“For the children? They must grow up upon the best. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” – British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923)“Living books” are books of literary merit that feed a child’s mind with truth, nobility and beauty, according to Charlotte Mason.
British educator Charlotte Mason believed in the power of books to inspire minds. She believed that all children were capable of intelligent, independent thought and that they needed vital ideas, rather than dry facts, to feed their growing minds.
“We must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food,” she taught.
Mason’s educational philosophy, which is used by many homeschool groups and private schools today, is based upon the use of “living books,” books of literary merit that feed a child’s mind with truth, nobility and beauty. She called books that were lacking in literary merit “twaddle,” and felt that the reading of living books should be a part of every childhood.
Mason was also a proponent of nature study and outdoor play. She believed children should spend as much time as possible outdoors exploring, watching and developing “nature-knowledge” through personal interaction. Children in the schools she founded read books about nature and science, and took daily nature walks and recorded their observations in journals.
I believe that living books and stories can be strategically used to build on a child’s understanding and compassion for the natural world. However, it can be a daunting task to sort through the twaddle to find the true gems—living books that are enjoyable for both adults and children to read. So here are some of my recommendations, in case you are in the market for a living book about nature to share with a child in your life:
Roxaboxen by Alice Mclerran (1992): A child’s imaginary town, named Roxaboxen, is remembered and rediscovered. Age 3 and up.
Fairy Houses by Tracy Kane ( 2002): Kristen is in for a surprise when she sets out to build her own fairy house in the woods. Age 3 and up.
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (1987): A young girl and her father go owling on a moonlit winter night near their farm. Age 3 and up.
Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice Provensen and Martin Provensen (2001): The animals at Maple Hill Farm come to life in this silly book: two dogs, five horses, a pig, some geese, lots of chickens, a few cows, a few goats, several sheep and four special cats. Age 3 and up.
Weslandia by Paul Fleischman (2002): Wesley’s new civilization begins after he overturns a plot of ground in his yard to see what new and unknown seeds might blow into it. Age 4 and up.
The Bee Tree by Patricia Polacco (1998): Mary Ellen and her grandpa lead half the town on a wild bee chase that ends in sweet discovery. Age 4 and up.
Me on the Map by Joan Sweeney (1998): A simple, yet inspiring, introduction to mapping your space as a child.
The Raft by Jim LaMarche (2002): A young boy’s summer vacation fills up with nature adventures when he discovers a raft covered with drawings of wild animals. Age 5 and up.
In the Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby (2010): Dr. George Washington Carver shows up in a rural Alabama town to help the grownups with their farms and the children with their school garden. Age 5 and up.
I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor (1995): A young woman’s love of nature inspires her to create her own private celebrations. Age 5 and up.
James Herriot’s Treasury for Children by James Herriot (1992): Heart-warming collection of stories from the life of an English country veterinarian. Audio version is well done. Age 4 and up.
The Lorax by Dr. Suess (1971): A Seuss-style ecological warning that, in the end, inspires hope for the future. Age 6 and up.
Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat (1996): The adventures of two owls and a boy who loves them. Audio version is well done. Age 6 and up.
A River Ran Wild by Lynne Cherry (1992): The story of the cleanup of New England’s once-polluted Nashua River. Age 6 and up.
My Side of the Mountain Trilogy: My Side of the Mountain; On the Far Side of the Mountain; Frightful’s Mountain by Jean Craighead George (First in series published in 1975): In this coming-of-age story about a boy and his falcon, Sam leaves home to fend for himself in the Catskill Mountains. Age 8 and up.
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1935): At age 11, Caddie Woodlawn is brave, big-hearted and full of adventure. Age 8 and up.
Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins (2000): Profiles of six renowned scientists, artists and writers: Maria Merian (b.1647), Anna Comstock (b.1854), Frances Hamerstrom (b.1907), Rachel Carson (b.1907), Miriam Rothschild (b.1908) and Jane Goodall (b.1934). Age 8 and up.
To Learn More: To learn more about the importance of reading to children, check out the book Read Aloud Magic by Susan Frankenberg (yes, my mother). Some online resources for book recommendations include the Simply Charlotte Mason Bookfinder database and the Chinaberry Books that Inspire website. Also, see Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children’s Literature by Elizabeth Laraway Wilson and Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt.