A lesson sank in for me this morning. Charlotte Mason, the godmother of classical homeschooling from about a century ago, pleaded with educators of children to always use living books.

A living book is, essentially, a book someone wrote because they had a good idea, rather than something they put together to cover a preset body of information. In other words, no textbooks unless absolutely necessary. Our library has beautiful children’s books on countless topics, so classical homeschooling goes to those first.

However, my kids are into science these days, so recently I started on a textbook about the natural world. It begins with simple plants, moves on to flowering plants, and so on. Seems like a good book, and earlier this week I had my kids do dictations and essays on what they’ve learned from it.

But today, none of my kids were paying attention. Some of that is inevitable, but it reminded me of what Charlotte Mason said. If you have beautiful books that are written for their own sake, it is far easier to get kids engaged. My kids were engaged just a few minutes later with a fairy tale book using archaic language and black-and-white illustrations. But they were not engaged with the textbook. Its information was useful, but sort of dead.

This is not to say these books aren’t valuable. My kids choose all sorts of science books from the library, and I’m keeping the textbooks within reach. But for gradeschool, I want the books I choose for them to be beautiful and living. The kids can go to topical textbooks and encyclopedias––which they do, by the way––when it’s their own interest leading them there. That way the subject is alive within the kids already.

My first job is to teach them to love books, to love words, to love learning. If living books can grab them now, we’ll fill in the rest later.

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