are "beyond the reach of a child under 9." This made me realize that she didn't think that a child should full-out read a book written for children much older than them. She knew there would be limitations. When I was a public school teacher, we recognized that if a child didn't understand at least 90% of the words, he or she would most likely struggle with understanding the story. I keep this in mind when I choose books for my young children.
Living Book Resources for the Early Years
Fortunately, there are lots of book lists and resources available that show what other people consider to be living texts.
Twaddle Free Literature by Grade Level from A Charlotte Mason Home
Year 0 Books List (for ages 0-6) from Ambleside Online
The Living Book List from Amy Lynn Andrews
Favorite Read Alouds for Preschoolers from Simply Charlotte Mason
Living Books for Ages 4-7 by Homemaking with Heart
Read Aloud Revival (includes books for all ages)
Living Books By Subject (this includes books for multiple ages)
What are your child's favorite books? Please tell me in the comments- we're always looking for new reads