I can’t state this better than Charlotte Mason already did—
“Children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough” (Parents and Children, p. 279).
Living books are a hallmark of a Charlotte Mason education. They are not used in every subject, but they are definitely a “leading star in the show.” The trick is finding the best ones for your family. Or maybe just finding them at all.
Today I want to share five ways that you can find living books. And get ready, because I’m going to be giving you a lot of websites to check out.
First, let’s review what a living book is. Keep in mind that a living book makes the subject come alive, because it has these four characteristics. First, it is usually written by one author who has a passion for the subject. It is usually written in narrative form, it reads like the author is telling you a story, or it may be conversational in tone, like the author is sitting across the table from you and having a chat. Second, it is well-written; it presents stories well told, not short, choppy, twaddly sentences. Third, it touches your emotions and fires your imagination; you can picture what the author is saying in your mind’s eye. And fourth, a living book contains ideas, not just dry facts. There are ideas in it that will feed your mind and heart, shape who you are as a person, and often spark other ideas of your own. When you find those four components in a book, it’s a living book.
So where do you find them?
Way #1: Check out SCM favorites
I’m going to list this one first, because I know what books are recommended. They are some of my favorites—ones that I have used with my children or that I wish I had used with my children.
In the Simply Charlotte Mason bookstore you will find some that we have published, but if you follow the links on our SCM Curriculum overview, you will find hundreds of living books that we recommend divided by age groups and school subjects, along with links of where to find them. But those are only some of our favorites. Many, many more living books exist and can be used in a Charlotte Mason education.
Way #2: Search the CM Organizer
You can also use a feature of our CM Organizer, called the Bookfinder. The Bookfinder is a huge database that contains more than 1,500 living books that we personally like (and probably own), plus thousands of other living book suggestions that have been submitted by other Charlotte Mason moms.
Now, because this is a community-sourced database, we can’t vouch for all of the titles that other people have added. You will want to preview any book that you’re not familiar with, of course. Don’t just take someone else’s word for it. That book might have been a good fit for her family, but you’ll want to make sure it’s a good fit for yours. And if you want to see only the titles that the SCM team has personally entered into the Bookfinder, just look for the little blue SCM beside the title. You can also sort by “SCM recommended” to arrange the search results with our titles at the top.
As far as we know, there is no easier way than the CM Organizer’s Bookfinder to search for living books by criteria, such as geographical location, historical dates, key words, school subjects, and grade levels. You can’t do that sort of thing at Amazon or on your local library website.
The Bookfinder is free for you to use as often as you like. In fact, you might want to bookmark it.
We made sure that most of the book listings contain a link to Amazon so you can take a look at the sample. If you’re not sure whether it’s truly a living book, give it a one-page test. Read one page of the sample and see if you are drawn in, if you want to keep reading. If you come to the end of the page, or of the whole sample, and feel disappointed that it’s over because you want to know what happens next, it’s probably a living book. If you can picture in your mind’s eye what the author is saying or describing, it’s probably a living book. If, on the other hand, you read some of the sample and think, meh. okay, whatever . . . , you might want to pass on that one and find a different book. Samples can be very helpful for that one-page test!
And here’s the best part, the CM Organizer’s Bookfinder has a place where you can put in your zip code and it will tell you whether a library near you has a copy. Libraries are great places to find living books, once you know what you’re looking for. Which brings us to the third way to find living books . . .
Way #3: Check local libraries
Most public libraries contain some living books. If you know what titles you want, check and see if your local library has them. Keep in mind that even if your library does not have the title you’re looking for, you might be able to request it as an Inter-Library Loan. With an Inter-Library Loan, your library will locate and borrow the book from another library for you. Some libraries charge a fee for this service, but it shouldn’t be very expensive.
Now, some of you are fortunate enough to live near a private library filled with living books. My friends Liz Cottrill and Emily Kiser have been running the Living Books Library for many years, and the families who live near Liz’s home in Virginia are blessed to have access to such a wonderful collection: more than 18,000 titles, and all of them living.
The good news is that Living Libraries, as we call them, are popping up all over the country. Many homeschool moms, who used the Charlotte Mason Method with their children and collected all kinds of wonderful books, are making their collections available to other homeschool families. Often those collections include books that are no longer in print and not readily available anywhere else. These libraries are treasures! And so are the people who run them. A Living Library will give you the huge advantage of knowledgeable librarians who are very familiar with living books and love them as much as (or possibly even more than) you do. They can usually recommend titles and help you find living books that will be a good fit for your students.
I recently sat down with Liz and Emily to find out how their library works and how you can get connected to one near you. Watch this video to hear what they had to say about Living Libraries and check out the list of Living Libraries that they know about.
Way #4: Buy books used
You can find used books all over. If you know what titles you’re looking for, used book sales can be a great place to grab some.
Many local libraries have used book sales. Sadly, many public libraries are clearing the older literary-style books off their shelves; but the good news is that those titles might then show up in their used book sales. So ask your local library if and when they sell used books, and also check out Book Sale Finder. It can notify you of used book sales in your area.
If there is a particular publisher or line of books you’re looking for, check on Facebook. You can find many Facebook groups available for used book sales.
Thriftbooks.com was recently recommended to me by a mom who found many of our SCM curriculum titles there.
Half Price Books has an impressive collection of hardcover and paperback used books. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find great deals on living books at half price.
bookfinder.com and addall.com are Internet search engines that will compile the used (and new) book listings from all over the web. Each of them includes different store options; for example, bookfinder.com will include results from places like Book Depository and Ebay, while addall.com will include results from Bibliophile and Antiqbook. Both show results from Biblio, Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, and other more well-known sources. So keep both in mind, and if you don’t see what you’re looking for at one, try the other.
When you’re looking for used book sources, don’t overlook private sellers. I’ll tell you about two whom I have gotten to know over the years and can recommend wholeheartedly.
Dan Glaeser is a wonderful used-book dealer based in California. He has a great knowledge of children’s literature and living books. If you’re looking for a vintage or hard-to-find title, Dan probably has it. He has his inventory listed on his website.
Jan Bloom is another fabulous resource when it comes to children’s literature. She has written two great guides, called Who Should We Then Read? Her massive inventory is not listed online, but if you are looking for a particular book, you can e-mail her through her website and ask if she has a copy.
And here’s the fifth way to find living books.
Way #5: Search for free e-texts
Many older books that are no longer under copyright are available as free e-texts online. If you know what you’re looking for, here are some websites that could be very helpful. You can search by book title or author on these sites:
Heritage History features more than 500 illustrated classical histories, which you can view online or download for free.
The University of Pennsylvania has an Internet search service. Enter the author or title you are looking for, and it will give you links to all the places it found that book available for free.
The Internet Archive library contains millions of free books and other media.
Now, be picky. Remember the characteristics of a good living book. Especially in the children’s historical books you will find a lot of twaddle. (It gives you a new appreciation for why Charlotte took a stand against such dumbed-down books! There were a lot of them in her day, just as there are in ours.) So just keep in mind that not all listings on a children’s literature site will be living books, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can find some gems!
Bonus Way: Borrow from a friend
I’ve been debating whether to give one more bonus way to find living books. Sometimes I hesitate to even mention this one, because many Charlotte Mason homeschoolers feel strongly about their personal book collections (as I do!). But here goes: IF you have a great relationship with a friend, and IF you can be trusted to return the book in good shape, and IF you have the money for the security deposit (just kidding), you might be able to borrow some great living books from friends. But make sure you return them! Do you know how many books I have lost over the years because someone didn’t return a book I let her borrow? I’m not bitter, but if you have a friend who trusts you with her book, be sure you maintain that trust by returning it. (And maybe take her out to lunch to say thanks. Just an idea.)
So those are the places where I like to look for living books. Do you have a favorite place that you like to go? Leave a comment and let me know. I’m always eager for a good living book hunt!