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What a Living Book Sounds Like

It seems like one of the hardest concepts to wrap your head around when you’re homeschooling with the Charlotte Mason Method is the concept of living ideas versus dry facts. Now, we give our children living ideas in several ways; but for this post I’m going to focus on living books, because living books make up a large part of a Charlotte Mason education. Charlotte said,

“Why in the world should we not give children, while they are at school, the sort of books they can live upon; books alive with thought and feeling, and delight in knowledge, instead of the miserable cram-books on which they are starved?”

Formation of Character, p. 291

“Books alive with thought and feeling.” But what does that look like? Most of us were given textbooks, or what Charlotte called “cram-books,” in school, because the majority of them just cram in the facts with very few ideas in the mix. So we’re used to the textbook, just-the-facts style of writing and not so familiar with this concept of living ideas in books.

Today I’m going to give you an example of the difference between a book with living ideas and a book that presents dry facts. Now, I’ve given other examples in past blog posts and podcast episodes, so I’ve included some links at the end of this post. 

And let me encourage you that, just like any other concept that is new to you, the more you see it and practice it, the easier it will get. With living ideas in books, the more you see them and look closely and compare them to their dry-facts alternatives, the more confident you will become in recognizing them and spotting the difference.

Today we’re going to look at four different books on Albert Einstein. They are all books that are recommended for children about 8–12 years old, and I will be sharing the first page of each one so you can compare and contrast their styles.

Let me take just a moment to review the characteristics that you’re looking for in a living book. 

  1. It’s usually written by one author who has a passion for the subject, rather than a committee that has been hired to put something together.
  2. It is usually written in what Charlotte called a “literary style.” Listen for a narrative or a conversational tone. It will sound like someone telling you a story or chatting with you in everyday language across the kitchen table.
  3. It touches your emotions and fires your imagination. You can usually picture in your mind’s eye what is happening as you read, and you begin to feel a personal connection with the person or animal or event that you’re reading about.
  4. It is well-written, not twaddle. Twaddle is dumbed-down language, often presented in short, choppy sentences.

Most importantly, a living book will contain living ideas, not just dry facts. Ideas that help shape who you are becoming as a person. Ideas that feed your imagination and spark other ideas of your own. Now, let’s take a look at the four book samples to help illustrate what I mean.

The first three books do not give an author’s name. That should raise a flag right there. They were most likely not written by a single author who has a passion for the subject.

All right, here’s the first sample. Listen for the tone—narrative or conversational is what we want—and see if you are able to picture what the passage is talking about. Here we go.

“Einstein was a scientist during the early 1900s and came up with some of the greatest discoveries and theories in science. People referred to him as one of the most intelligent people of the 20th century. His name and face are often presented as the description or picture of the consummate scientist.”

Baby Professor, Albert Einstein: The Genius Who Failed School, Speedy Publishing, 2017

That’s a classic example of “just the facts, ma’am.” Do you feel like you’ve gotten to know Einstein as a person, a fellow human being? No. We were told when he lived and what he was famous for, but there was no personal connection formed through emotions or imagination. I would put that sample in the category of dry facts, not living ideas.

Okay, let’s try the second sample. This is the first page of a graphic biography for children.

“Albert Einstein was born in Germany in 1879. He became famous as a scientist and as one of the most important thinkers of our times. In 1933 when the dictator Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany, Einstein left his native land for good. Einstein was a Jew. Hitler hated Jews. In 1940 Albert Einstein became a citizen of the United States.”

Albert Einstein, Graphic Biography, Saddleback Educational Publishing, 2008

What did you think of that sample? It was full of dates and facts. You might possibly have formed a connection with the idea that Hitler hated Jews, and Einstein left his native land because he was a Jew. But it wasn’t really stated in a way that touched your emotions or fired your imagination and encouraged you to picture it in your mind’s eye. The rest was just stating the facts.

Let’s move on to the third sample. And let me just insert here that my purpose is not to bad-mouth or bash certain books. I simply want to do a comparison in order to help you recognize two distinctly different styles. Some books are written in a living-ideas, literary style and some are not. In a Charlotte Mason approach, we want to use the books that contain living ideas as much as we can. So let’s take a look at the third sample and see which style it is written in.

“Science was Albert Einstein’s first love, yet he always found time to devote tireless efforts to political causes close to his heart. His ardent humanism led him to strive for peace, freedom and social justice. The young Einstein found the authoritarianism and militarism of the German educational system profoundly disturbing. The virulent nationalism and brutality of the First World War served to confirm Einstein’s pacifist and internationalist convictions. Einstein was not a purely abstract thinker. He grasped the world in concrete images and strove to translate them into words and equations that could be understood by others.”

Know About Albert Einstein, Maple Kids from Maple Press, 2012

What do you think of that one? Does it contain living ideas that spark your imagination or touch your emotions? Does it tell the story of Einstein’s life or is it mainly a recitation of dry facts?

Now let’s go to the last book sample. This one was written by one author. Listen to the style and see if it sounds different from the others.

“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ride upon a beam of light? In the first years of the twentieth century, there lived a young man who wondered about that. In fact, he wondered about a lot of things, and what became of his wondering you shall see.

“In 1905 Albert Einstein spent his days in an office in the Swiss city of Bern, working as a patent clerk. He helped inventors fill out the paperwork so they would own their creations and no one else could claim them. He typed out the forms and filed them in their proper places, chatted with his friend in the office next door, and ate his simple lunch every day at his desk. When evening softened the sky, he walked home and greeted his wife and newborn son, and then shared with them a dinner of beef and potatoes, or pea soup and cabbage.

“But all the while he was doing these normal, homely deeds, his mind was somewhere else. He might be typing or chatting or eating, but he was thinking about light and time.”

Lambert, Lorene. Stories of the Nations, chapter 11, “On a Beam of Light,” Simply Charlotte Mason, 2012

Now, to me, that’s a world of difference in style and tone. Suddenly I have a movie playing in my mind’s eye. I can see a fellow human being who is going about his daily life. I’m forming a connection. The facts are still there. You know when and where Einstein lived, but the narrative couches those facts within living ideas. 

Some of the living ideas that stand out to me are the idea that you can be doing your usual tasks but thinking about something else; the idea that it’s all right to wonder, and that wondering might lead to something important; and the idea that you can be doing your usual tasks but thinking about what is important to you. 

Do you see the difference? A book like this presents living ideas, not just dry facts. And that’s the kind of books you want to use in a Charlotte Mason approach. Give your children ideas that make the subject come alive. Oh, the facts will be included, but they will be couched within those ideas. And it is the ideas that feed your children’s hearts and minds, rather than just the dry facts. There’s a big difference, and I hope these samples have helped you feel a bit more confident understanding that difference. 

You’ll find hundreds of my favorite living book titles in the Simply Charlotte Mason curriculum. In fact, the living book sample that I gave last in this post is from a book that we recommend for modern world history. It’s called Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, by Lorene Lambert. You can find other recommendations for living books using our CM Bookfinder. Every title we recommend will have an [SCM] listed after the title, so you can have access to all of our recommendations of living books that your child will enjoy.

More living books posts:

One Response to “What a Living Book Sounds Like”

  1. Anna January 13, 2021 at 12:25 pm #

    Listened to this with my son (5 years old). I asked him to tell me if the each of the four readings were interesting or boring.
    He said the first two were boring. The third one was interesting, but he didn’t want the fourth one to stop!
    That really tells you right there!

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