Living Books

Living books are the easiest, quickest, most interesting way to learn. If your homeschooling is feeling a little lackluster this spring, consider taking a break from the regular dailies and pick up a living book or two. Like slowing down to breathe deeply on a walk in the woods, or feasting on a nourishing meal with good friends or close family, taking the time to pick up a living book will revitalize your hearts, minds, and souls.

Living books are sometimes called real books – and for good reason. Books that fit this definition feel alive. You can sense the character and depth of the author through his or her words on the page, which makes the book seem almost as real as a person! How do you recognize a living book? Sometimes the best way to define a living book is to think of its polar opposite: the textbook. Textbooks are often written by a committee, full of pre-digested material (supposedly making things easier for a child to understand) and give off a just-the-facts-ma’am vibe. In contrast, living books are often written by a single author, inspire a love of learning, fill a student with curiosity, and bring a topic to life.

The idea of calling certain books “living” originated from Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education. Charlotte Mason was a revolutionary educator of her time, and we are blessed to be able to apply her ideas to homeschooling in the 21st century. Charlotte Mason had lots to say about living books. She described a living book as “the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life.” She also asked, “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?” 

If you or your children are “starving” or finding your educational fare unappetizing, a living book or two might be what you need. Some homeschoolers follow a Living Books philosophy of education, meaning nearly all learning is done without textbooks and from “real” books. Other homeschoolers enjoy supplementing with living books here and there, to help subjects like math, science, and history come alive. I think of living books like I do health food – the more I have in my life, the better off I am!

We’ve been taking a leisurely stroll through a delightful book on early explorers,The Men Who Found America by Frederick Winston Hutchison. The author tells stories of each explorer, letting us peek through windows into their childhoods, their personalities, their strengths and faults, and even their cruelties.This past week, we read the chapter on Sir Walter Raleigh. After reading and narrating, we continued to discuss the fickleness of queens and kings (“I’ll make you rich this week, but next week it’s ‘off with your head!’”), the plight of American Indians and the nuances of the explorers’ reasons for adventures and conquests, and what sailing was like. My daughter suddenly turned to me and asked, “How do kids in public school learn history?”

If you, like me, had early childhood experiences reading history textbooks, you know the answer. And while stories from history occasionally piqued my curiosity as a child, it really was not until I began homeschooling my own kids – and reading living books – that I realized how fascinating and compelling history is.
Here are a few lists of living books to help you get started. I look to lists like this for ideas, and once I find books that interest me, I check out reviews on Amazon and/or order from the public library to learn more:

Living Books for Math:

Living Math Books

Wonder-filled Days

We are Teachers

Marilyn Burns

Stuart Murphy

Living Books for History: 

Ambleside Online, A Gentle Feast, Sonlight, and BookShark are wonderful, all-encompassing, literature-based curricula you might consider for beyond history. However, you can also simply look through the lists of books they recommend to test out some tried-and-true for yourselves. 

Penny Gardner

Heritage Mom Blog

Stories of Color


Simply Charlotte Mason

Language Arts: 

Bravewriter (a fantastic language arts curriculum using living books, but poke around for book ideas too)

Eclectic Homeschool

Using Real Books to Teach Language Arts