Where we learn history through classic children's books.
What’s so great about Charlotte Mason’s ‘Living Books’?

What’s so great about Charlotte Mason’s ‘Living Books’?

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Charlotte Mason was a British educator between the 19th and early 20th centuries. She’s known for her unique system of home education. Instead of using dry, dull textbooks she is famous for incorporating what she called ‘living books’ into her teaching. Her unique method of homeschooling continues to attract parents and educators to the present day.

If you’re interested in learning about alternative homeschooling methods – especially ones that involve a literature-rich curriculum – her methods might just suit you down to a t.

What did Charlotte Mason mean by ‘Living Books’?

The Power of Ideas

During her long career as an educator and teacher trainer Charlotte Mason saw too many uninspired kids. Too many teachers were boring their students with endless facts and figures – which left children totally uninspired by their studies.

Besides boring kids, she believed that this kind of information did very little to truly educate the child. This was because these facts didn’t usually mean very much to a child who had nothing to connect them with. What’s more, such an approach to education could be so boring and so frustrating – it might cause kids to go off the idea of studying completely.

As a result, she proposed a different, more inspiring way to educate.

How Ideas Inspire

Instead of presenting children with dull, dry facts, Charlotte Mason believed education was about sowing ideas.

Even just a few key ideas firmly planted in a child’s mind would drive the child’s interest in future study.

In volume 1 of her Home Education series, she gives the example of George Stephenson – inventor of the locomotive – to illustrate just how powerful a single ‘idea’ could be in a child’s mind:

George Stephenson made little clay engines with his playmate, Thomas Tholoway; by-and-by, when he was an engineman, he was always watching his engine, cleaning it, studying it; an engine was his dominant idea, and it developed into no less a thing than the locomotive.

Given the incredible, fascinating potential just one idea could therefore have on a child’s mind, Charlotte Mason argued that:

In this way: give a child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information; for the child who grows up with a few dominant ideas has his self-education provided for, his career marked out.

‘Ideas’ – not dry information – were the key to an inspired child. An idea could take on a life of its own. An idea could grow and develop into something more than the teacher could ever foresee. With a truly inspiring idea planted in a child’s mind, a life of purpose and fulfilment beckoned before them.

Characteristics of Living Books

Charlotte Mason had specific ideas about what kind of books should feed these all-important ‘ideas’. She called these ‘living books’.

The purpose of living books, unlike many ‘miserable text-books’ (as she referred to them) was to provide the kind of information a child would want to know. This of course definitely did NOT mean the usual dull lists of facts and figures she despised.

But what exactly was the kind of information children wanted to know?

Charlotte Mason had a very simple rule of thumb. This kind of information, she argued, was pretty much the same as adults generally wanted to know too:

… nothing will persuade us to read a book of travel unless it be interesting, graphic, with a spice of personal adventure. Even when we are going about with Murray in hand, we skip the dry facts and figures, and read the suggestive pictorial scraps; these are the sorts of things we like to know, and remember with ease.

And so, Charlotte Mason encouraged educators to use books that would spark the imaginations of children. By this she meant books like The Voyages of Captain Cook to teach geography, or Shakespeare’s Henry V to teach history. These books were usually narrative driven, human interest centred and/or likely to paint extraordinary images of places, people or events.

Unlike the textbooks of Mason’s day, these books would give the child food to dream over. As they got older, the ideas these books had planted would then grow in force and complexity over time.

Types of Living Books

Charlotte Mason had quite specific ideas about what to look out for when selecting living books. She gave guidelines for selecting living books for all of the major subjects of her day (except maths). Below you can find her thoughts on the characteristics to search for when choosing science, geography and history living books.

Science Living Books

Charlotte Mason talked a lot about using real experiences with nature (like on walks) to teach science. Besides this, she also had some suggestions on how to use books.

Characteristically, Mason said that the purpose of using such books, shouldn’t be to give children ‘cut and dried’ information but instead:

to give the child delightful glimpses into the world of wonders he lives in, to reveal the sorts of things to be seen by curious eyes, and fill him with desire to make discoveries for himself.

As a result, the titles she suggests for the study of science include both fiction and non-fiction books. What they all have in common though is that they are all written to inspire a deep interest in investigating the workings of the natural world.

She believed that once the child had found inspiration for the study of science, the rest would come easily. The child would be filled with curiosity about the natural world around them and they would naturally come out with lots of scientific questions.

Even then however, the teacher shouldn’t just spoon feed the answers. Instead, the child should be encouraged to think through the answers to their questions themselves … as far as possible. Once they’d gone as far as ‘his small experience [would] carry him’ it was then, and only then, that the teacher could ‘come to the rescue’ with the answer.

Geography Living Books

As with science, Mason again stressed the importance of spending time outdoors to inspire a child with a love for geography.

When it came to choosing books however, she suggested that any ‘well-written book of travel’ – especially one filled with ‘illustrative anecdote’ and ‘description’ – would do the job. Such books were ideal because they encouraged children to ‘wonder, admire, imagine, and … even ‘play at’ a hundred situations’ related to the study of geography.

From there, educators could encourage children to participate in activities designed to hone technical geographical skills. These activities might include sketching maps of the regions the traveller in the book passed through.

History Living Books

Mason had little time for dull history textbooks full of dates and vague outlines of battles and reigns which meant little to a child. Instead, she praised people-oriented, narrative-driven history books that

stir your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly. They are just the right thing for the children whose eager souls want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book, caring nothing at all about progress, or statutes, or about anything but the persons, for whose action history is, to the child’s mind, no more than a convenient stage.

As with geography, educators could then use these history books as inspiration for activities associated with the work of historians. After reading the living history book, for example, children could be set the task of writing a timeline of the events they read about.

When it came to passing judgement on the events and people of history however, she discouraged giving settled opinions while children were still young. A better approach, in her opinion, was to give children

graphic details concerning events and persons upon which imagination goes to work

With the images of these people and events fixed firmly in their minds, children could then begin forming their own opinions about them because

opinions tend to form themselves by slow degrees as knowledge grows.

Living Books and the Literature-Based Homeschooling Method

It’s easy to see why Charlotte Mason’s ideas on education have remained popular all these years. Nor is it surprising that, as a result, many parents work towards incorporating literature-rich curricula into their children’s education.

If you’re interested in curricula that use ‘living books’ to inspire, why not check out our Anne of Green Gables Living Book History Course?

What do you like about Charlotte Mason’s use of living books in children’s education?

Is it a method that appeals to you?

How does it compare with the kind of education you had growing up?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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