What is a Living Book? Encouragement for embracing a Living Books-based Home Education, Part 2

Simply put, a Living Book is a book that is well-written, enjoyable for both young and old, makes the subject come alive, and is memorable and/or inspiring.  Living Books are highly effective in teaching because we make a connection with the material, the characters, the time period, etc.   We remember what we’ve read because we not only enjoyed the experience of reading it, but we’ve made a ‘relationship’ with the words and ideas.  We did almost all our learning this way for the first three years using Five in a Row and it has richly blessed our family and filled us with a passion for reading and learning.  You are literally just using piles of books, a few fun activities, and daily life to learn.  It’s fantastic!

{Read my posts about Five in a Row studies}

An example of the books we used for our study of The Salamander Room.
A pile of the books we are reading this year…

It has become fairly easy for me to pick out Living Books from the rest as I’ve grown in my understanding of what to look for.   I thought I would share some thoughts in Part 2 of “What is a Living Book?”.  Click here to read Part 1.

See how I put together Living Books for our plan for 2016, right here.

Is it a Living Book?  Some of the questions I ask when choosing our books… 

Does it weave history or information with a great story that engages the reader?

Nothing compares to a captivating book that not only tells a fantastic story, but teaches at the same time!  We have read countless novels and picture books like this.  These types of books make up the spine of our learning, especially in History, Nature Study, and Science.  There are so many historical fiction books available to choose from from every era and at every age level.

I look for books that are well-written, tell a great story, and are historically accurate.  When we read about the Revolutionary War in a story and through characters that we connect with – the history comes to life.  

In the past few months, we’ve lived in a small colonial town with Johnny Tremain and felt the pain of his injury and the triumph of his comeback and involvement in the Boston Tea Party.  We’ve sailed (and fell in love with  *ehem, maybe that’s just me…*) Nat Bowditch as we learned about navigation and the life of a young apprentice in the 18th century.   We’ve felt the excitement and courage within the heart Paul Revere as he rode through the town with his famous cry, “The British are Coming!”.

The kids have learned a TON and it has all been done through Living Books – picture books and novels about the topic we are studying.

Another example which is common for many families is our connection to Laura, Mary, baby Carrie, Ma, Pa, and the whole gang from The Little House series.  Our children love those books so much and learned all about early pioneer life from them.  We have listening to each book at least twice on audio book in the car.  I constantly make references like: “Alright, so, this happened at the same time that Laura was a little girl”, or “Oh!  Did you know Mary and Laura could have read some of Stevensen’s poems!?” and so on.  They instantly have a friend to remember and a time frame to add understanding to history’s flow.

This is why we put pictures of book covers on our Book of Centuries/timeline.

Does it combine high quality writing with interesting/relevant content and engaging pictures?

Great writing, beautiful illustrations/quality pictures.  It does’t seem like these are very earth-shattering requests in a book, but, unfortunately, there are a ton of books out there that have neither of these qualities.

I often seek out high quality picture books on a variety of topics to use within our homeschool.  There are thousands of phenomenal picture books for children that read like prize winning novels.  I look at these as short stories with illustrations.  Our children do not need pictures or illustrations to hold their interest, but rather, I find illustrations pull them in and make the content more powerful and impacting.

 For instance, this week we read the book Frederick’s Journey.  I highly recommend it.  It’s about the life of Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and fought his way to freedom with dignity and wisdom.  It weaves the author’s words with Douglass’ own words to create a beautifully written Living Book that pulls the reader into the gut-wrenching life of a slave fighting for their freedom.

The story in itself would have been wonderful, but when you add the gripping illustrations, you’ve got Mama and the kiddos spell-bound by this powerful story of a real man who fought a very real war against injustice.  We see his face, his Mama reaching out frantically for him as he is pulled from her arms as a baby, we see the setting, the cotton fields, the types of places he was forced to sleep.  We really *feel* the story in a way we might not if there were not illustrations.

And there are so many picture books like this out there.  I highly encourage you to seek them out and use them frequently with children of all ages.  Picture books are not just for young children~!  

Is it enjoyable for us all to read?

To be sure, a good Living Book will light a spark in hearts and minds.  It will be engaging and enjoyable to read.   And not just for your children, but for you as well.  If you aren’t enjoying it – you might want to reconsider your book choice.

Believe it or not, this is a big debate among many Charlotte Mason inspired homeschoolers.  There are many that believe you should keep reading through a book, even if your child does not like it.  They believe you should work through the books on said list because it is good for your child to learn to engage with difficult material, finish what they start, use these specific materials/lists/books,  etc.

Okay… I can see the point of the whole, ‘stick to what you start’, ‘try hard things’ mentality, but when it comes to books – I don’t think this is always the case.  There have been books we start and do not finish.  There are two reasons we usually stop – 1.  We aren’t enjoying the book.  2. The content isn’t what I thought it would be or I feel led to stop reading.

My theory for engaging with Living Books is this – a Living Book should, primarily, make the information or topic come alive for that child. 

We had to stop several of the books on the Ambleside list, to be honest.  Our children just didn’t like many of them and I didn’t feel comfortable with the content in some of them.  As I expressed my concern to other Ambleside Moms, I felt judged!  I felt like if I did not read what was on that list, I wasn’t doing right by my kids.  That just doesn’t make sense to me.

 If children are not enjoying a book, they will not form a relationship with it or with the content in it.   So, I do not force my children to read books they do not enjoy and I certainly don’t continue to read books I feel uneasy about.  This isn’t every person’s philosophy, but it is mine, and it has worked remarkably well in our home.

Again, this is my philosophy and I know many disagree, and that’s ok.  I’m just sharing what I feel will work best for offering that vibrant, living education we are seeking.  A “Living Book” should not be confusing, boring, or dull – it defeats the purpose of using that book.

I know our children are loving a book when they keep asking me to ‘read more’, which so often is the case.  It is so rewarding to see the connections we all make when we invest in quality literature that we are enjoying.  What a wonderful feeling when you finish a well-loved book, sigh deep, feel inspired, enlightened, and sometimes even desiring more knowledge on the topic covered.

Does the book provide enough interesting content that it could be used as an exciting spring-board for further learning?

This is a skill (which sometimes feels like a curse!) that I learned largely from my use of Five in a Row.  The Five in a Row program basically takes high quality picture books and uses them as springboards for further learning.  After doing this with upwards of 30 books, you start to get the feel for how to make it work on your own with your own books.  I am forever grateful to FIAR for this passion for using books to learn that they instilled in my children (and myself as an educator).

A really good Living Book will usually be rich enough, full enough to offer the opportunity to dig deeper based upon what is in the book itself.  This is an INCREDIBLY cost-effective way to do ‘curriculum’.

Here’s an example from recently in our home.  This week we read the book Ice Bears.  This was a great Nature Study read, well written and beautifully illustrated.  Often I pick up books like this from the library because they are just nice, easy, Living Book reads for lunch time or Morning Time.

I would consider this a great Living Book because it offers quite a bit to ‘chew’ on.  So, for instance, from this book we could springboard off into the following topics:  Polar Bear anatomy, growth, hibernation patterns, habitat, family structure, diet, survival, habits, life cycles, as well as life in the Arctic, the Arctic Circle, seasons in different parts of the world compared to seasons in the Arctic, Arctic plants and land forms, other Arctic animals (such as Arctic Fox, Ravens, Seals, Mosquitos), and dangers of the Arctic.  The list could actually go on.  

So you see?  Seek out books that offer a feast for the eyes, ears, mind, and also the soul.  You don’t HAVE to use books as springboards for further learning, but I encourage you to look for books that offer the kind of content that would make that possible.  These are often much higher quality literature.

(If you aren’t sure where to start, you could check out the lists of books used in Five in a Row, as their books follow this ‘rule’.)

Let’s talk about some of the most common Living Book Misconceptions I’ve encountered...

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there, so let’s touch on a few of the most common ones –

“Charlotte Mason Living Books are all written like 100 years ago.”

I spoke about this in the last post as well but it is incredibly important to address.  There is this bizarre myth that Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschoolers can only use super old books written before or when Ms. Mason was alive.  Um… this is crazy and completely false.  There are wonderful Living Books that have been written very recently and there are wonderful books that WERE written in 1870-something.  The time doesn’t matter, the content does.

“Living Books can’t be picture books.”

I’ve heard this quite often, to be honest.  I haven’t found any proof that Charlotte herself was against picture books, so I’m not sure where this idea developed.  Charlotte Mason coached parents to choose wisely and sparingly their picture books, which I think is still sound advice but we also have to remember how things have changed since she made this statement.  Picture books as we know them today didn’t exist when Charlotte was teaching.  (Just google ‘books published in the 1800s to see what I mean!) 

The engaging, richly illustrated and written books which are the Living Picture Books of today are leaps and bounds beyond the stuff that Charlotte would have had to choose from in her day.  So, we can keep this in mind in light of ‘choosing sparingly’.  I think we can focus on choosing well – and if we find large quantities of wonderful Living Picture Books, then why not share them with our children?  

I’ve also heard the argument that picture books take away a child’s ability to imagine the images presented in a story.  (Because an illustrator has already provided them.)  I suppose to some extent that is true, but I would also argue that a good picture book will inspire a child to use their imagination even further!  

A good example for us is from our reading and studying of Roxaboxen.  The illustrations of the children in the story running their own ‘town’ with rocks outlining streets, shops, and homes inspired hours of play for our children.  Literally, they spent weeks building countless Roxaboxens of their own with friends.  They even created snowy Roxaboxens this past week in the backyard!

In no way did illustrations take away from their ability to imagine or add to this story.  In fact, the illustrations enriched their experience with the book, which is so often the case with really good picture books.

Please, please, don’t stop reading picture books.  Great picture books are written for children and adults alike.  There are so may incredible picture books that are absolutely Living Books.  They are written in challenging language with inspiring and challenging content that not only inspires us but draws us in, helps us learn, and feeds our very souls.  To skip picture books, in my opinion, would be like robbing our family of the true fullness that the Living Books-based education is all about.

Living Books have to come from a certain reading list or curriculum in order to be good.

Nonsense.  Any list you see anywhere was compiled by a Mom or Dad just like you.  Any homeschooling parent can learn how to find great Living Books, then make their own list that works for their family.

I wrote about my thoughts concerning feeling pressured into adhering to specific ‘Charlotte Mason’ curriculums and booklists right here.  The truth is, this whole Living Books education thing should be freeing, not binding.  If you feel locked in or tied down to a ‘list’ that might not work for you, that isn’t going to be healthy, effective, or encouraging long-term.

No list is perfect… they are all just created by other human beings!  Just like anything I share here on the blog – it is just one imperfect girl writing her thoughts and experiences!  Test everything!

Having said that, there are great suggestions on many, many book lists.  Book lists can be amazing resources to save time, money, and energy in the great search for high quality living books.  But, the thing to remember is this – they are only resources.  They are not the final word on what should be or shouldn’t be read in your individual home.  

“Living Books can’t be non-fiction.”


This is probably one of my biggest frustrations with misconceptions about Living Books. 

Somewhere along the way confusion set in and parents started to think EVERY SINGLE Living Book had to be in the form of a story.  If we are learning about geology, by jove, it has to be in story form or it just isn’t Living!  (Talking rocks?)

This couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, much (all?) of Charlotte Mason’s writing for children was non-fiction completely.  Her widely known geography and grammar books were both non-fiction.

To get our children in touch with ‘great minds’ is also often to read them high quality non-fiction.  More often than not it is better to read books by one author, an expert in their field or someone with a personal passion or investment in the topic.  (IE: We read about painting in nature from a non-fiction book by Robert Bateman, a well-loved Naturalist/Painter.)

There are many, many wonderful Living Books that are non-fiction.  We happen to LOVE Usborne books in our home.  They have tons of super interesting and engaging history, science, geography, art, music, and nature books that are completely factual but entirely ‘living’.  

These books are living in the sense that they make the subject come alive – our kids LOVE to read the books, they retain what they are learning and hunger for more knowledge on many of the topics they read about in these kinds of books.

Our son LOVES non-fiction.  Just tonight, he was completely glued to one of his favorites- Usborne’s The Last 500 Years.  This flows chronologically through the last 500 years of history and includes an interesting combination of good/challenging writing, illustrations, graphics, maps, and real photographs of historical events.  He is constantly saying, ‘Hey Mom, did you know…?”

How is this not living?

Many children (especially boys) gravitate to non-fiction and that’s perfectly normal and healthy!  It is okay to have your child read and narrate from high quality non-fiction!  Just because it isn’t a ‘story’ does not mean it isn’t a Living Book.  

This is a complete misconception!

“A Living Books-based education is just way too expensive.  I can’t afford all those books!”

First, I can attest to this truth – there are TONS of great living books at your local library. (My library record and late fees prove this… ha!)

If you are blessed enough to have access to a library, you can very successfully homeschool using a Living Books method at almost no cost to you at all.  

Personally, I choose to invest in quite a few books in our home.  This is mainly because I highly value owning many of the book we use and love.  There is high value and deep meaning in actually owning books and keeping them in your home long-term.  I find our kids will ask, “Mom?  Is this our book?”  What they mean is, do we get to keep this friend close at hand?

Even with this passion to fill our bookshelves though, our yearly budget is still pretty conservative.  Especially compared to homeschoolers who are investing hundreds and even thousands in boxed curriculums.

You can find loads of great books at Thrift Stores, Book Swaps, Library Sales, Used Curriculum Sales, you name it.  You can also buy many new titles on Amazon and the like (ThiftBooks.com!) but super cheap.

Having said that – I am convinced, based on my experience, if you have access to a good library, you can find more than enough high quality literature to homeschool for free using this method.

This is what makes using Living Books so lovely as well, it is all-inclusive and open to anyone and everyone who has access to books.

Stay tuned.  



  • Unknown

    Thank you! So useful and encouraging! Seeing my kids enjoy books makes ME enjoy the book so much more. I wish I still saw everything through the eyes of a child. Their imagination is so amazing. Thanks for taking the time to share. 🙂

  • serenity

    I really appreciate the myth busting, especially the "living books can't be non-fictional". I've observed my son enjoying plenty of Usborne books and would sometimes question the twaddle concept. Thanks so much. I'm definitely going to focus more on what my children enjoy. Btw do you usually purchase your Usborne books from their site?

    • Cassandra

      🙂 I actually sold Usborne for about 2 years, so I built up quite a collection of their books, especially non-fiction stuff. 🙂 You can buy direct or also on Amazon… I think you can also have parties and such and earn free books, if that interests you. 🙂 blessings… so glad this post encouraged you!

  • Tami

    I love you! That is all. No, seriously, you write what I want to write. You write some of what I say to others. I cannot/could not continue with a "plan" that pricked my conscience or left my kids' eyes glazed over just because it was/is a great plan for others. I also cannot force my kids to read mainly from a prescribed list of books just because it is the "health" food for their mind whereas the Usborne encyclopedias are supposedly not. I could NOT take away a YWAM bio from my son because it was not "rich" enough or "challenging" enough. IT was his 3rd bio in a row. He was reading on his own accord. He was telling me about what he was reading. Just this evening he came out after reading a Fritz book about Benedict Arnold (he's not finished). He had happy tears in his eyes and was going on and on about the book and how Benedict got married again and this and that. The writing engages him. It moves him to tears. I cannot pull that away from him because it is supposedly not "CM" enough. I grieve for homeschooling families frequently. So often I hear, "I wish my children loved to learn" or "well you've found your sweet spot". I really, truly, utterly, and completely believe that if one of my children does not like learning then I have done something wrong. Children are born with inquisitive minds. They hunger and thirst for knowledge. I attempted the "Boxed" plans before. The almost-all-in-one boxes. The sparkle left my kids' eyes almost every single time. The ONLY guide that I have ever found didn't leave us begging to be done but actually left us begging for more was Beautiful Feet. We do like to use their guide as a guide to get us moving through a period but that period takes as long as we want. We add to it. We take away from it.

    • Cassandra

      Haha! I love you too! Wow – a precious gift to see books move your son to tears!!! That's amazing, he must be a tender soul… and that IS a living book! For sure! I've heard of Beautiful Feet before, it looks very gentle and lovely. So glad you have found such joy in learning together. (hugs)

  • wellermomma

    So happy to have stumbled upon this series. While it can be intimidating to educate our children without a (purchased) plan, I have found such freedom by using our library to the fullest and spending hours upon hours on the couch or outside on a blanket, reading. It is what makes this homeschool path so worth it!

  • Lindsay

    I've only very recently came to understanding basically what a living book is and I can't get enough! My problem is finding them when browsing the library. Is there some kind of hint to whether or not a book is a living book without having to read the whole thing first?

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