Therese Racklyeft is a Charlotte Mason teacher at the Charlotte Mason Community School in Detroit, MI.  In Part I she incorporates some of her own story and the ideas of Mason about living books to help us gain a deeper understanding of living books both old and new.  Next week in Part II she will share more specific examples of current day living books that the children at her school are enjoying.


Part I:  Free-Range Reading

My love of books began early in my life. I was born and raised in Detroit, and as the fifth of a family of eight children, was pretty much left alone to spend my time as I wished, with the exception of regular dishwashing, sweeping, and outdoor chores. Detroit had – and still has- a great library system. We lived a little too far from our branch library to walk there easily, and my mother didn’t like the idea of our going under dark train viaducts to get there. We could only go to the local branch if someone drove us, which didn’t happen often, as she herself did not drive. By my high school days I could take buses to the main branch near the Detroit Art Institute and Wayne State University. Until then, I had to content myself with the Bookmobile, which pulled up next to an apartment building four blocks away from my home every Monday evening. It is amazing to me now that a long line of children stood every Monday, without parental supervision, waiting for the Bookmobile to come. We carried our own library cards, and once inside, followed directions with a minimum of fuss.

The Bookmobile was a magical place for me. I was in awe of the Bookmobile driver and circulation clerk, who was a gentle, soft-spoken black man who never had to throw anyone off the bus that I remember. The books I read in those days were limited to what the Bookmobile carried. I had never heard of C.S.Lewis, or L.M. Montgomery. I read those authors later, as a teenager. I read Astrid Lindgren, Betty Cavanna, Mary Stolz, Lenora Mattingly Weber, and Phyllis Whitney. I loved Blueberry Summer by Elisabeth Ogilvie, and The Saturdays (and all of the Melendy family books) by Elisabeth Enright. I was a voracious reader, and usually came home with a dozen books, which I read and returned the following week for a dozen more.

Charlotte Mason’s insistence on the best books, living books for children, speaks to me. I read countless books as a child, but no one introduced me to the criteria for great books. I knew when I didn’t like a book, but I am not sure I could have explained the reason. The amazing thing is that I eventually did find living books, books that stood the test of time, and spoke to my spirit.

Now, I teach at Charlotte Mason Community School in Detroit. Books are as well-loved by our students as they were by me. I am always looking for the best books, mindful of Charlotte Mason’s assertion that we “train him upon… many living books” (School Education, p. xxx).

In School Education, she talks about how both Ruskin and Wordsworth grew up on a variety of books. Ruskin had an early delight in the Waverly novels, the story of the Iliad, and Shakespeare’s plays, but did not find kinship until he read Byron. Similarly, she quotes Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind, in which he says about children, “they must have their food,” and he gives thanks:

[W]ith uplifted heart, that I was reared

Safe from an evil which these days have laid

Upon the children of the land, a pest

That might have dried me up, body and soul….

Where had we been, we two, beloved Friend!

If in the season of unperilous choice,

In lieu of wandering, as we did, through vales

Rich with indigenous produce, open ground

Of fancy, happy pastures ranged at will,

We had been followed, hourly watched, and noosed

Each in his own melancholy walk. (School Education, p. 196-198)

Grateful that I was not noosed or watched hourly, I eventually found, in happy pastures, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and someone very few people know of or read today, James Thurber. It is really gratifying to me now to talk over books with our students. I see some of them reading constantly, as I did, and I love to hear about what they are reading. I still read children’s books, partly to review them, and partly because I love them. I have perused the list of Newbery winners to read the ones I missed as a child, in the hopes that I can recommend them to a new generation. There is something to be said for reading those older, now-overlooked books. Some are so rich, it takes my breath away to think that many of today’s children are stuck on books about “wimpy” kids and superheroes. I want children to be introduced to these lovely, living characters and their trials.

At the same time, I read all of the new books that are being written, in the hopes of finding the best there are today. This search, I believe, is completely in keeping with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. In her time, she scoured England for the best books for children. She did not feel limited to what were then considered the “classics.”  If we do the same, we can take the best of what is new, and combined with old favorites, set a feast for children.

Next week Therese Racklyeft will provide more suggestions of specific books!  Join us!

© 2015 by Therese Racklyeft


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