This week in Part II of her blog post on living books, Therese Racklyeft discusses further the topic of living books as well as offering some suggestions for modern day living books.

Part II – A Few Wonderful Finds

Today, there are some wonderful writers, as well as some pretty awful ones. It only takes one trip to a bookstore to see the most popular subjects in children’s fiction today: sorcery and witchcraft, vampires, aliens, superheroes, and graphic novels, sometimes, as in last year’s Newbery winner, all in one book. I would like to take some time to talk about some living books that I have found in my search.

Newer: General Fiction and Fantasy

The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau.

This book, though actually dystopian in genre, does not have the violence and teen angst which is found in the Hunger Games or Divergent series. It is full of hope, love for family, and a clear moral voice. It is part of four books written by DuPrau about Ember and its people. The first one, and its sequel, the People of Sparks, are the best, in my opinion.

Navigating Early, by Clare Vanderpool.

Vanderpool’s first book, Moon Over Manifest, was charming and exciting both, for its references to Moby Dick and for its mystery, but some might object to the characters, such as the fortune teller, and the pastor who also runs an illegal drinking establishment. Navigating Early is a story of two boys who have both experienced loss, and about the unlikely adventure which helps them both to overcome their grief.

The Ranger’s Apprentice series, by John Flanagan.

These books are in the same genre as Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain. They are well-written, and appeal to boys and girls alike, as there are both male and female protagonists. The books have received some recognition, but not on the level of a Newbery or Carnegie medal. The students have out-read me in this series; I have only finished the first two books.

Books such as those listed above are ones that students choose to read on their own. Their value is in the heroic acts of the characters and the assumption of absolutes of good and evil. They help to teach that “much in the way of goodness, greatness, heroism, wisdom, and knowledge, is possible to us all” (Ourselves, p. 9).

Part III – Teaching History and Social Studies with Living Books

Naturally, the bulk of what Charlotte Mason has to say is in reference to using living books in the classroom. She says books chosen to teach subjects ought to be literary in style, and that “the young people shall learn what history is, what literature is, what life is, from the living books of those who know” (School Education, 247). With that in mind, I have compiled many lists of books for children that teach about historical periods by using characters who lived in those periods. I am assuming that most people already know of Johnny Tremain, Across Five Aprils, and The Door in the Wall, so I am including a few examples of lesser-known books here.

Newer: Social issues

It has always been difficult for me to teach children about slavery and discrimination. In our school, we have always had bright, cheerful, hopeful students of all races. It seems cruel to me to introduce them to the truth of history. For help, I have turned to parents, who have given me invaluable advice about how to proceed. One parent told me, “The children are going to experience discrimination. It would be better to hear of it first in a caring classroom with a sensitive teacher than out in the world.” With that in mind, we use the following books in our school:

Who’s Jim Hines?, by Jean Alicia Elster.

This author happens to be a personal friend of mine, and has come to the school to talk to students. The story of Douglas Ford’s business in Detroit during the Depression is written in a way that engages the reader in his son’s quest to answer the title’s question. I wept with young Douglas, Jr., when I learned the truth for the first time. Elster’s next book about the Ford family, The Colored Car, would be most appropriate for older readers. As always, all books should be read by parents and teachers first to determine their appropriateness.

Older books touching on war and adversity

I seem to have an affinity for books by Dutch authors. I love reading some of these aloud to students. Others, they have read for themselves. I also seem to gravitate towards books written about life during World War II.

House of Sixty Fathers, by Meindert DeJong

A Chinese boy is separated from his family during the Japanese occupation of World War II. He meets up with an American airman, as well as some feisty Chinese underground leaders. When reading this book to group of third graders, it was necessary to edit some of the scary references to bayonets being drawn. The hunger and fear of the boy are graphically portrayed, and must be discussed to help children process thoughts about it all. Yet, Mason says, “the human story with its evil and its good never flags in interest” (Philosophy of Education, p. 187).

The Winged Watchman, by Hilda Van Stockum

This enticing story, set in Holland under the Nazi occupation, shows heroism and fear, yet in a way which keeps a balance between family love and loyalty and the terrors of war.

The Greatest Skating Race, by Louise Borden

Also set in World War II Holland, the protagonist, Piet Janssen, must show his bravery when his family sends him on a mission of necessity.

Most readers will already be familiar with fiction set in the Civil War, such as Across Five Aprils and Rifles for Watie. I always use a non-fiction book during our study of that period, the Newbery winner Lincoln, A Photobiography by Russell Freedman. His book is not as detailed as something by Doris Kearns Goodwin, but I think more appealing to upper grade elementary students. I also like to use David McCoullough with these students. His anthology, Brave Companions: Portraits in History contains a wonderful chapter called “Washington on the Potomac” which is his paean to that city. He also includes the commencement address which he gave at Middlebury College in 1986, entitled, “A Recommended Itinerary,” in which he describes all of the places that the graduates should make it their business to see in their lifetimes.

I simply can’t stop reading or talking about books. I am so grateful to teach in a Charlotte Mason school, where a love for books and learning is nurtured. I was very inspired by Dr. Guroian’s plenary at the conference to maintain our library of rich and living books of all genres.

© 2015 Therese Racklyeft


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3 thoughts on “A Brief Discussion on Living Books – Part II by Therese Racklyeft

  1. Thank you for some new-to-me titles! The books you mention that I’ve already read convince me that the others will become new favourites.

  2. The Meindert deJong books are wonderful. I would recommend Shadrach (about a pet bunny)or The Wheel on the School. The Hanery Huggins series by Beverly Cleary is good. The students love Ribsy. The Narnia books make great read-alouds, as do Greek mythology. Try Adventures of the Greek Heroes by Mollie McLean and Anne Wiseman, or the D’Aulaire’s or Mary Pope Osborne’s collections of Greek tales. Have you read the Ruth Stiles Gannett MY Father’s Dragon series? Native American tales told by Joseph Bruchac are wonderful.

  3. What books would you recommend for an 8 year old boy. He’snot rreading yet, but I will do the read aloud to him.

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