Monday, July 9, 2012

Changing the World, One Book at a Time

Me with Emily (on the left) and Liz (on the right)

I was blessed to have the opportunity to attend the Homeschool Librarians Conference at the home of Liz and Emily last weekend, and have been on fire, ready to set up our library ever since.

If you don't know these ladies, I'd like to introduce them to you. Liz is a lovely lady with a passion for great books. She is mother to Emily, another lovely lady, equally enamored with the written word. Most of all, though, these ladies have a heart for sharing the special books they collect with others, so that others may benefit from the wisdom of bygone eras. These brilliant and enterprising ladies collect not just any books; they collect Living Books.

If you are a long-time homeschooler, or a curriculum junkie, educational blog prowler, or book hoarder like me, you will no doubt know that Charlotte Mason used the term "living books" to describe books written by someone who was both knowledgeable and passionate about their topic. This term does not apply to most textbook type books (though I have found a few older texts that seem to fit this definition), and it does not really apply to many of today's flashy and colorful books with lots of pictures (mostly photos or computer generated pix), headings, and info bytes, but little to no personality or "heart." (Check out the book comparison pictures on Michelle Miller's site).

While I personally find that having SOME texts and reference materials might be good for researching a topic very specifically (and sometimes those pictures help certain learners relate to the ideas presented by good text), having nothing BUT those kind of books can turn a kid (and an adult) off of reading and can also make them lazy learners instead of lifelong learners...and regurgitators instead of relational and reactive readers.

This is the group of ladies who attended the First Homeschool Librarians Conference.
What an inspiring, intelligent group of women...
I was blessed to have the opportunity to meet them all.

I had a lot of time to think on the six hour drive to their quaint family farm in the hills of Appalachia, and I remembered something I hadn't thought of in a long time. The bare bones truth is that I will be one of the first folks to raise her hand in a group when asked, "Who doesn't really like history?" This is a fact I have known about myself for a long time. I mean, dates of battles, births and deaths, and terms of office (or reigns) don't really interest me. And I for sure do not connect people and their ideas with relevant or related events in any way. My teachers never required anything but memorizing the facts, so memorize the facts I did. Then I forgot them.

I also forgot that once upon a time (it was sixth grade, I think) I spent an entire year checking out biographies from the school library. Back then school libraries had really good books in them. Biographies of noble heroes and brave women were my favorites. I think I liked Dolly Madison, John and Abigail Adams, and Clara Barton the best. For a whole year I pretty much checked out nothing else but those biographies, and an occasional autobiography and I loved every book I read (pretty much). How could I go from loving history (biographies) to being bored with it? 

Well, I am not knocking my 7th grade history teacher...not really anyway. I know he meant well. He did thoroughly teach me how to outline, and I've used that skill enough to make the lesson a useful one, though I doubt it has been as useful as he thought it would be. Every DAY we walked into his American History class and we had an outline of the day's lecture to copy into our notebooks. Our copied outlines were a large part of our grade. He'd give us fifteen minutes or so to copy, then he'd go over more specific points so we could practice notetaking by filling in some of the letters and numbers he'd intentionally left blank. 

Sure, he introduced us to some silly history songs on an old LP he had. That was great. He told some funny stories, too, and we played a game like RISK, or something, as I recall, but overall, I was completely over history by the end of that year. Actually, before the end of the year, if I am being honest.

 I went from excited to bored in just one year. Sad, but true...and all because the STORY got taken out of the hiSTORY. And so did the people...and everything else that might have interested a student who wanted to truly understand what was going on, but after that one blissful year of reading biographies, never really did ever again.

Show me some book love...stacks of browsed books left behind means that
book hunters have been by to borrow more books...Bravo!

Now I've seen the books I read back then in living color once again. They are all residing in Liz and Emily's Living Books Library! Well, maybe not the exact books, but books just like the ones I used to read... Books such as The Childhood of Famous Americans series, the Landmarks and the Signature books, the Garrard histories and the Messner biographies. There are loads of interesting, intriguing, inspiring, not boring books out there...somewhere...but they are not easily found these days.

A cozy nook in which to find a book...or read a book...
or buy a book. Check out Liz and Emily's book sale page
for loads of lovely books you can buy to stock your library shelves.

As I walked up and down the rows of books Liz and Emily have painstakingly collected, most published between 1930 and 1970, or during the "Golden Age of Children's Literature," I was reminded of the precious books I checked out from my school libraries as a child, or from the public library. One summer I decided that I was going to read every horse book in the public library. I read all of the Black Stallion books first (easy choice), then I started in on every book that had a horse sticker on its label. After that I headed to the card catalog and figured out other books with horses in them, but no stickers on their spines. I managed to read them all, and then I proceeded to hound the librarian to order more horse books.

Another year, I decided to read all mysteries. Those books had cool stickers on the spines, too (Sherlock Holmes' head), and were easy to spot. The Nancy Drews were an obvious first choice, then some more obscure titles that I liked, and several I did not like at all. I quit my quest to read all the mysteries once I realized that there were those that were a good story and those that were just quite simply creepy.

Row upon row of beautiful books...something for you, if you will but look.

The sad thing is that if you go into your average library today, the only place you might find many of those good books is at the Friends of the Library sale. They are being discarded for more "modern" and "appealing" books like Captain Underpants and a myriad of books about vampires and  zombies. Sigh. How sad.

Last year I reviewed Before Five in a Row by Clare Lambert, the author of the Five in a Row series. The premise of FIAR is that you read the same book daily for five days, doing different activities to broaden the book's scope and appeal. BFIAR leaves out the necessity of reading the book that many times (there's a younger target crowd), but still has gentle suggestions of supplemental activities to go with its list of lovely books. Unfortunately, I was only able to find three of the twenty four books listed available in our town's library. We may be a fairly small town, but we are not THAT small. 

Earlier this summer I came across one of the books I had been unable to preview due to its being unavailable everywhere I checked. God was good and I found Prayer for a Child by Rachel Field on the FREE table at our state convention. Hooray! What is even funnier (odder) is that it came from our very own town's library and was marked "DISCARD." 

I think that proved to me right then and there that these special living books, the ones that will excite our children, teach our children, and incite our children to love learning are a true endangered species. 

Libraries are ridding themselves of these older, well-read and much-loved books to make room for more Manga titles and books about why farts smell (seriously, it is what is on the shelves of our library under the heading "Books Boys Will Love"...I ask you, is this what you want your boys to love to read? Seriously??)

Lovely books on shelves in tidy lines...check out the way
the stickers match on all the spines. ;-)

Some people will insist that as long as their son is reading ANYTHING they are happy. Really? Do you really want your son reading things that convince him a short attention span is a good thing and that understanding bodily functions is appropriate intellectual stimulation for the day? Do you want your child to think that reading is something done only for the purposes of passing a test, understanding a brief article, or for senseless, pointless entertainment? 

Have you ever heard the sayings, "Garbage in, garbage out" or "You are what you eat?" Those both apply perfectly to what you read, hear, and see every day. Think about it.

Have you ever read the books Think Big or Gifted Hands by Ben Carson? If you have not, you should. They're good ones. In them you hear about the tough life Ben has. His mom is a single mother, and unbeknownst to him, she can't even read. She works hard all day to bring home enough money to take care of him and his brother, but her long work hours leave the two of them alone for hours after school, which is plenty of time to get into trouble by hanging out with the wrong crowd. She realizes what is going on and that something must be done, so she decides to start taking her boys to the library every week. Yes, I said the library. She tells them they must check out certain kinds of books: a biography, a non-fiction book, a historical fiction title. I forget exactly what her parameters were, but you get the idea.

Then she tells the boys to write book reports on each one in their time after school, once they finish reading their books. Oh yeah, and no TV, except for a favorite show every week (I's been a while since I read it). Then, she pretends to read the reports herself and asks the boys to tell her about what they learned (that folks, is called "narration" by Charlotte Mason) and she praises them appropriately. Over the course of time, the boys develop more diverse interests, Ben starts to feel smarter and less disadvantaged, and his whole world book at a time.

Today Ben Carson is the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, and has published four books telling about his life story and personal philosophy. There is a very good movie about his life, Gifted Hands, you can check out, but of course, the books are better. If you'd like a modern-day uplifting story about overcoming tough odds, especially overcoming tough odds because of the power of literacy, this one is one you should read. (That movie and one called The Reading Room are two very excellent movies that teach about the influence of books on lives).

Mrs. W., my friend from two towns over who just happens to have
a 12,000 title living book lending library...lucky me!!
She told me about the library conference and we drove over together.
What a marvelous way to spend a weekend...books, books, and more books!

So my point with all of this is that books are powerful. They are remarkable tools in the right hands. The can influence individuals and nations. They can bless us. They can curse us. It all depends on what goes in, and what you do with what you have. 

I don't claim to know exactly the right books for any one person to read. I am absolutely certain that my bookshelves look very different from yours. We might have some similar titles, but where I think a little light magic (think Narnia and Lord of the Rings) is not a problem, you might either think even Raggedy Ann books (talking dolls) are bad, or you might go the other extreme and love Harry Potter (which I think are remarkably well-written, but we choose not to read) or Twilight (not a chance).

Only you (and your spouse) can decide what is BEST for your family, and for each of your individual children...BUT if you are starting from a place where the only books you read come from the public library (unless your library is very special and unusual) you may find yourselves straying off the path you wanted to be on more frequently than you'd like. Some of the best of children's literature just isn't out there any more. Libraries of today are feeding kids on the Mr. Popper's Penguins movie rewrite instead of the original book (and they are sooooo the original, please!). 

The Living Books Library offers totes for all the 
Before Five in a Row and Five in a Row books. 
These totes contain the noted books as well as related titles
that make the studies multi-disciplinary and multi-aged.

One thing FIAR suggests is to have a map and mark where each book "takes" you. 
In this way, you will keep track of your reading journeys and your kids will start to 
really make connections and get excited.

Why am I telling you all of this and what are you supposed to do about it?

Well, I am glad you asked! 

First of all, you MUST start your own home library. Scour online sources and book sales for your favorite good books as a child. If you are closer to my age than your kids' ages, it is likely that you probably read a few good ones in your time, even if you weren't a bookworm like me. Think about not only your kids, but think about what you will have to read to your kids' kids once all of the good, quality books are gone from the public and public school libraries. You need to build a legacy of books for the children. If you don't, who will?

Then, see if you can suggest better titles to your public librarians. Book budgets are tighter than they have been in a while, but if you can get a few good friends to get together and all request the same titles, maybe they will listen and it will benefit not only your kids, but other people's kids, too. You can use catalogs from companies that use literature-based studies as a good start for in-print (reprints) of quality titles. 

If the public library is a bust, check out your church library. Perhaps a group of like-minded individuals will help you build up the supply in there for the common good. If there isn't a library, you might consider starting one, with help, of course. You can start with reprints and see where the Lord takes you from there.

You can also try checking out a history/literature-based curriculum such as TruthQuest (my favorite...written by the one who started the original Children's Preservation Library, Michelle Miller), Biblioplan (looks good, but I have not tried it myself), or Ambleside Online (online and FREE!) for excellent listings of older books that go with a historical era of study (these lists will often include some newer reprints..."out of print" books are usually marked as being OOP and will be more difficult to find) . 

You should also try the books by Jan Bloom of Books Bloom titled What Then Should We Read? (volumes 1 and 2). Jan is another lovely lady who adores books and wants to share them with people (she and her husband, Gary, travel all over searching for special lost books that need good homes). Her books are an excellent and entertaining source of information about living books and their authors. Her insights are honest and revealing, and quite often funny (even funnier once you've met her, I must say). You will greatly enjoy perusing these books if you like children's books even a little bit.

 You can also check out Living Book's Library's post on Books About Books for more great ideas of places to find good book suggestions.

You might also consider giving good book lists to grandparents and others who buy your kids gifts and ask them to help you build up your library of good books at birthdays and will make their gift giving a legacy instead of clutter. Oh yeah.

Next, try adding more enjoyable reading of living books to your daily schedule. Even if you follow a "boxed" curriculum, you can still have read-aloud time with your kids, old and young...and you can do this more than once a day, if you like! You simply choose a book, either a chapter book OR a related picture book, and read it to the kids, and sit back and watch them enjoy it. Later, you can get them to tell you about it. That's narrating. It's as easy as that. Soon you will find your kids will want to spend more time reading, or at least have you spend more time reading to them, and that is all right. You may have to invest in some soothing herbal tea, however. 

You will discover that you will all learn the most interesting things from old children's books, and I guarantee that you will wind up wanting to learn more, if you are picking the right books. Over time, you and your kids will tie the characters in the books to the events that are happening in their studies and things will seem more real to will all finally get the education I wish I had had...all from reading good, quality books. *grin*

If you have a "hard sell" child, you can always start your reading aloud journey by listening to a good book on tape during a long road trip. A captive audience, so to speak. My crew liked Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott. Sure, the main character is a girl. But all of the cousins are boys. Little Women and Jo's Boys (same author) are interesting and full of old-fashioned morals and excellent vocabulary, too. My personal favorite as a child was E. Nesbit. Her stories, like The Enchanted Castle and Five Children and It, are fantasies, and I sure did love them. If you object to fantasy, her book, The Railway Children is a good one, too. We listened to it on tape during one trip. You can listen to good audio books at sites like Books Should Be Free, My Audio School, and others, if you don't have access to a reliable library.

Reward your kids (if necessary, or just for fun) for reading extra books above and beyond what is in your regular curriculum. Mine get excited over inexpensive toys and "new" (used) clothes I get off of the local kids' consignment store's $.50 rack...seriously. I buy the unwanted craft projects and long skirts the other parents aren't buying (they buy the electronic toys and the midriff-showing tops I don't), and turn them into rewards for every fifteen books (or chapters) read. We keep track using free reading charts we print up off of the internet. Yes, they'd read anyway, but this is more fun for me (I love to see them all happy over such simple things), and it does keep them hopping from book to book, loving every minute of each rabbit trail they follow.

Tonight Cowboy got to choose TWO things from the box and he picked a hardcover copy of a How to Draw Creepy Crawlies book we've checked out from the bookmobile about five times (it was only ten cents!) and three wooden insect models to assemble. They have one model put together so far and plan to complete the other two tomorrow, AND go on a bug hunt to replace the cricket I made them turn lose at dinner time.

Getting advice from a well-read friend is an invaluable tool 
when choosing good books to share with your family.

Lastly, if you are blessed to live near one of the sweet and dedicated ladies who already owns and runs a homeschool heritage literature library, then praise God, thank Him for the blessing, and go and join up this year!! You will likely pay a fee to defray the costs of keeping the older books in good condition and making the circulatable (maybe not a real word??) by adding bar codes and such (it's not cheap, for sure), but every penny spent will be worth it, especially if your child winds up loving to read and to learn. Most of the ladies who run these libraries are ardent students of books and will be happy to help you and your students find choices that suit your tastes and curricula. They may even be willing to purchase a few of the titles you need, if they seem to be popular ones. 

If there is nobody like that near you and you already have a fairly large collection, consider starting a library of your own. Contact the very helpful ladies at the Living Books Library and I am certain they will be thrilled to help you explore the possibilities. They have an excellent audio on how to teach without textbooks, and may be adding information on how to develop a "living books library" in the future.

If you are on a strict budget, but would like to get a taste of what quality literature is really like, I can suggest that you try the Heritage History website. I reviewed one of their cds earlier this year, and they offer many titles you would find in Liz and Emily's library as e-books for your Kindle, Nook, or as pdf files. You can actually read the books online for free, so you can try books for various curricula before deciding to go out and hunt for the ones you particularly enjoy (all of them!).

You can also find other living books and quality literature (usually longer ones, not necessarily the ones for can find some links to books online at my other site) online SOMETIMES, but it takes work to find them and it is just NOT the same as cradling a treasured old friend in your hands...but it will do in a pinch if you just can't find that certain book, no doubt (our local library did not have The Hobbit and our personal copy was took Tex ten minutes to locate an online version). You can get a start by checking out my post on Character-Building Christian Literature.

Thank you Liz and Emily for such a marvelous weekend. 
You taught us all so much. 
What a blessing you both are to so many...
and what a wonderful family you have, for they are an 
incredible blessing to you and to others, too.

(PS. Please send more ice cream and Key Lime Pie soon...they were delicious!)

Now all of you, go and find a GOOD book and READ...and change your world (and maybe someone else's), one book at a time.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for this blog post Heather. It is very informative. Will definately be checking out the Heritage History website.

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