What exactly are living books and why do they matter?
I love books. But not all books are created equal. The term “living books” is associated with Charlotte Mason, a Victorian era educator from England who was a bit of a revolutionary in the education world during her time.
The concept of what a living book is can be a bit difficult to pin down, but this is my attempt to expound on what living books are and why they are important.
What Does Charlotte Mason Say about Living Books?
With six volumes that flesh out her philosophy of education, it is not difficult to find what Miss Mason had to say on a variety of topics. One topic that she is notorious for speaking on is the necessity of giving living books to children, and refraining from the use of twaddle (her term for dumbed down and predigested thoughts and literature for children).
Here is just a sampling of some of her thoughts pertaining to living books:
From Volume 2 of Charlotte Mason’s works:
One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.
And Volume 6:
As for literature––to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served. But they must learn to know literature by being familiar with it from the very first.
And Volume 3
We give them second-rate story books, with stale phrases, stale situations, shreds of other people’s thoughts, stalest of stale sentiments. They complain that they know how the story will end! But that is not all; they know how every dreary page will unwind itself. I saw it stated the other day that children do not care for poetry, that a stirring narrative in verse is much more to their taste. They do like the tale, no doubt, but poetry appeals to them on other grounds, and Shelley’s Skylark will hold a child entranced sooner than any moving anecdote. As for children’s art, we hang the nursery with ‘Christmas Number’ pictures, and their books are illustrated on a lower level still. In regard to book illustrations, we are improving a little, but still there is room.
As you can see, Miss Mason had some strong thoughts in the regard to the quality and quantity of books that should be made available to children.
What is Considered a Living Book?
Honestly, it is hard to give a specific definition to what a living book is, and there is a little bit of subjectivity to this issue as well.
However, here are some distinct elements that help express the essence of living books.
First of all, living books are timeless. Living books are books that will stand the test of time and be well loved for generations to come.
Coming hand in hand with that, living books are tasteful. They have a certain element of classiness to them that sets them apart from twaddle.
Living books are engaging. Through their use of beautiful language, they almost immediately sweep the reader up into the story. This point is especially significant with living books that are nonfiction. Rather than being full of dry facts, nonfiction living books are usually in story form.
Probably the most important aspect of living books is that they do not speak down to the reader. I find this to be especially significant when it comes to children’s books.
Living books operate under the assumption that it is better to expose children to stronger vocabulary and higher ideas. The language and concepts are not watered down or overly simplistic.
This goes along with Charlotte Mason’s principle that children are born persons. Living books honor the personhood of children by not speaking down to them. While living books often touch on moral issues or on the growth of character, they will not have an obvious, neatly packaged moral lesson.
Another aspect to consider with living books, and something that Miss Mason speaks directly to, is that living books are to have beautiful illustrations. This would mean illustrations that are realistic with a tasteful color pallet, while still allowing for whimsy when necessary (Tasha Tudor is a wonderful example of this).
A good summary to what a living book is can be found in Karen Andreola’s book A Charlotte Mason Companion.
The test of literature is that it must be all three; it must bring us truth, nobility, and beauty. Literature must be somewhat intellectual and give us truth. It must be ethical so that we are well-nourished with noble ideas. It must also be artistic and make its appeal through emotions…So we look for books with that touch of originality- books that warm the imagination.
What are Examples of Living Books?
One of the best ways to figure out if a book is a living book or not is to simply open the book and read the first page.
To give an idea of what a real, true living book is, I am going to share the first page of two books that are both targeted at the same age range, roughly 7-10 year olds.
Here is the first page to the first book in the popular Hank the Cowdog series by John Erickson:
It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog. I just got some terrible news. There’s been a murder on the ranch.
I know I shouldn’t blame myself. I mean, a dog is only a dog. When I took this job as Head of Ranch Security, I knew that I was only flesh and blood, four legs, a tail, a couple of ears, a pretty nice kind of nose that women really go for, two bushels of hair and another half bushel of Mexican sandburs.
You add that all up and you don’t get Superman, just me, good old easygoing Hank who works hard, tries to do his job, and gets little cooperation from anyone around here.
Now here is the first page to the book Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry:
A wild, ringing neigh shrilled up from the hold of the Spanish galleon. It was not the cry of an animal in hunger. It was a terrifying bugle. An alarm call.
The captain of the Santo Cristo strode to the poop deck. ‘Cursed be that stallion!’ he muttered under his breath as he stamped forward and back, forward and back.
Suddenly he stopped short. The wind! It was dying with the sun. It was spilling out of the sails, causing them to quiver and shake. He could feel his flesh creep with the sails. Without wind he could not get to Panama. And if he did not get there, and get there soon, he was headed for trouble. The Moor ponies to be delivered to the Viceroy of Peru could not be kept alive much longer. Their hay had grown musty. The water casks were almost empty. And now this sudden calm, this heavy warning of a storm.
Wow. Do I really need to say anything more? These two examples speak for themselves.
Which book makes you want to turn the page and continue reading? Which book draws you in immediately and uses richer, fuller language to tell the story? Which book dumbs down the language, and which one draws the reader up? Which one preys upon superficial thoughts, and which one presents a scenario where true bravery will be called upon?
Misty of Chincoteague is a wonderful example of a living book. With this example, you can learn to judge for yourself what a living book is and be able to decisively discern a living book from a twaddle book.
A Few Notes on Living Books
As we have seen, Charlotte Mason put forth that children should only have access to the best books. And while I agree with her on the importance of living books in the life of a child, I also want to make a distinction that this is not something that should become a legalistic matter in your home.
While I do my utmost to put the best books before my children, that does not mean they have never read twaddle. Confession: My children have read several books from the Hank the Cowdog series. Does that make me cringe a bit? Why yes, yes it does.
But I look at books in a similar way that I do food. While the vast majority of our diet consists of wholesome and nourishing food, there are times where we indulge in special treats.
Likewise, the vast majority of the books that my children read are absolutely lovely and endearing stories, but there are times where they are allowed to indulge in a less sophisticated book.
I personally only buy living books for my children, but we visit the library regularly where they sometimes select books like Hank the Cowdog, and other times they are gifted books from other people that are more on the twaddly side.
Rather than being a legalistic purist on the matter, I strive to keep a healthy perspective on the matter, and I think we are better off with maintaining that perspective.
Are you a fan of living books? Share some of your favorite living books in the comments below!