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A Charlotte Mason Education is heavily based on books. She boldly declared that “…no education seems to be worth the name which has not made children at home in the world of books, and so related them, mind to mind, with thinkers who have dealt with knowledge.” (School Education, p. 226) And this isn’t a new concept for members of the church. Early on in the organization of the church the Lord asked Oliver Cowdery to organize schools, both for adults and children. Where the knowledge was to come from was very clear: “…seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” D&C 109:7
But, not all books are not created equal; the books that the Lord and Charlotte Mason recommend are living books.
Written in Narrative Form. Interestingly, the human brain is meant to deal in narratives, it does not digest solitary, isolated facts. One of the central tenets of narrative theory is that human thought is fundamentally structured around stories. Narrative Theory is gaining more interest from psychologists and researchers. More and more research is showing that stories and personal examples (i.e. narrative) are the best way to teach because of the way the brain latches onto information. Narratives engage the heart and the mind, which is essential for stimulating memory and processing. Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught using parables and things. He told stories and used apperception (using concrete things to teach abstract concepts) to teach people gospel principles. “If the book is truly well-written, the words between its covers are arranged in an almost magical pattern that stirs deep emotional responses in readers.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly. pg 27)
Written by One Author. A group of authors drains the personality and voice of a narrative. Similar to listening to a story told from three or four people at the same time. Disjunct. Boring. Confusing. Therefore, textbooks are to be avoided in most cases. “We know that books store the knowledge and thought of the world; but the mass of knowledge, the multitude of books, overpower us, and think we may select here and there, from this book and that, fragments and facts of knowledge, to be dealt with, whether in the little cram book or the oral lesson.” (School education, p. 232)
The Author is Passionate About the Subject. And, in the case of historical events, the author should be passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. “Skilled writers, who pay attention to small details and keep looking until they discover truth, help us to find a freshness and more precise understanding even in familiar things.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly p. 34)
In Hints for Young Writers by Orson Wells he describes exactly what living books really mean. In his book, he recommends that young writers write about subjects and experiences they have lived. The best, living books are ones in which the author has lived what they are writing about, either in real-life or in their imagination. The emotions they felt while writing are sealed with their words and conveyed to the reader.
Interesting and Engaging. A living book depends on personal taste and experience. “The [literature] expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case.” (Children’s Literature, Briefly. p. 228) Adults may believe the book to be living and high-quality, but if the child finds it boring they will not learn from it. Some children may think a book is living, while others (both adults and children) will not. It depends on the child’s experience and preference at the time of reading. It also depends on what questions they are currently exploring and the lessons they are ready to learn. The Holy Spirit (the true teacher) knows what your child needs and will help guide you (and your child) to the right books.
Remember: if a child’s heart and mind are not engaged they will not learn. So the decision of which books to read should be ultimately up to the child. “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 into the mind of a young reader.” (School Education, p. 228)
You need to accept the honest feelings of your children, misguided as they might be in your adult eye, and continue to provide and introduce books that might challenge your children. In Children’s Literature, Briefly the authors caution parents and teachers to avoid negative comments on literature they feel are “low-quality.” They say, “Direct attacks on [a child’s] positive responses to poor-quality books, however, almost guarantee that a rift will develop between you and your child and between a child and a genuinely good book. No person, young or old, wants to be forced to defend his or her choice in reading material.” It is important you not shame or guilt your child into reading certain books, but remember it is the parents’ responsibility to introduce their children to books worth reading. This could be by reading aloud at night, or filling a basket with living books near a comfy spot to read.
Mason says, “The master must have it in him to distinguish between twaddle and simplicity, and between vivacity and life. For the rest, he must experiment or test the experiment of others, being assured of one thing—that a book serves the ends of education only as it is vital.” (School Education, p. 229)
Of High -Literary Quality. Choosing the right words is important, and a good author works magic with words. Precise vocabulary “expands the perimeter of [a child’s] language, to set a wider limit to it, to give them a vocabulary for alternatives.” (Elaine Konisburg, 1970, pg 731-732) Talented writers create works that are clear, believable, and interesting, And the rules for good writing are essentially the same for children’s books and adult books. High-quality literature has:
- Figurative Language: a good tool to introduce rich vocabulary.
- Dialogue: character is best revealed through speech. “Let what he did, tell what he was.”
- Character: characters are complex and real.
- Plot: the plot is intricate, interesting, and believable.
Mirrors and Windows
During her childhood, the author Grace Lin yearned for books that mirrored her own ethnic experience. After writing children books she put into words what she always knew in her heart: wonderful point that the best books are either mirrors for children to view themselves, or windows to look out beyond their home to the world beyond what they know. Books provide opportunities for children to see themselves in others; their desires, feelings, strengths and weaknesses. Books also offer the only opportunity to see inside another person’s thought process, as well as their feelings, desires and intentions. In no other time are we so intimately connected to another person’s mind. These “windows” into a person’s world and their soul, are what develop empathy and moral imagination in people. Only living books can do this. A dry-as-dirt textbook may give facts about a culture or society, but reading a living book from the viewpoint of a person living in that culture is what will awaken your child’s heart and mind.
“I am speaking now of his lesson-books, which are all too apt to be written in a style of insufferable twaddle, probably because they are written by persons who have never chanced to meet a child.”Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pg. 229
A book can be living or “twaddle,” and a reader can respond positively or negatively to either. For the most part, weak writing (AKA twaddle) has these three elements: didacticism, condescension, and controlled vocabulary.
Didacticism. Any intelligent person can detect and is repelled by stories that moralize and lecture. Instead of telling a child a person is “bad” or “good”, a living book simply describes the characters actions and lets the reader decide what to think. A twaddly book includes a lesson at the end that connects actions to consequences instead of allowing the reader to make those conclusions.
Condescension. According to Charlotte Mason, children are born persons. Therefore, they are born with all the intelligence required to learn. Twaddle includes condescending language that speaks down to children as if they lack intelligence. Living books are enjoyed by people of all ages; twaddly books are distasteful for most ages because of dumbed-down plot and language. Condescension doesn’t trust the reader to get the point and over-explains the obvious.
Controlled vocabulary. Dumbed-down language is against everything Charlotte Mason has taught us about reading and children. It is based on the idea that children learn to read easy words first and then graduate slowly to more difficult ones. Does “Sam sat on the cat” bring back miserable memories? Even though it is still common in most elementary reading programs today, controlled vocabulary has been proven to be more difficult for children to read, especially for children with dyslexia (not to mention it is incredibly boring).
Over one hundred years ago Charlotte Mason advised parents to discard the books with CVC-only words and teach children to read using literature with a rich and varied vocabulary. If it is a skilled writer, he/she should include dialogue or a discreet description making it easy for the reader to understand the meaning without blatantly providing a description.
Immature Content. C.S. Lewis famously stated that “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Living books are enjoyed by all ages, while twaddle is enjoyed only by immature children. There are quite a few popular series written for kids stained with potty talk and dripping with degrading ideas.
A Definitive Booklist: Does it Exist?
“There is, after all, only one list of good books that is completely dependable—your own. However, although your list may have books of both lower and high literary merit, the quality titles will end up taking your family further.”Children’s Literature, Briefly, pg 26
I have included booklists for each stage of development, but I don’t want it to deter you from exploring and reading books that are not on the list. I acknowledge that many of us are starting this difficult journey in home education and need a little assistance in the beginning. The booklists I include in the Early Years, Form 1, and Form 2 guides are a starting point; I strongly encourage you to use the principles I outlined above to discover your own living books and create your own home library.
Living Book Lists
Stories of Color
Living Books Library
Sabbath Mood Homeschool
Charlotte Mason City Living
Where to Buy Living Books
Purple House Press
Living Books Press
The Good and the Beautiful Library