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What are Living Books & Narrations?

Living Books and Narrations

If you are at least modestly familiar with the Charlotte Mason method, a few key phrases and ideas probably come to your mind. Nature Study, living books, and narrations are all words that have become nearly synonymous with a Charlotte Mason educaton.

In this article, I will explain what is meant by “living books” and “narrations” and how to use them to create a beautiful living education for your kids (and yourself while you are at it).

living books and narrations

What are Living Books?

“I am speaking now of his lesson-books, which are all too apt to be written in a style of insufferable twaddle, probably because they are written by person who have never met a child. All who know children know that they do not talk twaddle and do not like it, and prefer that which appeals to their understanding. Their lesson-books should offer mater for their reading, whether aloud or to themselves; therefore they should be written with literary power. As for the matter of these books, let us remember that children can take in ideas and principles, whether the latter be moral or mechanical, as quickly and clearly as we do ourselves (perhaps more so); but detailed processes, lists and summaries, blunt the edge of a child’s delicate mind. Therefore, the selection of their first lesson-books is a matter of grave importance, because it rests with these to give children the idea that knowledge is supremely attractive and that reading is delightful. Once the habit of reading his lesson books with delight is set up in a child, his education is—not completed, but—ensured; he will go on for himself in spite of the obstructions which school too commonly throws in his way.”

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, pp. 228-229

Clearly, the books chosen are to be done so with great care.

What does Charlotte mean by, “All who know children know that they do not talk twaddle and do not like it, and prefer that which appeals to their understanding.”?

Twaddle, in my view, are books that have no essential idea or purpose. They are nonsensical or merely boring. You don’t remember them five minutes after you read them.

This means twaddle most definitely includes many textbooks since she says, “detailed process, lists, and summaries, blunt the edge of child’s delicate mind.” 

How many charts and graphs of meaningless facts that aren’t tied to any real ideas or people do you remember from school?

A living book brings to life the people, the time, and the subject. It gives you ownership of the knowledge. I like to say it is as if we “live with the characters” for the term, season, or year and they become our intimate friends.

I remember having to memorize various presidents’ names, birthdays, and presidential orders when I was in school, but I could have told you nothing of them after I graduated.

But after having read “That Jefferson Boy” with my daughter, I feel that I know Mr. Jefferson intimately. I can see him walking the streets of Williamsburg in my mind’s eye; poring over the documents of the Declaration of Independence at Monticello and dreaming of his boyhood days at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia. That is the difference between a living book and twaddle.

The evidence of my daughter’s intimacy with Mr. Jefferson was obvious when we visited his home place, Monticello, last fall. It is common for him to be the topic of conversation in our home at least every other month or so. This year, we are “living with” Abraham Lincoln in much the same way. It is a joy to learn in this manner. That is what a living book will do.

A living book brings to life the people, the time, and the subject. It gives you ownership of the knowledge. I like to say it is as if we “live with the characters” for the term, season, or year and they become our intimate friends.

Children Narrate by Nature

“Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education. Bobbie will come home with heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between ‘Duke” and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigor in the true epic vein; but so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie’s foolish childish way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education.”3

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 231

As you can see, Charlotte shows us clearly that children love to narrate.

My youngest child has had the advantage of being in an atmosphere of Charlotte Mason teaching and hearing narrations even before formal lessons of his own. Despite it not being required of him, he loves to chime in after his older siblings have narrated and given his rendition no matter what level the book is from which we are reading.

It is important, however, that you never require that a child younger than six narrate or “tell” you about something. Let them naturally tell things and then, when they begin their formal lessons, put before them excellent literature.

Charlotte says,

“When the child is six, not earlier, let him narrate the fairytale which has been read to him, episode by episode, upon one hearing of each; the Bible tale read to him in the words of the Bible, the well-written animal story; or all about other lands from some such volume as The World at Home. The seven-year-olds will have begun to read for himself, but must get most of his intellectual nutriment, by ear, certainly, but read to him out of books. Geography, sketches from ancient history, Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Tanglewood Tales, Heroes of Asgard, and much of the same calibre, will occupy him until he is eight. The points be born in mind are, that he should have no book which is not a child’s classic; and that, given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with it’s proper food. The child of eight or nine is able to tackle the more serious material of knowledge; but our business for the moment is with what children under nine can narrate.”

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 232 5 Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 233

Charlotte also says that the method of narration involves a consecutive reading from a well-chosen book. You should review the previous lesson briefly (with the children also telling what they remember) and offer a brief idea of what you are about to read to animate their excitement, but don’t over-explain.

Steps For A Proper Narration

  1. Read a short amount of two or three pages and then call upon the child to narrate.
  2. Do not correct the child or pepper him with questions to draw out answers.
  3. Be patient! There may be a lot of “and and “uhs”, she warns, but that will get better with time.
  4. The entire reading and narration should be short, no more than 20 minutes with the bulk of the time allowed for the narration, not the reading.
  5. A good rule of thumb is that a 20 minute lesson should be NO MORE THAN 5-7 MIN OF READING, maybe less for a child who is just learning to narrate!

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