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Finding a Substitute Book

In a Charlotte Mason education, it’s the books that shine. They are the teachers, and a lot depends on them.

That’s why we are selective when it comes to the books we recommend in our curriculum at Simply Charlotte Mason. If you look at the SCM curriculum pages on our website, you can see all of the books that we recommend for each subject and grade level. Those are our top picks of the books that we know about.

There are so many great living books out there, sometimes it’s hard to choose just one for a particular topic or person. And there are probably some great books that we don’t even know about yet. But of all the great books we’ve read, our curriculum recommendations are our favorites to date.

You will find those same top picks in our lesson plan books that give you daily itineraries of which books to read when and how much. Many of you have found those pre-made plans helpful, and I’m so glad they are saving you time and bringing peace to your home.

But what do you do if you need to substitute one of the recommended books? Maybe your library doesn’t have a copy, or perhaps you can’t get to your library. Maybe that book has gone out of print and is nowhere to be found. We try hard to recommend only books that are either in print or in public domain, so they will be accessible; but with all of the publishers involved, sometimes a book does go out of print, unfortunately, and you’re faced with finding a substitute book. Or maybe one particular book just isn’t working for your student. How do you go about finding a good substitute?

Today we’re going to talk about where to look to gather some other possible titles and what to look for in selecting a good substitute book.

Where to Look

Many of us depend on our local libraries to supply books. If the book you’re looking for is not on the shelf, remember that it might be available to borrow digitally. Some libraries offer digital lending copies as well as print, so you might check there.

Another place to look is for an audiobook version. While reading from a page is best, an audiobook can be a viable option if you can’t find a printed or digital copy of the book. audible.com is one source, but there are other sources as well. I know some parents like to use librivox.org. Be aware that those audiobooks are read by volunteers, so the quality of the narrators will vary. 

Now, those two sources are to help you make sure that the recommended book is, indeed, not available. If you have verified that you don’t have access to that title, then it’s time to look for other possible options to substitute.

One great place to check is the CM Bookfinder. The CM Bookfinder is a feature of our online planner and record keeper, called the CM Organizer. You can create a free account in that planner, but you don’t have to in order to access the bookfinder. Anyone can search for titles or browse the books that have been entered into the CM Bookfinder. 

You can search by keyword, by author, by grade level, by school subject, by topic, by historical date. The CM Bookfinder will show you all of the results for that search. You can read the summaries of the books and most of them have a link to Amazon.com, so you can take a look at sample pages if there are any. 

Now, here is some insider information. We started the CM Bookfinder with the titles that are on our own shelves. Then a few years ago, we opened it up so other Charlotte Mason home educators could enter and share their favorite titles too. That means that we have not personally read all of the books that might be listed there. Some might meet your standards and be a good fit for you; others might not. But it will be a good place to start to gather some potential titles to look into. If you want to know which books we have read and can personally recommend, look for the little blue SCM beside the title. You can also sort the list to put all of the SCM recommended titles at the top. 

Another place to look for possible substitute books is on other book lists. As I mentioned, we list our top picks on our curriculum pages. Other Charlotte Mason publishers do the same, so look around and see what other titles they might recommend for various grade levels. Not all CM publishers suggest the same grade level for different books, so check “neighboring” grade levels too. You might also check the website for Living Books Library; they have some blog posts of their top picks for various topics or time periods. And a couple of published book lists that I have found helpful are All Through the Ages by Christine Miller and the TruthQuest History guides by Michelle Miller. Another great list that you might not know about is a list that our own Karen Smith put together for living science books by topic. It’s a fabulous resource!

One other option would be to check the posts that I do on my favorite books for different history time periods. I often mention bonus titles that could be used as substitute books. So take a look at those for more possibilities.

What to Look For

All right, once you have a few possible substitute options, how do you choose between them? Let me give you four things to look for that will help you select a good substitute book.

1. Purpose

Look back at the original recommended title and ask yourself, What is its purpose here? Some of that answer will relate to the type of book it is.

For example, if it is a spine book for history, its purpose is to highlight key people and events in a living, narrative way. So look for a substitute that will do the same thing. The substitute might feature a different line up of key people and events, but it will still cover many of the same time period’s prominent players. Replace a spine book with another spine book if you can.

If the book you are replacing is a biography, that book’s purpose is to dive deeper into one key person’s life. As your child reads about what happened to that person, he will also learn about some things that were happening in the world during that person’s lifetime. So look for another biography, either about that same person or, if you can’t find any other good options on that person, choose a different key person for that era of history. Just try to replace a biography with a biography.

Let’s say the book you need to replace is topical, maybe it’s a book about ducks that is recommended in a science study. Think about its purpose. The topic of ducks was already introduced in the main study book, so this book about ducks is recommended for digging deeper into that topic. So look for another book that will tell more about ducks and their characteristics and habits.

If the book that you can’t find is a historical fiction, think about its purpose. I like to include historical fiction to give the student a “feel” for what it was like to live in that time period. So look for a substitute title that will accomplish that purpose. A different historical fiction would work well.

And if it’s a reference book that needs to be replaced, consider what supplemental ideas and information it was providing. Then look for a replacement title that will accomplish that purpose as best you can.

If you just take a moment to think about the book’s purpose and type, that will help you focus on what kind of book would make the best substitute. You might also read a summary of that book you’re trying to replace, or even read a sample page or two, if you can, just to help you solidify in your mind what kind of book it is and what you’re looking for to best replace it.

2. Grade Level

The second thing to consider when selecting a substitute book is the grade level. Ideally, you will find a substitute book that will be on the same reading level as the book that you’re replacing. But we all know that a good living book can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages, so don’t be afraid to look at books that are “neighbors” to your target level. By that I mean, if you’re trying to find a substitute book for your student in sixth grade, you could look at the suggested titles for grades 7 through 9. Or if you’re looking for something for your fourth grader, you could consider the recommended books for grades 1 through 3. 

Looking at “neighboring” level books is a fine option, but let me just give you a couple of advisories to keep in mind as you do that. 

If you are leveling up, looking at a book that is recommended for an older student, think about the reading fluency of your student. You don’t want to give him a book that will be difficult to read; in other words, you don’t want the reading level to become a hindrance to his getting the good ideas out of that book. In some cases, you might decide to read that higher level book aloud with your student, if that’s the best choice. But let me also caution you that some higher grade level books might contain content that might not be best for a younger student. Now, I hope that all of the books you choose to give your child present good and noble ideas, nothing coarse or immoral; but some topics in books for older students might just be more intense than a younger student might be ready to handle. So make sure you check that both the reading level and the content will be suitable for a younger student if you are considering a title from an older “neighbor.”

If you are leveling down, looking at a book from a younger “neighboring” grade level, you shouldn’t have to worry that the reading will be too difficult or the content might be too intense. But just make sure that the easier reading level won’t offend your older student. And if that student is in high school, make sure that the reading level would count as high school level reading. Most of the books that we recommend for grades 7 through 9 fit that description just fine. Just keep in mind the reading level and the content when you’re looking at books from “neighboring” grade levels.

3. Length

The third thing that will help you select the best substitute book is to look at the length of the book. This has happened to me at times: I’m looking through various options of books on a specific topic for a specific grade range, and I check their reading levels and what all they cover and do all of this research. Then I finally decide on the one that I think is the winner, and only then do I notice that it’s 450 pages long! That is not going to fit in the time I have allotted for that book! 

Now, of course, don’t let your school-year calendar become your master and dictate to you exactly how many days you may take to read a book on a particular topic. You have freedom to flex and rearrange as needed. And you should. But there’s a difference between flexing a bit and completely blowing your plans out of the water. If the book is worth a complete restructuring of your plans, go for it. I only mention this tip to encourage you to know what you’re getting into. Check the length of the book before you make your final decision, so you won’t be surprised.

4. Writing Style

Then one more thing to consider, when looking for the very best substitute book, is the writing style. Remember, you want the book to give your student living ideas, not just dry facts. Each of the different types of books we mentioned earlier—a narrative spine book, a biography, a historical fiction—each of them will have a different writing style; but they should all be living. That’s a key.

Hopefully, if the title was recommended by a Charlotte Mason source, it should be living; but it’s always good to take a look, if you can, and determine whether it will be a good fit for your student or your family. 

If you can, give it a one-minute test. Set a timer for one minute and start reading. When the timer goes off, do two things. First, ask yourself, What am I feeling? Am I drawn into the book? Is it involving my imagination and my emotions? It might not be the absolute best thing you’ve ever read in your life, but is it more living than it is dry facts? For some book types, this won’t be as important; for example, reference books usually lean more toward facts. But for most of your substitute books, you’re looking for living ideas.

The second thing to do after you stop reading is to try to narrate what you just read. That’s going to be key. If you can’t narrate it, your children probably won’t be able to either. Keep looking. 

That one-minute test should help you select the best title from all of your options. 

It’s not always easy to find the best living books. It takes some work, but those efforts are well worthwhile. Of course, it may not always be possible to give our children the absolute best books in existence anywhere in the world, but we can give them the best that is available to us at the time. So don’t become paralyzed if a recommended title is unavailable. You can find a good substitute, and I hope these tips will help you do that with confidence.

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