What Constitutes Living Books?

Charlotte Mason believed that children should be educated  “upon many living books.” Based upon her writings, a living book is one that engages the reader, encourages critical thinking, and awakens him or her to ideas. These types of books are far different the textbooks that many of us non-homeschooled parents grew up with. Thankfully, within the homeschool community, there are many, many living books available for our students to read and learn from. Finding living books isn’t a problem.

To identify a living book, I simply use my own judgement. For example, a modern example of living books are the Apologia books. I absolutely adore the elementary books by Jeannie Fulbright. They are fantastic. Another example of living books are the history books written by Susan Wise Bauer. Her Story of the World series is phenomenal and really exposes children to thoughts and ideas of the past.

Most homeschoolers that follow Ambleside Online typically use The Child’s History of the World for history. This book is also a living book. In fact, many picture books that are often used for teaching history and science to children are also living books. As long as a book engages the reader, encourages critical thinking, and gives the child an opportunity to make connections, the book is a “living book.”

Sometimes, in order to be authentic to the Charlotte Mason method, the trend is to embrace the older books that Charlotte Mason used, rather than using more modern books. I don’t having a problem using these older books as long as the content is accurate, but I do not at all avoid newer books. There are so many books available, it seems like such a shame to be stuck in the past out of fear of not being able to find appropriate books.

The problem isn’t finding living books. The problem is avoiding twaddle.

What Constitutes Twaddle?

Twaddle is junk reading for children. But I am going to suggest what may be heresy to others. (I don’t know, but here it goes.) Twaddle for one isn’t twaddle for all.

Here is what I mean. Young children need to read in order to practice and develop the skill of reading. Sometimes parents want to help their children learn to read by using graded readers. Often times, for the typical child, these readers are twaddle. They are overly simplistic in ideas and don’t really teach anything other than how to sound out words. Something that can be done with flash cards.  However, for the beginning student who is just learning to read, and is stressed out and overwhelmed by the process, twaddle may not actually be twaddle.

If a sick person is dehydrated and sick, a water, sugar, and salt solution is medicine. But for the thriving person, the same solution is nothing more than sugar water rather than nourishment.

 I once read a statement that a particular beginning reader was twaddle. If I could remember the book, I’d write the name. But it was so many years ago that I don’t remember the reader in question. Anyway, a beginning reader isn’t twaddle if it engages the child and excites him into reading.

There is one series of books, in my  not so humble opinion, that illustrate what I’m trying to say. The Dick and Jane series.

The Dick and Jane books, which I happen to adore because they remind me of pleasant times in my childhood, are twaddle 99% of the time. Without the pictures, there is no story–only disjointed phrases that teach nothing. Absolutely nothing. These Dick and Jane books serve only two purposes that I can think of.

1) Drill with Twaddle

I actually used all of the Dick and Jane books with my children. Mostly because, as I said before, I was taught in a school system that used them, and they remind me of my childhood.

On a whim, my sister and I picked up a couple of these republished thick Dick and Jane books at Wal-Mart. When we reached my sister’s home, my oldest daughter picked up one of them and started reading. At the time, I had no idea she could read them. (We were still learning phonics.)

After that, she read both of the books. Because I had been working with her, she obviously didn’t need the books, but they served as a sort of drill that gave her confidence to move onto children’s chapter books. The girl has been reading like a machine ever since. She loves to read, and it is her hobby, along with writing and illustrating her own children’s picture books.

Please note, if I hadn’t purchased the books for reasons of nostalgia, I wouldn’t have purchased them for drill. But they can be used as drill.

2) To teach only Facts or only Skills

You have to meet children where they are. And if they’ve somehow developed an interest in dry encyclopedia type books, then you have to let them read those books. Let them learn what they can, and then gradually move them to quality literature.

If you have a student that can’t read or is struggling, ignore all of the talk of twaddle, and help your beginning or struggling reader build confidence and skills first. Then help him fall in love with books. Don’t push junk books on him, but if he gravitates toward them, let him read them.