Reading and Literature at The Common Room

worthwhile books 2As I explained here last week, in tandem with the Thursday Four Moms, 35 kids posts, I’ve decided that each Saturday I will post about a subject from our school schedule. I’m just going to work my way down the schedule and share some of what we do, resources we use, and some of the reasons we include that subject or those resources in our days.

This week is supposed to be reading, literature and all things language arts, and I really, really should have saved this one for last. There’s so much I want to say and only one post to do it in. But when has that every stopped me, you wonder? Yes, but when I say there’s ‘so much to say,’ you know that really means I could, literally and not figuratively, fill a book.  I was talking about this with some friends, and they pointed out, more or less, it is my blog, why did I think I had only one post to cover the topic?

Um… hmmmm.  Why did I think that?  I dunno.  It’s a huge topic, and I cannot do it justice in one post, and I am going to quit trying to squeeze 20 pounds of intellectual dynamite into a five pound package.

For the short version of what we use, you can take a look at the booklists and resources at amblesideonline.org.
But homeschooling is about much more than a booklist, however fabulous that list is.

Most people, when they think of language arts, think of things like spelling, penmanship, grammar, composition, writing, vocabulary lists, the parts of speech, diagramming sentences, workbooks, reading comprehension, research papers, dictionary skill workbooks and more- and we do some of these things (not all of them)- but they are only tools- the fork, if you will, to convey the tasty goodness of a banquet from plate to mouth.  Yet the way most programs do these topics, you spend years and years examining the forks and spoons, diagramming the anatomy of a dish,  and never get to the feast.

The feast, the whole point of it all, is the books.  But what books?  Why those books?  And what do you do with them once you’ve got them?  We will talk about some of the ways we introduce our children to the spoons and forks of language arts later in this series, but I want to start with the primary reason for those utensils.  After all, a species which never eats has no use for forks and spoons, and if you wait too long to introduce the feast, your children will have perished of eating stones instead of bread.   So here are some of my favorite resources on why we read and what we read:

  1.  Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
  2. For The Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer MacAulay
  3. Towards a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason

I am sure there are others, but that would be the start for me, and that is in fact the order in which I read those books.  My booklist here is, in a sense, a bibliography of my life and thinking on these topics.

1.  My grandfather gave my mother a copy of Honey for a Child’s Heart when I was small, and she gave her hardback copy to me when I had my first child.  The book list in the back of that old edition is only a few pages long, and there are tick marks my mother made next to the titles of the books we read.  Mom took it with us to the library to find good books and library trips were a regular feature of our lives (every two weeks, like clockwork).

About her book, which is in its fiftieth printing, if not more, Gladys Hunt says:



I wrote it to encourage parents to read aloud to their children — and to keep on reading together long after children can read for themselves. Few things bind people together as much as sharing a good book. Without ever leaving your home, you can go on fantastic adventures, meet the same people, laugh at the ridiculous together, weep together over the plight of your favorite characters and learn life lessons from the bravery or foolishness of your main characters! Everyone who has ever read a ripping good story wants to share it with someone else. C. S. Lewis was right when he said that any book worth reading at 10 should be worth reading at 50. That means as you read with your children you get to catch up on all the stories you missed when you were growing up. Reading together gives you a reservoir of experiences from which to examine life and to figure out how to live it.

Whenever I go to a baby shower, I like to give this book, and if possible, a basket of books to go with it.  This has gotten easier as our other children have grown up enough to join in the baby shower giving. They will contribute a book as well to make it a very special present.  This is a wonderful book for those who need encouragement to include excellent books in their family life, and for those who are already convinced, the booklist in back is invaluable. Plus, it’s just a lovely read.  Reading good books is not something that should wait until your children can handle the utensils of grammar.  I read to mine in the womb, and I read to them while they are yet nursing infants at the breast, and we read to them every single day.  I think it is appalling, absolutely dismaying to have a home where children do not hear stories and books every single day.  Honey for a Child’s Heart gives you titles of some of the best books for children, from infants on up.

2. When I was in my twenties, we decided to homeschool our children, and one of the first books presented to me on the topic was For The Children’s Sake.  I was enchanted.  For the Children’s Sake included all the best parts of my own not always pretty childhood- the reading and library trips with my mother, the poetry, the camping trips and learning about flowers from my grandmother, music and history from my father, even some of the art prints on our walls.  For the Children’s Sake is about more than just good books, it is about good life and good literature, and how they all tie in together.My oldest child was about five years old at the time, and we implemented a number of the ideas we found in this book, some of them more  imperfectly than others, and included all the best books we knew of in our homeschooling.  Happily, because of growing up under the influence of reading parents and grandparents as well as Honey for a Child’s Heart, I knew a good number of the best books already, and one book (as you see in this post) leads to another. So I already had a good idea of what good children’s books were, and then Mrs. Macaualay gave me a better idea, as well as something more to do with them than just read them (although that is excellent).

3. After a decade, which is Far Too Many Years Later, I read Charlotte Mason’s Towards a Philosophy of Education, the sixth, and my favorite, of the six volume series upon which For the Children’s Sake is based.  There is, frankly, a lot of errant nonsense passed off as a Charlotte Mason education, some of it sheer twaddle to add insult to injury.  Other times people have made the mistake of reading only her first volume, which was written to address the education of children from birth to six years old, and thought they now had a handle on her entire method.  This is like reading a cookbook for infants and toddlers and thinking you understand the entire art of cooking for a family.  Volume six is both an eloquent summary of her entire method for all ages, and an excellent outline of her approach for high school aged students.

So I read volume 6 with certain preconceived ideas about a Charlotte Mason education, ideas I had picked up from people with something to sell that they wanted to label ‘CM,’ from people who wanted to justify a rather lazy approach to education by calling it ‘CM’ and from people who were just parroting what they thought they understood of somebody else’s version of CM.  I read CM for myself at last.  This broadened my ideas and understanding about what makes a good book, why I should want them, and why my standards about what makes a book interesting or good aren’t really sufficient.  Whereas before, each book I read stretched me and broadened my horizons, this book lifted me off the ground and blew open a hole in the wall of my still narrow intellectual house.

I read it again, this time making a list of all the books she mentioned using with children, and attempting to plug them in with the correct years.  Many of the books I had never heard of.  Some of them had faded into obscurity because they were not really ‘all that.’  Some of them weren’t really obscure at all, I was only ignorant.

I did not pursue this task out of a slavish and unthinking devotion to Charlotte Mason. Rather, her ideas already resonated with me, already within me echoed a sympathetic chord, a note of recognition because of the books, art, history, and music with which I had grown up, so I wanted to take the path she had marked.
However, in order to take that path, I had to know more about her meaning.
When she says ‘feeding children on great ideas,’ and giving them ‘a wide and generous curriculum,’ she is talking about what she calls living books, and says the children must have these books, and plenty of them. Now, in order to understand what somebody means by ‘living book’ or ideas clothed in literary language, you have to get a look at the books on their list.
If that list includes Elsie Dinsmore and the Left Behind series, you know they meant one thing. If the list includes Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, and the old Greek and Roman tragedies, you know they mean something else altogether.

Miss Mason says her programme includes “the reading of hundreds of great books from the Western tradition” and I discovered that my standards were abominably low, and in some cases a bit off kilter.

To return to the analogy of the feast and the fork where we spend decades teaching children the details of the fork without letting them use it much on really delicious food, Miss Mason says:

We must give up the farce of teaching young people how to learn, which is just as felicitous a labor and just as necessary as to teach a child the motions of eating without offering him food…  The multitudinous things that every person wants to know must be made accessible in the schoolroom, not by diagrams, digests, and abstract principles… there is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books containing all the sorts of knowledge [children would want to know]. 

And her use of ‘want’ there is not,  I think, in the sense of delight directed learning, but in the sense that without knowing those things, the childrens’ minds will be found wanting.
I had, at this time, been toying lightly with the idea of banning fairy tales, and we weren’t reading Harry Potter, and I had heard that excellent standard for literature and other topics found in Phillipians 4 put forth, but there was something about this that troubled me.

There are those who use this passage:

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

to justify banning an awful lot of very well written classic books on the basis that they have impurities, dishonesties, unjust, unlovely and unpraiseworthy content.   Yet the same book that contains that passage includes the story of a prostitute who was so drunk she rolled over and smothered her own baby and then tried to kidnap another woman’s child.  There are stories of rapes, murders, theft, incest, and all sorts of abominations in that text. So clearly, Paul could not have meant never to read anything that included such topics.  It seemed to me that some people were trying to have higher standards than God.

Miss Mason addressed that, saying:

In giving children the knowledge of men and affairs which we class under ‘Citizenship’ we have to face the problem of good and evil. Many earnest-minded teachers will sympathise with one of their number who said,––

“Why give children the tale of Circe, in which there is such an offensive display of greediness, why not bring them up exclusively on heroic tales which offer them something to live up to? Time is short. Why not use it all in giving examples of good life and instruction in good manners?”

Again,––

“Why should they read any part of Childe Harold, and so become familiar with a poet whose works do not make for edification?”

Now Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen whether of the City of God or of his own immediate city, as to know what is good and how to perform the same. Children recognise with incipient weariness the doctored tale as soon as it is begun to be told, but the human story with its evil and its good never flags in interest. Jacob does not pall upon us though he was the elect of God. We recognise the justice of his own verdict on himself, “few and evil have been the days of my life.” We recognise the finer integrity of the foreign kings and rulers that he is brought in contact with, just as in the New Testament the Roman Centurion is in every case a finer person than the religious Jew. …Children like ourselves must see life whole if they are to profit. At the same time they must be protected from grossness and rudeness by means of the literary medium through which they are taught. A daily newspaper is not on a level with Plutarch’s Lives, nor with Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece, though possibly the same class of incidents may appear in both.

So now I had a better, more fine tuned idea about what sorts of books we wanted to read, and why, and I dove further in, plunging my children along with me.  Pip was reading Pilgrim’s Progress (not a dumbed down version) at 8, and Jenny enjoyed Plutarch (after tears over it) at ten, and the HG read Arguing About Slavery at 15 and Diary of Anne Franks (a favorite at 8), and the Equuschick was reading Penses for fun when she was in high school.   This is lovely.  But there is still more to learn, to reinforce the walls we began building.

We’ll discuss the other books on my list next Saturday. I hope you’ll join me.
You may also be interested in some of our other posts on Charlotte Mason’s approach to language arts, grammar, composition, spelling, etc.
See also:
Books and Literature in The Common Room  (March 27, 2010)
Reading and Literature in The Common Room (March 20, 2010)
Books Build Character, Part One, April 23, 2005, edited and reposted in 2008.Part 2, April 27th, 2005
Part Three, Horrible Warnings and Bad Examples, Why We Need them,

April 29th, 2005

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