Confession: I don’t just follow booklists of living books for our homeschool. I come up with my own (from several booklists) that fit my children’s needs on a school term basis.
Here’s something that you need to know: a book list is just a book list. It is a starting point but not the end all and be all of your child’s education.
For a lot of parents, following a set booklist may be the easiest thing to do. This is especially true for those who got into homeschooling because of the pandemic.
Ambleside Online, Mater Amabilis, Simply Charlotte Mason, etc. are a lifeline, definitely. Following those booklists is totally fine.
Sometimes, however, a booklist can overwhelm or frustrate especially if the books on the list are not easily available. A lot of times, some highly recommended titles may just seem not to work with your child.
We need to learn how to choose our own living books in order to create our own booklists – or tweak ready-made ones – that still adhere to Miss Mason’s principles.
So let’s dive in on how you can create your own book list of living books according to what your family needs.
1. Immerse yourself in the Charlotte Mason philosophy
First things first: Learn for yourself the Charlotte Mason philosophy.
An understanding of the philosophy and practices underpinning all the nice Instagram posts around will give you confidence. You can guide your children in their education and be able to choose living books for your own booklist.
Immerse yourself in the Charlotte Mason philosophy by reading her own words in the Home Education volumes. You can read or listen to podcasts while folding the laundry.
If you have time, attend workshops and immersions. There’s just one place to go for the latter locally — our friend Gina Roldan of Our Living Learning.
Knowing what this philosophy will help you immensely.
2. Learn how to determine what living books are
“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”
Let’s talk about that last one – education is a life. Charlotte Mason compared ideas that readers get from books with food that make our bodies healthy.
This should guide us in selecting living books to include in the feast that we lay out for our children. What ideas do you want your child to mull over, to live upon, to make his mind and heart healthy?
Charlotte Mason was a big proponent of using living books that nourish a child’s inner life, his spirit, his love for knowledge. In an article I wrote years back, I wrote that living books are those that live in one’s heart and become part of one’s self.
But here’s a quick guide: Living books are written engagingly, can capture a reader’s heart and imagination with ideas and not “dry” facts, are infused with what’s true and beautiful, and are written by those who are passionate about their subject matter.
3. Consult several booklists
Book lists are wonderful in the sense that someone else has gone through the trouble of selecting good books for you. You can definitely use booklists as given, but please know that it’s not set in stone.
Look through sample pages of books or even at free versions (we love holding and smelling real books so we use digital books minimally) to give you a peek. You can already get an idea if something will click or not with your child, or if a book is aligned or not with your family’s beliefs and values.
History books recommended by popular booklists are a bit tricky. While those books are wonderful, they’re too detailed in US and British history because they were written for children of those countries. I sometimes use them for world history.
I prefer to immerse my children in Philippine stories. This is also what Charlotte Mason said – to learn the stories of your own land and ancestors.
This is what pushed me and Sanne several years ago (with updates through the years) to create our own Philippine literature and history booklists. We shared those here in our website, and which you can find in our website’s Menu.
3. Listen to yourself and your child
“With a wonderful sense of fitness Miss Mason arranged and rearranged; chose this book, rejected that, tried such a some and removed it, either because it had not sufficient weight or because those unerring children refused to ‘take to it’.”H.E. Wix in Miss Mason’s Ideal: Its Breadth and Balance, In Memoriam: A Tribute to Charlotte Mason, p.152
We are not beholden to booklists. Our duty is to our children.
If something in a booklist isn’t working – listless eyes, complaining child (I’ve heard the term “not narratable” a few times) – assess if your child will be better served by another good living book with the same subject matter.
Or, you can forge ahead, maybe go slower than what is laid out in the ready-made schedule, and see what happens. Either way, your child will benefit from these living books.
It can be expensive, yes, to ditch a book and get a new one, but there are ways around it: try with your other children, try with the same child another time, or sell or donate to others.
Note that the Mater Amabilis and Ambleside Online booklists have a lot of books in common. However, the same books are assigned to different levels. Those who designed the curricula have their own reasons for including a particular book in their Year 3 level while the other curriculum included the same book in Year 6. So, YOU can also assess and choose books and when you’ll read them.
4. You don’t have to include all the living books in a booklist
“To introduce children to literature is to instal 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. A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find.”Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education
If ideas are food for the mind, then we must give our children a feast of ideas through living books and experiences of the natural world and the arts.
Just note, however, that we must take care that we provide a quality feast. It’s not the number of books that we give our children, but how these will be a part of themselves.
Booklists are a great place to start. Some, though, can be quite intimidating, as there are quite a lot of books for each subject. For most of us, we would of course want to our child to read all the books in a list… tick off boxes.
But especially for those who are just starting or not feeling confident yet about homeschooling or the CM method, please know that you don’t have to include all the books on a list. You can also exchange one for another.
Pick one or two per subject, stick to it, and do your best to implement the method’s hallmarks: narration and short lessons. That’s what we did when we started with CM and I was just feeling my way and trying to wrap my head around it.
If you wish, you can also take a look at MA and see how many books they have per subject compared to AO. Ambleside Online actually has a basic curriculum for each year level. Those versions have less number of books per subject and perhaps a bit “easier”, too. Just Google “amblesideonline year x basic”, and voila! There’s no harm in looking around.
With all of that said, here are some tips to make choosing living books a bit easier:
- For historical fiction and literature, classics and award-winning books are a good start if you’re not familiar with a particular title. You may or may not choose a story set in your historical time period.
- Don’t discount picture books, too! Well-written and wonderfully illustrated picture books are living books. In fact, the Five in a Row curriculum with which we started was inspired by Charlotte Mason’s living books!
- And finally, remember if your child is not a fluent reader yet, you can still read aloud a book that may seem difficult for him to read on his own but can comprehend well when he listens instead.
We hope this helps you in navigating the world of living books! As we always say, there are too many beautiful books, but there’s too little time to read all of them.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and be confident in choosing, replacing, or sticking to booklists. You’ll get the hang of it as you continuously review books and read them yourself!