What is a Living Book? Encouragement for embracing a Living Books-based Home Education, Part 1

This will be part 1 of a 5 part series in which I hope to answer the question, “What is a Living Book and how do I use it in my homeschool?”

“I understand the right books can make learning come alive in our homeschool – but how do I choose the right books?  I hear a lot about Living Books but… I’m confused.  What exactly IS a Living Book?”

This is one of the most common questions about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy.  

So, if you are wondering this same thing, you aren’t alone.  

I was just talking to my husband today about how desperate I was to understand this whole Living Book thing when our kids were younger.  I attended a Charlotte Mason support group and the (wonderful) Moms there kept throwing around the term Living Books like it was second nature to them but I had NO IDEA what they were talking about.  I felt too embarrassed to actually put my hand up and say, “Um, can we back the Charlotte Mason train up for a second here… what on earth is a LIVING book?”

It took me a good couple months to find the answers I was looking for about Living Books.  Then it took me a good couple YEARS to learn the art of finding the best Living Books and implementing them into our every day homeschool.  (Five in a Row was instrumental in helping me learn to use Living Books a a whole curriculum.)

So, what is a Living Book?

For me, simply put, a Living Book is a book that is well-written, enjoyable for both young and old, makes the subject come alive, sparks our interest, inspires us, challenges us and encourages us to hunger for more.  It has become very easy for me to pick out Living Books from the rest as I’ve grown in my understanding of what to look for.  (I plan to go into great detail about this in Part 2.)

Rather than just repeating what has already been so eloquently written, I will share a section from Simply Charlotte Mason:

Charlotte used books as one means of helping a child form a personal relation with someone or some idea. But not just any book can do that important task. Here is a short list of what Charlotte said to look for when you are book shopping.
  1. Make the subject come alive.
    To make a real connection, a relation, with an idea, it must touch our emotions. Mere dry facts don’t usually accomplish that vital aspect of real knowledge. Look for living books.
  2. Get in touch with great ideas from great men.
    As much as we, parents, would like to think that we know a lot, there is so much we don’t know. So let’s allow our children to form relations with great minds of the past and present. The best way to get in touch with those great minds is by reading their thoughts. Look for worthy ideas in books.
  3. Well-written.
    Charlotte described well-written books with these terms: “written with literary power,” “a word fitly spoken,” “worthy thoughts, well put,” “inspiring tales, well told.” Look for books written in good and simple English (or Spanish or French or whatever your primary language is) with a certain charm of style.
  4. Not childish twaddle.
    Avoid books that present “little pills of knowledge mixed into weak diluent.” Twaddle talks down to the child and assumes she can’t understand more than tidbits of information. Look for books that you, the adult, will enjoy too.
  5. Give the children the idea that knowledge is supremely attractive and that reading is delightful.
    In other words, check both the content and the style in which it is presented. Look for books that will give your child a love for learning through books.
  6. The best you can find.
    Charlotte admitted that sometimes it’s very hard to find just the right book for just the right occasion. In those cases, choose the best you can find and remind yourself that those are the exceptions, not the rule. Look for the best of what’s available at the time.

My thoughts on Charlotte Mason Book Snobbery

That’s my term, by the way, and I quite love it.  (hehe)  But it is something that I feel needs to be addressed as we look at this idea of Living Books in light of a Charlotte Mason home education.

So, um… Charlotte Mason people have earned the reputation of being book snobs.  I get it.  I’m one of them – I’m SO choosy with books and have been known to make a scene upon finding an out of print or hard to find title at a book swap or sale…

But, I’ve also come to notice a certain book exclusiveness in CM circles that concerns me.  It basically can be summed up by saying that many believe only certain (pretty select) books qualify as great, Charlotte Mason-approved Living Books.  But, here’s the thing…

Charlotte worked as an educator in the late 1800s.  The last century has been one of magnificent development in so many areas of life.   Let’s be honest, there have been many changes to the way children’s books are written and published since then.  There is also a ton more information available to us in pretty much every area of study.

One of my biggest frustrations with so many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts and curriculums is that they often become almost snobbish in their book choices, giving the impression that anything Miss Mason did not personally recommend or endorse is of no or little value.  Ladies.  This makes absolutely no sense to me.  

Charlotte could only endorse that which was written at the time she was alive.

Shocking statement, I know.  But, honestly, to narrow our Living Book choices to those that were used by Charlotte Mason herself, by the original CM schools, or endorsed by the PNEU is to cut off the majority of fabulous living literature that exists today.  It’s just plain crazy-pants, as we would say in our house.

Also, just because a book was written in the early 1900s does not make it a good book.  Neither does it automatically make it a better book. I can certainly attest to this!  It was just one written before many of the just-as-great-if-not-much-better books written in the 2000s.  The time frame in which it was published doesn’t make or break a book.  There were terrible books written 100 years ago.  And there are some pretty horrible books published in 2015.  

But there were also a lot of wonderful, Living Books published in 2015. 

The bottom line is, Charlotte Mason encouraged parents to read their children ‘the best’ available literature.  So, our job is to find the best books available to us.  And, oh boy, do we have FAR more wonderful books to choose from than mothers in the late 1800s!  And I am so thankful for that!

“Thought breeds thought; children familiar with great thoughts take as naturally to thinking for themselves as the well-nourished body takes to growing; and we must bear in mind that growth, physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, is the sole end of education.” 

Let’s Talk a bit about Twaddle…

Oh, this term of ‘Twaddle’. I love it and I hate it.  I love it mainly because it just sounds so interesting and provides so much to think about and chew on.  Twaddle.  Go ahead, say it with an English accent.  It’s fun.

So, Twaddle is the term used to describe books that just aren’t good enough for us Charlotte Mason book snobs.  (Come on, honestly, that is seriously what it means in homeschool circles… especially to non-CM people).   The problem is, I think a lot of us don’t fully understand what Charlotte herself even meant by the word or the concept.  It’s much more than Shakespeare VS. comic books.

Charlotte Mason described Twaddle in several ways.  Diluted, dumbed-down, overly juvenile literature that rejects the intelligence of the child is Twaddle.  Second-rate, stale, predictable books are Twaddle.  Easy books lacking good vocabulary and literary quality could very likely be Twaddle.

But it isn’t always so clear cut.

Often, I think the term Twaddle can be used in the wrong context.  I recently heard another Mom refer to much of Usborne’s non-fiction as Twaddle.  I nearly choked!  I couldn’t disagree more!  If you aren’t familiar with Usborne, they are a very popular publisher of some of the best, most ‘living’ non-fiction around.  So, I was wondering was it because the books were non-fiction and from a modern publisher that this Mom automatically considered them  Twaddle…?

It’s just one example of how I’ve heard misconceptions of what the word means.  I’ve also heard people say anything modern must be Twaddle, and that even picture books are Twaddle as they leave no room for imagination (because they provide illustrations).  These are all misconceptions that could rob children of wonderful Living Book experiences.
Honestly, what all my babbling is trying to get at is this-  I think Charlotte Mason homeschoolers need to just relax a bit with their plight against Twaddle.  I’m not saying we should just throw our hands in the air and not be choosy about books (I’m the last person who would say this…) but I do think we should be careful how we voice our thoughts and how we form our opinions about book choices.

I mean, Twaddle is often a personal opinion.

Just like families have very different ideas of acceptable movies, families tend to have different ideas of what qualifies as Twaddle or ‘junk food books’ as they are often called.  

For example, some people say Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series qualifies as Twaddle because they aren’t considered classics, they are written in simple language (they are not literary poetry, I’ll admit that), and they are a book series (I don’t see how this alone can be a problem since many series are living books, to be sure).

I, for one, think the Ramona books are fantastic!  Our children love them so much and feel like they are kindred spirits with little Ramona, Beezus, Henry Huggins, and the gang.  The books are well-written, humorous, engaging for both young and old.  They have taught us much about relating to and understanding young children.  They have inspired empathy in our children and had our family talking about some pretty big topics.   I believe they are ‘living books’ about a young girl and her experiences growing up in the 1960s in a middle class American family.

But I know many will disagree.   And that’s ok.  As you can see, the ‘proper’ Charlotte Mason-acceptable books can range from family to family and region to region and even year to year!

We have to use our own judgement and discernment in book choices.  We can take advice from our well-loved and trusted friend, Ms. Mason, but we also can use our own minds and souls to decide for ourselves what is bringing light, truth, laughter (the pure kind!), enlightenment, excitement, and wonder into our homes and the hearts of our children.

More “What is a Living Book?” chatter coming in Part 2, stay tuned for Simple Ways to Spot a Living Book! 


  • Tami

    Love this! If/when we can get past the typical CM twaddle snobbery the world of books opens for us. The world of knowledge opens up. My take on the Usborne books was that they were considered twaddle because they are not stories. Ugh. It seems like the only thing that some CM people accept as acceptable are stories.

    • Cassandra

      Oh goodness, no!!! I thought this too. This is why I'm doing this 'series' on living books. Living books are by definition, books that light up a child's mind! That don't talk down to them… that make the content/info come alive! And this can absolutely be non-fiction! There are thousands of wonderfully written non-fiction books out there that are so engaging and lovely. Many boys gravitate to non-fiction, so I figured this truth out early on… my son narrates from non-fiction much better too, to be honest. Non-fiction doesn't have to be dry at all… there are so many great books out there. I'm working on my boards on Pinterest for this too. Usborne has some books that are definitely Twaddle – but much of their informational books at fabulous living books. *sigh* it makes me so sad to think how many wonderful books many families are missing because of these misconceptions about what makes a 'good book'. Stories are great and especially to bring things like history alive but informational books are also necessary for learning! For example, The Handbook of Nature Study is highly recommended in CM circles and it is entirely informational, but it is written in an engaging, narrative, non-childish way. 🙂 Maybe I should do a post about what kind of non-fiction to look for…. eh? (hug)

    • Tami

      My older son adores non fiction Usborne style encyclopedias. He has retained SO much info from them. I always figured, "Meh. Fine. Whatever. Then I won't be a CM purist if that is your standard." (not yours but many CM people). Here's the thing. I can put out all the story books I want and he will.not.pick.them.up on his own accord. He will without complaint if I say, pick a book from this particular shelf and go read for x amount of time. But he gladly picks up non fictional Usborne style books. He'll pour over them. Memorize them. Ask for "American History books" for Christmas so long as they are in that style…or presidential books (little bios about each president), or states books, or books about volcanoes. But for the life of me he could care less to learn about volcanoes from Madam How and Lady Why. I honestly don't care anymore about the "true" books that CM used. This particular child has a passion and many "informational" books feed that passion. When he can sit down with his father and carry on a conversation about slavery and the civil war at the age of 10 from the books he prefers and my husband says I'm doing a great job I call it good. Now. With that said, I am definitely more picky about the books I use during our formal school time (not that our entire lives are not a time of learning). You should definitely do a post about what kind of non-fiction to look for. 🙂

    • Cassandra

      *applauds* 🙂

      Bravo for standing in your own shoes and doing what works for your child. I COMPLETELY agree. My eldest is very similar. The truth is though, that reading 'living' non-fiction IS very Charlotte Mason in practice! Her very own grammar and geography books that she wrote were non-fiction and far less engaging than an Usborne encyclopedia, to be honest. So, This is why I'm doing this series… because I'm passionate about the truth. And the truth is that sooo many people have the wrong idea of what a 'living book' is. A living book brings the subject to life… so if an encyclopedia is doing that for your son because it is well written, well laid out, and engaging, then it is a living book! Books in the way we know them did not exist in Charlotte's day but I have a strong notion that if she were alive today she would very much approve of many of the books we fear are non worthy of study. *sigh* I am absolutely doing a post about how to find great 'living' non-fiction books! 😀 It will be rolled into one of the posts for this 5-part series! Blessings… keep on! You're doing great. (hug)

  • Ivy Mae

    Twaddle is hard to define! For me, it's when a book chooses the path of least resistance to get a kid to pick it up–putting a garishly colored super hero on the front, or a pink and frothy princess. If a book has a TV or movie character or minifig as its only selling point, it's automatically twaddle in my mind. Why on earth do libraries get rid of good children's books and stock that stuff instead?
    But past that point, it gets difficult. I went through this choosing biographies to use for American History. I found myself putting down all the ones that generalized (Ponce de Leon's ship landed here on this date and then he spent x amount of time doing y and z) and keeping the ones that read like a story instead. Some of the former were so awesome looking and flashy! But the text was booooring.
    I reckon my point is, as you suggested, the dividing line is personal from family to family, and it takes some time and experience choosing books to figure out what your standards are. Just being intentional about it will make such a difference.
    Thanks for a great post!

    • Cassandra

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree. Dora the Explorer books? Twaddle. DEFINITELY TWADDLE. The trouble comes when your child is given a book like this and chooses it as their FAVORITE! This happened with my little guy. He LOVED this random Backyardigans book that was horribly written and so gimmicky! But, he loved that book so much… so do I take it away on account of my own personal preferences? Meh… I didn't have the heart. He grew up and grew out of it. I think libraries stock these types of books (it gets worse as they get older…) because it is honestly what the majority of children gravitate to. In typical settings most children are not exposed to the kind of literature children in many homeschooling (especially the more classical and Charlotte Mason style) homes. I see it all the time. I do have friends who have children in school who LOVE great books and share them with their kids, but on a whole, it is rare in the mainstream family. So, libraries stock what 'kids want' as I've been told. But kids are trained what to desire by what they are exposed to… I think 'Twaddle' books are like Sugar. They can be yummy in the moment or a fun little read but have no real nutrition. Too much is unhealthy too… 😉 That's why we only let our boys 'read' comic books (and select ones) IN the library. They don't come home with us. We do, however, check out PILES of living non-fiction books and picture books, etc. 🙂

  • Unknown

    I'm looking forward to your series on this. I think what it comes down to is personal preference, for each person. I totally get the concept of twaddle but I think the sad thing is a lot of days kids aren't even being read to anymore! So I think instead of everybody being so specific on what type of book to read, I think more than anything there should be such an encouragement to just sit down and hold your kids and read to them! I Have seen such a beautiful connection with my kids as we read together. they always have questions about life, no matter what we choose to read. I very much value living books and am excited to see your input on this. I just want to tell all the moms and dads out there, just read to your children 🙂

    • Cassandra

      Amen! I agree. I think there are two extremes with book choices – one is an 'everything goes, as long as they're reading' mentality (which I actually really, really appose) and the other is the 'oh my goodness, we can't read ANYTHING unless it is just-the-perfect-book' I've met FAR more on the 'anything goes' side of things, which I think it actually more dangerous (esp. as kids get older)… but as long as the content isn't compromising your beliefs/faith/convictions – then yes, READ! 😀 Goodness knows we spent far too many hours reading Dora books when ours were toddlers, and they survived and came out as big lovers of books… special time on Mama's lap? Nothing beats it. 🙂

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