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What is a Living Book?
By Stacy Raymond
We hear a lot today, at least in home-school circles, about ‘living books’. So, one might wonder, what is a living book anyway?
The term ‘living book’ was first coined by educator Charlotte Mason. Charlotte’s guidelines to a living book emphasized that books must be “warm to the imagination, nurture thinking, and communicate knowledge mind-to mind.” She believed that children must be given living books in order to “develop their fullest capacity”.
Simply put, a living book will come alive when reading. The reader engages with and develops emotions and connections with the characters and events of the book. A living book will usually be written in a narrative style by a person who has a passion about a specific subject. Ideas are presented and the reader is allowed to synthesize and digest these ideas for themselves.
Historical fiction books are most often thought of as living books, but living books can be about science, geography, biography, nature, even math! Living books can take the form of picture books, chapter books, and even some textbooks. The key is that they are well-written, in an in-depth but engaging manner, and they draw the reader into the book.
In contrast, “twaddle” or most textbooks are written in dry, short segments, whose purpose is to inform, and where most of the ‘thinking’ has already been done for the reader. Most of this information will quickly be forgotten, because the reader has not had to digest it on his own, and the information has not been connected to real living in any way.
Living books then are exciting, and are written in a way that will draw the reader into the story. Facts are presented, but as part of a story line. This necessitates a ‘digging deeper’ on the part of the reader and will inevitably lead to greater retention and greater love for the material presented.
When assessing whether a book is indeed a living book, it is wise to ask the following questions: Is the writing of excellent literary quality? This does not necessarily mean that it is ‘hard’ to read, but the writing should edify and not dumb-down the child and the subject. Does the book contain living ideas? In other words, do the ideas presented make the child ask question and think, and is the information presented in a new or enlightening way? Does the child react with engagement to the story and does the story make an impact on the child? The mark of whether this is so or not is in the retelling of the story or ideas by the child.
Educators and parents are encouraged by Charlotte Mason to present a ‘feast’ to the children and let them be drawn in. Some will inhale every book presented, while others will peruse only some. This is okay; it is a process and does not happen immediately. However, given time and quality literature, children (and adults!) develop a desire and discernment for living books, becoming keen thinkers and lifetime learners!