If there is one thing Charlotte Mason homeschoolers love to do, it’s talk about our favorite books. I think every Charlotte Mason meeting I’ve ever attended had at least one conversation going on about “What books do you suggest for this time period and these grades?” or “Got any new favorite read-alouds?”
I love to hear conversations like that, because they confirm how much the living ideas in great books can take root in our hearts and minds and live life right along with us. They become a part of us like nothing else can.
So I thought I would share with you some of my favorite books for different subjects and grade levels. We’ll take them in short, focused segments and spread them out over the posts, because I have a lot of favorites! These book conversations are not going to be back-to-back. We will do them regularly, but we will intermix them with other topics in order to keep a good variety in this blog. (Short, focused segments. Wide variety. Those are Charlotte Mason principles!)
I would love to keep these favorite-book posts as an open conversation, just like the ones I hear in person at CM events. One person shares her favorite books and others mention their favorites, so together we all keep learning about new titles and gaining even more options for great living books that help us all grow.
Today I want to share seven of my favorite books for first through third grade, and these are going to be focused on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. At that grade level, I mainly just want to expose the student to what life was like in the time period and give her an introduction to a few of the key figures who lived then. But that introduction must be made through those people’s stories; I don’t want to give just dry facts. The stories are what will teach my children the most about those people and the obstacles they overcame and the life lessons they learned. In other words, those stories will give them vital living ideas.
Now, remember that in grades 1 through 3, the teacher is expected to read aloud the history books to the children. So when I say that these books are for first through third grade, I don’t meant that they are on that reading level—that a first grader could read these on her own. I mean that the content and the length are appropriate for first through third graders as you read the book aloud to them.
These are all great books. There isn’t really one that I like more than the others, so let’s go in alphabetical order. I’ll put the historical dates beside the titles below, so if you’re curious about their chronological order, you can find the corresponding dates there.
Brother Francis and the Friendly Beasts by Margaret Hodges (1182–1226)
One of my favorites, this book introduces St. Francis of Assisi. It has beautiful illustrations; well-written sentences, not twaddle; and picturesque text that conveys ideas, for example:
“One evening when Francis and another brother were eating in the open air, a nightingale began to sing close by. Whenever the bird paused, Francis took up the song, and so they went on all night long, singing together, the small brown bird and the man with the bright face under his brown hood.”
Isn’t that great? You can picture it in your mind’s eye as you hear it or read it. This book is short enough to read in one sitting, but lovely enough that your child will probably want to revisit it again and again. It looks like a picture book, and I guess it is one, technically. But there is a difference between a twaddly picture book and a good, living picture book. (Maybe I’ll do a post on how to pick good picture books one of these days.) Just remember, don’t disqualify all picture books. Some are great living books that will add a lot of value to your child’s education.
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess by Richard Platt (1285)
Tobias, or Toby, for short, is an 11-year-old who is sent to his uncle’s castle to serve as a page. He keeps a journal of what happens during his year there and the jobs he does. So the book chronicles, in an interesting and personal, sometimes humorous, way everyday tasks in a medieval castle—like baking bread and cleaning out the toilets (something many children would be curious about)—plus special events like wild boar hunts and tournaments. The book is longer, but easily divided into sections because the entries are dated. The front has a labeled drawing of the castle locations that are mentioned in the diary notes, and the back of the book has a whole section called “Toby’s World” that gives more information about noblemen and weaponry, suits of armor and battle strategies during the Middle Ages.
Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson (early 1400s)
In this story you will learn how handcrafted books were made during the Middle Ages as you get to know Marguerite and her family, who live in Paris, France. When Marguerite’s father becomes ill and cannot complete the manuscript he had been working on, Marguerite steps in to finish the book for a patron on a deadline. The story walks you through all of the craftsmen who were involved, as well as the intricate steps and skills that were needed, to create an illuminated manuscript. It plants the ideas that give a deeper understanding of just how life-changing Gutenberg’s printing process was and how that invention helped to usher in the Renaissance.
A Medieval Feast by Aliki (around 1400)
The king is making a long journey and decides to stop at Camdenton Manor on his route. The lord and lady of the manor must prepare a feast for the royal party of about 100 people! So the rest of the book shows all that went into making, serving, and eating a medieval feast. There is the main storyline along the bottom of each page, accompanied by intricate illustrations that also give more details about that aspect of life in the Middle Ages. It’s a simple, yet fascinating, book that includes the unusual dishes that sometimes appeared at a medieval feast: such as a peacock, cooked and then reassembled with its feathers; four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie; and a Cockentrice, which was a capon and a small pig that were cut in half, stuffed, and sewn together again, each to the others’ half.
Pippo the Fool by Tracey E. Fern (1420–1446)
I recently read a wonderful biography about Brunelleschi and the famous dome that he designed for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Well, this book gives young readers a great introduction to Pippo, as he was called. Its short text is well-written and offers living ideas. Pippo’s creativity, his endurance in the face of adversity and ridicule, and even his quick temper are all portrayed in the story, along with their respective consequences. It’s another great picture book that will teach your children a lot.
The Sword in the Tree by Clyde Robert Bulla (approximately 542)
This story takes place during the days of King Arthur. The adventure begins when a treacherous uncle arrives at Weldon Castle, the home of a young boy, Shan, and his family. Not long after his arrival, Shan’s father mysteriously disappears and Shan and his mother must flee. Outside the castle walls, Shan vows to do whatever it takes to get back what is rightfully his family’s. His quest takes him as far as Camelot and the court of King Arthur. Excellent ink illustrations are scattered throughout the chapters.
Viking Adventure by Clyde Robert Bulla (793–843)
This one is by the same author as The Sword in the Tree. Clyde Robert Bulla was a great children’s author, who wrote lots of books. Many of them are out of print now, but keep your eyes open for them. You might be able to find them used. Some of his books your third grader may be able to read for himself. This one is a great Viking adventure tale that is appropriate for younger children. Sigurd grows up learning to be brave and strong, to swim and to run, to fight with a sword and use a bow and arrow. Above all, he desires adventure. He hears the stories that his father tells of the days when he went exploring and of all the adventures that befell him, and Sigurd wants his chance at adventure too. When he is presented with an opportunity to learn how to read and write, he brushes it aside with a focus only on adventure. But when he finally has his adventures, he finds that he wants to preserve those stories forever and decides to learn reading and writing in order to do that.
Those are seven of my favorite books, and they are all scheduled in our curriculum for first through third grade as part of our study on the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, and Epistles. (Those seven books don’t get into the Reformation, but the books recommended for older students do.) If you are studying that time period with your students, you can just work your way through the list of books at your own pace, or daily lesson plans are available. Those daily plans will schedule all of the books throughout the year, so you know which ones to read when and how much to read in a sitting. The plans also give narration reminders, teaching tips, exam questions, and all of the other books that we recommend for that time period for all of the grades, first through twelfth. The daily lesson plans include Bible and geography lessons too. I’ll talk about all of those other great books another time. Feel free to download the free sample of the daily lesson plans and see if those plans will help you save time and stay organized.
All right, I’ve got to give you three bonus books. It’s hard to narrow down your favorites! These are also great books, and they would work wonderfully if your young student wants to learn more about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The Apple and the Arrow by Mary and Conrad Buff (approximately 1290)
This one looks like a picture book, but it’s really more like a chapter book with pictures. You won’t want to read the whole thing in one sitting. It recounts the famous story of William Tell through the eyes of his son, Walter. It plants the seed of patriotism and at the same time encourages your child to enlarge his mind and realize that those living in other countries can feel just as patriotic about their countries as he does about his. It’s a great book.
Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire (about 970–1220)
I hope many of you are familiar with the wonderful biographical picture books by the D’Aulaires, originally written in the 1940s and now brought back into print by Beautiful Feet Books. These are living picture books at their best. This one introduces the Norse explorer, Leif Erikson, to your children, accompanied by elaborate Norse decorations around the illustrations and the text. Once again, though they can be considered picture books, their narrative is excellent. Here’s the beginning of Leif the Lucky:
“Leif stood on sturdy feet in the prow of his father’s Viking ship as he sailed across the Snowstorm Sea. The brine stung his tanned cheeks and the wind tore at his hair. His eyes were keen as the eyes of a snake and blue as steel as he watched the rows of waves rising like a thousand fences between him and his new home in the West.”
Brilliant! Such descriptive text allows you to see it all vividly in your mind’s eye, and consider that idea: the waves were like a thousand fences between Leif and his new home. It’s wonderful, and typical D’Aulaire. Look for their books.
The Minstrel in the Tower by Gloria Skurzynski (1195)
Alice and Roger’s father has gone on the Crusades, and their mother is gravely ill. The children go in search of their uncle, whom they have never met, hoping that he might help. Along the way they have adventures that reveal different aspects of life in the Middle Ages. A special lute with a family crest is the key to their success. I won’t tell you how it turns out. A short chapter book that your young children are sure to enjoy.
All right, those are my favorite books for grades 1–3 covering the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Do you have some of your own? What living books do you recommend for younger children studying that time period? Leave a comment and let’s talk books!