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)