Getting the Spine Book Straight


If you’ve been around Charlotte Mason homeschoolers for any length of time, you have most likely heard the term “spine” book. While it may seem like such a term would refer to a type of science book, it’s actually more likely to be used for history.

Let’s take a few minutes to make sure we’re all straight on what a spine book is and how it can be used.

What is a spine book?

As its name implies, a spine book is used to give structure to a study. You can think of it as the backbone with the various muscles and nerves branching off from it. In the same way, the spine book will cover the basic events of a historical period in an orderly, chronological way. Then you can branch off from that spine and focus on various individual muscles, or events, going more in-depth as desired with additional books.

Another way to look at it is to picture a long range of mountains. The spine book will give you the wide-sweeping story of the whole range of mountains, but you can also choose to focus more closely on individual mountain peaks as you move along that range.

The key is that a spine book should be a living book just as much as any other book you would use in a Charlotte Mason history lesson. Genevieve Foster’s The World of . . . series of books or Ancient Egypt and Her Neighbors or Stories of America and Stories of the Nations are examples of living spine books. They will give you the wide historical perspective in a living narrative.

How is a spine book used?

An effective way to use a spine book is to read and narrate its chapters in order to present the overview and show how one event led to another. After you read a chapter about a certain person or a certain event, lay aside the spine and spend some time reading a more in-depth book about that person or event.

You can insert biographies, like The Story of Thomas A. Edison; documentaries, like the Russell Freedman books or Jim Murphy books; or historical fiction, like Boy of the Pyramids or Only a Dog: A Story of the Great War. There are hundreds of great living books that focus on particular historical events and persons. You will find recommendations from other CM moms on our CM Bookfinder and our favorite picks on the SCM Curriculum Guide. The hard part will be narrowing down all of your choices!

Once you finish exploring that particular mountain peak, pick up where you left off in the spine book and continue on until you land on another mountain peak you want to explore.

Don’t feel like you have to go in-depth on every single chapter of the spine book; some topics may be covered sufficiently with the wider perspective. On the flip side, be careful that you don’t get stuck on one particular topic and stay there reading book after book until both you and your children grow sick of it. Keep moving, but feel free to branch off the spine and explore interesting peaks as desired.

Of course, you don’t have to use a spine. Some CMers prefer to just focus on the peaks in order and let the students connect the dots without a spine book. That’s fine. You can approach history either way: with a spine book or without. The key is to make sure whatever books you use are living books.

Remember, a living book will

  • make the subject come alive;
  • usually be written by one author with a passion for the subject;
  • touch your emotions and fire your imagination;
  • make it easy for you to visualize the scene in your mind as you read;
  • contain ideas, not just facts;
  • be well-written, not twaddle.

Books with those characteristics—whether spine or not—should make sure you and your students enjoy a fascinating stroll through the pageant of history with delightful explorations along the way.