Monday, July 30, 2007

What Is A Living Book?

I was asked to explain in detail what a living book is. So here is what I’ve come up with for an answer to that question.

A living book is a “real book”. So first to explain what a living book is, I can say it is NOT a textbook. A living book is a real book, it is a regular book.

A living book can be for adults or children. Mostly what I am concerned with when I blog and when I refer to living books are children’s books and I am speaking about homeschooling my children using living books. However every child (even a schooled child) would benefit from reading a living book to themselves or being read aloud to by a parent or someone else, with a living book.

A living book is usually written by just one author. The author writes of the topic as it is their passion. The writer is not part of a committee (like textbook writers). Imagine the difference between someone hiring a writer and giving them an assignment to write a book on X topic versus a writer being passionate about a topic and then writing a book about that topic. Or a writer could decide to write on a topic but they did so much research that they became emotionally engaged in the process and by the time the book was finished they were passionate about that topic.

I am sure at times you’ve read a book on a subject and while the writing was good and the data was addressed there just was no passion there. Or have you read a book and found your mind wandering—those are not living books.

Sometimes writer chooses to write of the topic because they like the subject matter first and foremost, rather than looking to write about something. Sometimes the author is not even a writer by trade, they may be a specialist in that field then they write a book on it to summarize what they know or to help ignite a spark of curiosity or seeking to make a reader passionate about the topic. One example would be Jacques Cousteau. Imagine the difference if a person’s life passion and work is all about one topic then they wrote a book about it, and wrote it well, that makes a fantastic living book.

Good storytellers who write works of fiction can write living books. Yes, living books can be fictional content; too, they are not just non-fiction topics.

A living book is interesting. A living book draws the reader in and compels us to sit and read it. When reading a living book we are happy to be reading and we are not bored. We are engaged and our mind does not drift. The book captivates us and as we read we make connections, emotional or factual and/or we are entertained. Depending on the topic and type of book we may feel emotionally connected to the characters or the topic. As we read we begin to care about the character or the subject. If the book contains non-fiction facts or other references such as geographical or cultural information, we are so engaged in the book that we instantly absorb that information, and we retain it after we finish the book.

The experience of reading a living book is very different from reading a book that obviously was written to fill our heads with facts or to try to force the reader to learn or memorize facts A, B, and C. It is very different still from writing that you have to force your eyes to move from one word to another and to force yourself to complete that paragraph or that page. With living books we don’t want to stop reading, we just flow and read and sometimes we even lose track of time, or are so absorbed in the book that we feel we are inside the story and we forget about the real world right around us. Also children often beg parents to keep reading a book, to not stop just because the chapter ended or because it is now beyond the normal bedtime. Children who read independently may push off other plans in favor of staying glued to that book to read on and on for longer than originally intended.

When finished reading a living book, we are often sad to see the book end. We may want to re-read the book. We may want to keep the book rather than resell it or give it away. If it is a library book, we may love it so much we want to buy our own copy. And some of us may think, “I should save this book for my grandchildren to read”.

A living book feels like a friend.

We want others to read the living book, too, and we tell our friends about the book. Sometimes we fell compelled to discuss the book, and wish we knew someone who read it so that we could discuss it (which to me is the point of what book clubs are but sometimes the book clubs fail to use books that fall short and we are strained to finish the book and discussing it feels forced).

Sometimes we feel sad that some people may never read that book and may never have that wonderful experience, or they may not ever know about that topic, or feel a passion for that topic. We may feel that others are really missing out on something great by not ever reading that living book which we’ve just read.

Also, the book usually has made us curious to learn more about that topic. We are interested in the topic enough to want to read more on the topic, or to travel to that place to see it ourselves, or to do that thing that was done in the book.

If the work was fiction, we hope a sequel was written, and if so, we worry if the sequel will let us down, and wonder if, although we wanted a sequel, if the story would have been better off let alone to be in just the one volume.

A living book leaves us with the feeling that a door has been opened. A living book usually makes us feel changed in some way, by having read that book and knowing that emotion or being exposed to that information, or by forming a new opinion we feel changed in a good way, we are lifted up and more enlightened.

And a living book definitely is high quality writing.

More about what a living books is NOT:

A living book does not have a patronizing tone. The writing is not “dumbed down”. With children’s books the writing should engage the child not talk down to them. The writing is not so pre-digested and regurgitated that it is insulting to the child. Sometimes when I read a book it becomes clear that the author felt the reader could handle just this little amount of information and so they spit that out and then they move on to the next topic.

A living book is emotionally engaging and is not damaging to the reader. Sometimes I have read books with powerful content that should have moved me but I didn’t feel moved. When this happens, a bit like television news snippets, we are actually emotionally dulled in the process, as we are exposed to some bad or negative thing but we are led to not engage emotionally and therefore, to accept that as a normal state of affairs or to just not think anything negative about what is a negative issue or topic. An example could be if a juvenile fiction book which includes divorce as if it has no negative emotional implications for the book’s characters, we may think divorce is normal and fine and not damaging to anyone. The same thing happens with children’s fiction for many topics, some of which are drug use, alcohol use, disrespect toward adults, stealing, bullying, promiscuity, and many other topics that SHOULD evoke a negative emotion in the reader. Perhaps sometimes the author has a personal agenda to evoke that effect in the reader that I don’t know. The best thing we can do is to figure out what the author’s bias is or what their intention is, and still read the book and have that as a talking point or we can just avoid reading the book at all and chalk the book up as “twaddle”.

The Term "Twaddle"
“Twaddle” is a nice term for what other may refer to as common slang terms for fecal matter, or maybe just as, “bad writing” or a “stupid book” or a “waste of our time”.

Then again, what books qualify as twaddle is, is subjective. What one person likes is another person’s twaddle. It all depends on the worldview, or values or feelings that a person has. A parent may, for example, not want their children reading books with teenage drug use portrayed in a positive light and so they may call that book “twaddle”, however many parents have no problem with that book series as it is on the bestseller list or is very popular with preteens and teenagers or they may say “I am just happy that they are reading SOMETHING.”
Charlotte Mason used the term twaddle and since it is a nice way of saying it is not worthy and is a nicer term than cr—some homeschoolers who are use living books and who are familiar with Miss Mason’s theories choose to use her nice term, “twaddle”.

My Four Categories of Twaddle
I feel that twaddle can also fall into three categories.

1. There is harmless twaddle which the adult may think is a waste of time to read but the child likes it. I classify most TV or movie tie-in books in this category. There seems to be a lot of picture books that are mediocre writing and also mediocre in artwork. Also, sometimes the artwork in a children’s picture book is wonderful but the story is not so great and vice-versa. To me the text is most important (a great story with sub-par illustrations is okay) but sometimes I will admit that some of the artwork is so fantastic that I’ll read and keep the book for the artwork alone.

2. Another type of twaddle is just a plain old waste of our time and energy to read, we get nothing out of it or it just doesn’t even appeal to the reader, it doesn’t enlighten us and it isn’t harmful, it is just “fluff”.

3. The last type of fiction twaddle is harmful to read. As I said before we may disagree on what is “twaddle” but most parents can agree that children should have a certain element of age-appropriate innocence so avoiding themes that are too-mature for the child’s developmental age is a good idea. Unfortunately some books on the market for certain aged readers, in my opinion, are not appropriate to be marketed to children of that age. The other type of twaddle which I referenced earlier is that which exposes the children to very negative subjects and does not handle them well enough to evoke the type of response the parent would desire the child to get from the book. For example the preteen or teenager may be inspired to try a drug or to engage in premarital sex after reading a book that portrays these issues in a positive light. If the negative content does not lead the reader to a negative emotion or to come to the conclusion that the reader should avoid doing what the books’ characters are doing then to me that book is actually harmful to a reader and should be avoided (and is “twaddle”). Or maybe in that case twaddle is too-light of a term for the book, perhaps we should just label it as “damaging” or something like that, I don’t know.

4. An example of non-fiction twaddle could be the newest books on children’s non-fiction topics which are snippets of information. I refer to the books which are dense with high-quality color photographs but give only one sentence or two on the topic (example: the DK/Eyewitness books and the copy-cats). If you try to read that type of book cover to cover it is like reading a series of facts. I find that the topic jumps from one thing to another often with large gaps, being an incomplete coverage of the topic. There is usually no emotional connection to the material. While some children and adults love the visuals and appreciate the fine photography, the facts don’t necessarily engage all readers and some readers may find that it is boring to read through the book cover to cover. (A living book often appeals to all readers of all learning styles.) The style of that type of factual/visually dense book is usually incomplete in the presentation of information.

With that said I do realize that some people really love to read those types of books. I have found that children who love non-fiction content or seem to like trivia or factual tidbits do enjoy reading those books cover to cover, sometimes multiple times, and they often will remember those facts. However not every person, perhaps due to their learning style, enjoys reading those books and not every reader will retain all those facts. Our family owns many of the DK/Eyewitness books and one of my children loves to read and re-read them while the other doesn’t like them at all. I have tried reading aloud from the books and that is when I found that the data jumps around and often is full of gaps. For example some of the history topic books have content applicable to the visuals that are available to us rather than covering topics that flow better or are more complete.

Older Books vs. Newer Books and Illustration Rich vs. Low Number of Illustrations
Some of the best living books are older and out of print. Due to the technology that was available (was not available) back when some of the books were published, the older books often have great text but inferior or no illustrations.

The newer books on the market seem to be much more dumbed-down or may be of a lower writing quality. The newer books often have less information, as if the children of today are too stupid to handle more information, or as if they lack the curiosity about the subject for the author to bother to go into more detail.

The actual reading level or difficulty of the reading for the child seems to have declined over the years. Therefore a book about bees written in the 1950s or 1960s for a child of age ten may be a much higher level of writing and contain a lot more information than a book published today about bees for a child of that same age. This is another way that books can be “dumbed down” and some of us label these as “twaddle”. We seek then, to find the best books on a topic, even if we end up reading an old, battered copy of an out of print living book rather than what is being sold at the big name bookstore today.

Some would argue that children should see the best visuals about a non-fiction topic. I agree. However I will not sacrifice good information or the engaging writing to completely rely on currently in-print books. Some of the most popular living books are old but are currently still in publication in reprint editions. I try to use a living book on a topic for the text, to read it. If the illustrations are inferior I will often use another more modern book with high quality illustrations as well. Sometimes the writing is so poor in the new books that we will just browse through the books’ illustrations and will ignore the text. I get those twaddle books from the public library or I find them for under $1 at library fundraiser book sales, and after we use those, we often get rid of them.

Additionally we also sometimes watch documentaries on television or borrowed from the public library. There is no comparison to seeing coral reefs in full color on a video recording; a book just can’t do that justice. But we can both read a book and then see the video footage.

Higher Level of Material in Living Books and Reading Aloud To Children
With preschool and elementary grade children there is a wide variance in children’s ability to read independently. I found that both of my children were interested in pretty big topics starting at age one and two! I read aloud a lot of books, some of which were stated by the publisher to be for ages 9-12. By the time my oldest was five I was reading aloud some books which are intended for readers with a reading ability of a teenager or an adult.

The issue is that children’s minds and their curiosity and intelligence level is above what their independent reading level is. It would be a shame to “keep a child stupid” by only reading aloud to them from books which were written to be read independently by a child of that age. However, many parents make that mistake.

For example I owned some books about habitats which were intended for first graders to read independently. Each page had one sentence on it. If I was only having my first grader exposed to that sparse content they would be bored and also not very enlightened, they’d be “kept stupid”. At the same point in time if I read a book aloud with more difficult language and longer text which was a living book the child would be engaged and interested in hearing that book read to them, and if they retain the information and are newly curious about learning more, then that is fantastic.

Unfortunately, some American children are not exposed to the more information rich books, they only get to read the ones they can read themselves or they may read what the schools force them to read from the schools mandatory reading list.

In the near future I hope to share more about living books and children’s books and the importance of reading and books in children’s lives.

Homeschooling and Living Books
Some homeschoolers choose to use living books instead of textbooks. Some homeschoolers may use a textbook as a spine for a topic but will supplement and spend the majority of their time reading and learning from living books. Most topics other than math operations and learning to read can be taught strictly from living books.

There are many books on the market for adults which are living books. Many if not all of those can be used as homeschooling materials for high school aged students. In other words you may not find living books published specifically for teenagers but in reality the adult books are often fine and well for homeschooled high schoolers to read.

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Shawna said...

Very thorough explanation. My persumption wasn't too far off, but I was think twaddle was more the non-living books; text books never crossed my mind as I really never thought of them as reading books LOL

Now I have much clearer understanding of the whole concept! Thank you!!!!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Well done!

The Junior Great Books curriculum that some schools use are generally based on "living books." IMHO though, choice is very important. I liked certain classics and returned to them again and again, but was put off by others.

I suspect that the category boundaries are fuzzy for the different types of "twaddle." For example, "harmful twaddle" would depend not only on the age of the child, but also on the child's sensitivities. And I do believe that there is a "harmful twaddle" for adults as well. Such twaddle fills the head with images and ideas that are not civilizing.

I loved this post and will be returning to it!

christinemm said...

Jennifer R. emailed me this comment because she doesn't have a Blogger account to use the restricted comments that I have enabled.


Your comments about living books are awesome! The summation is neither dumbed down nor over the top/idealized. I really appreciated each topic within the subject and realized that most of your conclusions are the same as mine, though I have never actually formulated just what I understand a living book is or is not.

I look for content first and artwork/pictures second, although I will decline any book with ugly or inappropriate artwork/pictures. I, also, have purchased a handful of books just for the artwork, but mainly our *keepers* are the ones with great text, about real people, facing real life, making realistic choices. We read aloud as much as possible (all readers, not just me) and enjoy talking about characters in good books as though there were neighbors or relatives or good friends. In other words, to me a living book contains *living* characters, ones you feel inclined to discuss their circumstances, motives, choices and actions.

Thanks for alerting the Bookroom list about this great article!

Jennifer R.

" . . . the Lord will be the hope of his people, and the strength of the children of Israel." Joel 3:16 "Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord." Psalm 31:24 08/01/2007"

Jody said...

Oh my goodness, I just followed a link to this post and it could not be more true. I have so many times tried to explain this and find it very difficult go explain what I mean. I will be referencing your post in these conversations because what you said here could not be more true to what I believe. I am a former teacher and will be homeschooling my two children. I believe strongly in giving children "real" literature to read! I love Charlotte Mason and your summary of living books is amazing. Thank you for putting the words to the thoughts that I so often struggle to explain.