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What Are Living Books And How To Find Them

One of the main differences of a Charlotte Mason education is the use of living books instead of textbooks to provide information and ideas. But what are living books? How can you spot them? In this post you’ll learn how to better tell if a book is living or not, and you’ll find incredible living book lists to come back to if you just want tried and true books.

I’ll also show you examples of living books and non living books so you can get a clear idea of the differences.

Since reading more living books out loud as a family, our discussions have grown and I can see my kids are able to remember much more! I’ve loved watching them make connections of people groups and time periods through these books. Once you read a great living book, you’ll be hooked.

Living books or “living ideas” are a must in a Charlotte Mason education, but anyone can benefit from them

Charlotte Mason states in Volume 1 of Home Education:

A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best we can find. We must put into their hands the sources which we must needs use for ourselves, the best books of the best writers. For the mind can deal with only one kind of food; it lives, grows, and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body.”

Ideas. We are looking for well written books that present ideas to us in an interesting way.

Living Books In A Flat Lay with a pinterest image and words saying "The Ultimate Guide To Finding Living Books"

What are living books?

A living book presents information on a subject or time period in an engaging way that draws in the reader. It should evoke curiosity and interest you!

It should paint details you can visualize and relate to, and reads more like a story than a presentation of facts.

Living books still present facts on people, places, and historical events! But you learn about them in such an engaging way that you connect with the character or storyline, making the material easier to remember.

Living books will present you with ideas to chew on. They’ll make you wonder, think, and feel. Instead of just telling you facts of how many men died in the Battle Of Gettysburg along with the names of the generals and battle plans, you might follow a certain man into battle and hear his account of the smells, sights, and fears of that day.

A living book is not:

  • A textbook
  • An encyclopedia
  • Factual without voice
  • A book that cannot capture your imagination or interest

Authors of living books tend to:

  • Have in depth knowledge on a subject
  • Can write about a topic with detail while capturing the writer’s attention.
  • Include facts while still being engaging or amusing.
Living books used in a Charlotte Mason homeschool including Sign Of The Beaver, The Apple And The Arrow, Twenty and Ten, My Father's Dragon, The Remarkable Journey Of Prince Jen, Trapped By The Ice, The Railway Children, and When I Was Young In The Mountains

How to find living books?

Can you still read a book if it’s not a living book? Yes, we do I’m sure.

Are some living books better than others? Yes! Not all authors are equal. But my hope is this will help you to spot the really great books that will inspire, engage, and teach all at once.

Since many differ in what they consider a “living book”, how can a beginner find them? Here are 3 tips for beginners looking to identify living books.

1. Start with living book lists recommended by more experienced Charlotte Mason homeschoolers.

As you read them, you’ll become better at spotting them! You’ll also notice overlap between book lists because some books are better known, classic, or just so dang good.

Scroll down to find links of the booklists I’ve collected from other bloggers. And save this post so you can refer to it anytime!

2. The One Page Test

I learned about a little trick to do when searching for living books at a library. Simply open to one page of the book…which one shouldn’t matter. Read it, and decide if it draws you in enough to want to keep reading. If it was too dull, or simply just spewing facts, then pass.

3. Look for these qualities

  • Are they narrative or conversational? Living books will usually tell a story, or follow a character.
  • Look for “voice” from the narrator. Can you feel the personality of the author coming through? Or is it more just information told?
  • You learn about the world, a time period, or people group as if you are there experiencing it.
  • A living book can hold your attention and make you want to keep reading.
  • The characters are relatable, and you learn from their lives, victories, and mistakes.
  • Does it make your kids ask questions?
  • Does it evoke any emotion in you when you read? Living books do.

Living Book Lists For Charlotte Mason Homeschoolers

Pin for later!

Living Books From A Charlotte Mason homeschool family flat on a table so the covers are showing. Books include Five Children And It, Number The Stars, When Will This Cruel War Be Over, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Shadows On The Sea, Seaward Born, My Side Of The Mountain, My Father's Dragon, The Remarkable Journey Of Prince Jen, Kon Tiki, The Sign Of The Beaver, Twenty And Ten, and Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming.

One thing I have a hard time with is pegging books on “grade levels”. We often read family style, so one book will be listened to be several kids over a 4 year age difference for us.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it can be enjoyable for a 4th grader to listen to a “kindergarten” picture book, and it can be beneficial for a 2nd grader to listen to a chapter book intended for much older readers.

I like to search for books by subject/topic, by “picture book” status (to engage my younger kids), and by a range of years, like books best for k-3 or grades 4-6 such as Beautiful Feet Books does it.

Ready to see some lists?

Civil War Living History Books For Kids K-12 List (my list)

Beautiful Feet Books living history book lists

Simply Charlotte Mason living science book lists (separated by grade ranges and topics)

Living Books Library (find books by subject and topic)

Geography living book lists by Penny Gardner

Living math book lists by Denise Gaskins

Technology, inventions, and engineering living books by Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Living books by grades (1-12) from How Do I Homeschool

50+ Living books for studying Ancient Rome by Jamie from The Unlikely Homeschool

50 Must Read Living Books For Middle School by Jamie from The Unlikely Homeschool

70 Living picture books on character by Our Journey Westward

How to tell if your kids are remembering what you’ve read out loud

Charlotte Mason teaches the use of narration, where the kids tell you back what they remember. If this is new to you and confusing, there’s ONE must read book that answered ALL my narration questions and more. It’s Know And Tell by Karen Glass.

I have started using narration recently, daily, with my 8 and 9 year old. Karen taught me what is reasonable to expect of new narrators, especially since we have older kids. She explains how to begin with just a paragraph at at time, then expanding to a page and eventually a chapter.

She then explained how oral ‘telling’ transitions to written ‘telling’ or written narrations.

Her book is brilliant and gave me a road map to implement immediately with my kids. I can’t recommend it more for the new Charlotte Mason homeschool mama.

Start a list of living books to look for.

I’d recommend starting a list somewhere in a journal or on a notes list on your phone for living book titles as you hear them. It’s nearly impossible to get them all at once and you’ll surely forget them if you don’t write them down!

I’d also recommend sorting your list into subjects. History, Science, Math, Nature, etc.

I’m also finding it helpful to note which books seem to be better for elementary ages and under, vs ones that seem more suited for middle school/high school. This is often a judgement call on your part.

Once you have a list, you can start searching your library, Thriftbooks and others like it, ssed bookstores, or Charlotte Mason homeschool resell groups on Facebook.

Charlotte Mason homeschool living books in a basket.

The unseen cost of using living books

While I see the incredible benefit to our family from each and every living book we’ve read, there’s an unseen cost. And no, it’s not money although if you collect books you’ll be handing that away for books for sure!

But I’m talking about the cost of time. In order to slowly digest ideas in a memorable way…it takes A LOT of reading out loud. It takes intentionality to read to your kids each day, several times a day.

If you feel like it takes too much out of your vocal chords (because this is seriously a common problem!), add in some audiobooks. It helps a ton! Our library has many free ones.

I see it as part of a family culture I’m creating. It’s time spent together and it’s the basis of many of our conversations. It’s becoming more and more the lifeblood of our homeschool as we transition more to using living books and to implement more Charlotte Mason methods in our home.

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Save this post & check out more homeschool content

When you need to find more living books, you can revisit these links by saving this post! Be sure to check out:

Curriculum we’ve bought over the years