How Effective Are Living Books?

living booksWe’re doing WinterPromise curriculum this year, which is very Charlotte Mason-style. We have wonderfully delightful living books to read for history, as well as lessons in a “Time Travelers” text. It’s not as a dry as a typical history textbook, but it’s a far cry from a living book. I do admit it’s a nice complement to the living books, to sort of hook ideas together. But yesterday, 10-year-old Kathryn shared some great insight with me.

When I reminded her she still needed to read the “Time Travelers” lesson for this week, she said (and I quote),

“I don’t really like that very much. It has too many facts, and I don’t really want to know about battles, what presidents did, and stuff like that. It drones on and on, and doesn’t have any excitement or people talking, which is what I like.”

Her words echo Charlotte Mason’s ideas:

“Let a child have the meat he requires in his history readings, and in the literature which naturally gathers round this history, and imagination will bestir itself without any help of ours; the child will live out in detail a thousand scenes of which he only gets the merest hint.” (Vol. 1 Part XVIII – History, p.295)

Kathryn is currently studying Lewis and Clark. She has read one “Time Travelers” lesson about them, and last week she began two of what I’d call living books. One is Going Along with Lewis and Clark, which is not really a story, but more of a collection of photographs of the areas they traveled and clothing they would have worn, maps, and illustrations, along with text explaining about all of those things. The other book she began is a historical fiction novel called The Captain’s Dog, which Kathryn says is one of her all-time favorite books.

I don’t want to just assume she’s learning enough from these “interesting” books, so after thinking about what she said yesterday, I decided to do an informal little test of how much living books are really teaching her.  So this morning, I asked her to “tell me what you know so far about who Lewis and Clark were, and what they did.” These are the notes I jotted down, in her words:

  • They were both called captain, probably because they spent so much time on a boat.
  • They worked together, and made a good team because what one didn’t have, the other did. (referring to skills and personality traits)
  • They went up the Missouri River, and were trying to get to the Rockies before winter.
  • They were trying to find a northwest passage to go all the way across the United States from east to west.
  • Jefferson was president at that time.
  • They had a crew of guys with them, plus Sacagawea because they needed someone who spoke Shoshone to translate for them.
  • Sacagawea was young, maybe only fifteen or so, and had a baby with her, plus a husband who seemed kind of useless.
  • Captain Lewis had a black Newfoundland dog named Seaman.

Honestly, I didn’t even remember that much from my own high school studies of Lewis and Clark. In fact, I barely remember any mention of them. But through one or two truly good books, Kathryn has become immersed in the journey of Lewis and Clark. I believe these are things she will continue to remember for many years to come, because they — and that dog — have become like friends to her.

So all that living books stuff? Yeah, I think Ms. Mason was definitely onto something.

“Let [the child] linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.” (Vol. 1 Part XVIII – History, p.280)

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Isn’t it amazing?! My daughter is much the same way. She holds much more attention to living books then to books with merely compounded facts.

So funny, I wrote a post on some quotes from Charlotte Mason today as well. 😉


I LOVE CM and Living Books! Last summer, we read a Lewis/Clark book just before a trip to the midwest. We traveled along their trail, went to a fun history center about them…and ended our trip at Mt Rushmore! It was an amazing adventure….and we did do a small lap book…..but, no rushing/worrying…just fun!

GREAT post! Glad I found you on Twitter!

Angie W

I love how you retold your story about living books! Yes, we have found this to be true was well. When my 7th grader started a “grade level” social studies book this year for a review he was nervous that he wouldn’t know anything, or it would be hard. So far, the book is so simple, fun ways to remember what we have learned – that I’m not sure any new information has been added. He is having so much for showing what he knows that he has continued in the book even after the review. 😉 Thinking Press –… Read more »

Nicole @ Journey 2 Excellence

I got chills when I read that! I love learning!


Thanks for this post. I have been considering winter promise for my kids next year. This is the kind of thing that makes me think its worth the (LARGE) cost.

Mary Joy @Seeds of Encouragement Sewn with Grace

have you checked out the “Simply Charlotte Mason Method”? Its on-line and has a very low cost involved includes a free curriculum guide as well as a great Charlotte Mason Organizer that tracks your lesson planning and all of your educational records for you! Just an idea. That’s what we are using.


Thanks Mary Joy, I will check it out!

Yay! I love it! We are starting with the Charlotte Mason Method using Simply Charlotte Mason approach. I love it!! It has a great free curriculum…1000s of books on the list to choose can get most from the local library and what they don’t have they can order and a great website to help me stay organized, plan out lessons, and track all our educational and attendance records! Your daughter is so precious! My son is really excited about starting homeschooling with Living Books fulltime as soon as school gets out this year. (this is his last semester in… Read more »

Tricia @Hodgepodge

What a great post. Love it! and the little children shall lead them… 🙂


I’ve been sold on CM and living books for a a while now. I knew I was drawn to a literary education, but I also had my doubts about how “much” the girls were actually learning, despite their narration skills. Things turned around for me recently, when the dc began making their own connections to inter-related people and events. I was amazed at all they remembered!


It can be hard to let go of those organized facts, but we all really know we don’t hold onto that information for long. It’s in one ear and out the other. The stories from the books though become fond memories.


Wonderful to see your daughters progress. It’s always nice when my kids “get” something, very affirming. There is another book called “Seaman’s Journal On the trail with Lewis and Clark” by Patricia Reeder Eubank. It is his view of the expedition.


I am putting my faith in living books. We’ve been using Sonlight for years. They have a great understanding of history and I am learning right along with them!

Laura Lou

I couldn’t agree more! We had a similar experience here, and one might think I know better by now… one would be wrong, but she might still think it.

Yesterday, my son was to continue reading a “spine” about the War of 1812, one that came highly recommended, too. When for a third time he asked what else he could read, I asked him why he was avoiding the book.

“It’s so boring and doesn’t tell me anything about what REALLY happened!”

This mom is learning… too.

Nancy Kelly

Go Kathryn! I love it when our children, when being serious about their school, share what they think of certain books. It helps us as teachers tremendously. The point is, you can teach most things with just living books. Kathryn’s comments are a testimony to their staying power.

Thanks for sharing this!
Ring true,


I want to encourage you, they really do learn SO MUCH from living books. I’m often astounded at just how much.


This is so true! It makes perfect sense especially if you think about what we choose to read as adults. I generally don’t pick up a textbook to read when I am trying to learn something new….


I have really enjoyed reading your blog about using Winter promise. I am thinking about doing American Crossing and was concerned about the reading before each time traveler. What a neat experience with your daughter! Do you suggest not reading the text then and just choosing living books to introduce the material in the TT. Is the book list in the back of TT helpful?