Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Living Books

            When I think back on my childhood education, I don’t remember most the teachers, the classrooms, or the lessons. I remember the books, first enjoyed snuggled up to my mother as she read aloud, and then as I read silently during after school-hours. “Put that book down,” my father would tell me at the dinner table, or during family car rides. “Look out the window!”  Even when I wasn’t reading, I “lived with” the characters who peopled the books I read: Laura Ingalls Wilder and the other characters from Little House on thePrairie; a girl named Karen; Mandy and the children in The Secret Garden.

            Laura is in good part responsible for my love of the country, nature and simple living; Karen gave me a blueprint for raising a child with a disability, and many old favorites became part of a fabric of my being.

            When our older children were small, I read them many of my own childhood favorites, and felt terribly uneasy when I saw some of the books being sold in the Scholastic book flyers that came home from school, and the books that stocked the shelves of the public school classrooms.

            “That (awful) series?” I remember asking The Student’s 3rd grade teacher with dismay, after learning in a conference what he'd been reading at school each day. “He has read 11 of those books during independent reading time this quarter?”

I explained my concern about the series he'd been reading: besides the dreadful subject matter I didn’t want him exposed to (a whole other story), I knew that these and other popular series books relied on small words, short sentences, short paragraphs, poor sentence construction and a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter to entice the kids to read (and buy) more. My request that she encourage The Student to read other books during class time was not honored, and it became increasingly difficult to interest my intelligent, formerly interested-in-everything-boy, in real literature.

Twaddle vs Living Books

When we began homeschooling years later, I first heard the terms “Living books,” and “Twaddle.” Twaddle, I came to understand, was the stuff I already knew I hated – the books that talk down to children, underestimate their intelligence or potential; and dilute the information into small bites and yet make little sense as a whole. They are the books that attract children with “eye candy” like characters from movies or television shows, but have content that is badly written or just plain silly. The differences between these volumes, and the majority of books written for children one hundred years ago are striking.

            Living books are the ones you want to live with, the ones you want your children to take under their arms and find a cozy corner to snuggle up and read. Usually written by one person who is passionate about the subject matter, they're most often written as a story or in a conversational style. Because of this, readers are transported into the story, where they can make connections, and remember much more than if they'd read a textbook or an encyclopedia spread. They can teach morals and values through tales of adventure and sacrifice, and leave children with memories of places and events they have only visited in those pages. In our home and school, these are the types of books we use as school books, reading books, free-time and family reading.

Long after they would have forgotten dates memorized from a textbook, our children will likely remember gathering together to listen to their father read Little Britches – and they will likely remember the tears of their parents as we finished that book one winter night. We will always remember Charlotte, and her devotion to a pig (more tears). They remember our outdoor snack and lunch times, when they learned of the courage of those who stood against the Nazis in occupied Holland in The Winged Watchman, and begged for just one more chapter, and will not forget curling up with their dad to listen to missionary adventures. And perhaps one day, in a way we cannot yet imagine, God will use one of the living books they read to light a fire and shape their destinies as they find the paths He has laid out for them.

A Few Favorite Living Books

Through the years and for a variety of age groups, here are some favorites at our house:
-          Little House on the Prairie and other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
-          Little Pear
-          Charlotte’s Web
-          Fifty Famous Stories Retold
-          The Bible
-          Hero Tales
-          Little Britches and other books by Ralph Moody
-          The Book of Indians by Hollings C. Hollings, worth searching for!
-          Paddle to the Sea, also by Hollings
-          The Adventures of Pinocchio
-          Moccasin Trail
-          The Winged Watchman
-          The Door in the Wall
-          Understood Betsy
-          Cameron Townsend - Good News In Any Language
-          Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
-          Bruchko
-          Carry On Mr. Bowditch
-          Treasure Island
-          The Kite Fighters
-          Cameron Townsend
-          The Cat of Bubastes
-          Stories and Poems for Highly Intelligent Children of All Ages
Have a favorite living book? Please do share, we always love another book to explore.

Loving to read, and
Trusting in Him,


  1. Agree about the Twaddle! :) I pre-read Johnny Tremain last Spring and it really impacted me on so many levels. Probably not a book for Ian quite yet, but in a couple of years it will definitely be on the list!

  2. Isn't that a wonderful book? I'll have to pull it out for Littlest in a year or two. We're reading Carry On Mr. Bowditch now, and I keep calling it Johnny Tremaine because I remember that so fondly.

  3. Just followed you from WTM. Love your blog! We are a living book family too. If you haven't read any of the Melendy books (The Saturdays, The Four Story Mistake) definitely check them out. I also didn't see Wind in the Willows on your list. Oh, and Winnie the Pooh. All brilliant.

    Take care.

  4. Kim, thanks for your suggestions! I haven't read the Melendy books - I'll look for them during our next library trip. I have a lovely copy of the Wind in the Willows we've never read - I wonder why? I'll dust it off and put it in the lineup. And who doesn't love Pooh. Along the same vein, Littlest ADORES our little pink copy of When We Were Very Young by Milne. "They're changing the guard at Buckingham Palace..."
    Thanks for stopping in and leaving a note!