Long before I had children of my own, I dreamt about reading to them. I could envision a small child on my lap, hear the gentle cadence of my own voice as I read Riki Tiki Tembo and Where the Wild Things Are. When I found out I was pregnant, I began collecting books like treasures, organizing them on a book shelf with great enthusiasm, smiling at what great adventures in store for me and my child. I had begun building a living books library before I even knew what it was.
Every family ought to have a living books library: a collection of high-quality, beloved texts that make the reader feel more alive. A living books library will serve a family well over the years; not only will it nurture a love of reading, but it will develop family intimacy as you share stories and ideas together. This post explains what a living book is and why you ought to have a living books library, then offers tips on how to build one that your family will love for years to come.
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Living Books and a Living Books Library: Defined
What is a living book, exactly? According to Charlotte Mason, the well-revered educator whom the term “living books” is attributed, a living book is “really valuable for its own sake, accurate, and interesting…of a kind that the child may recall…with pleasure” (For the Children’s Sake). Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy respected children as persons and sought to nourish their minds, bodies, and souls with goodness, truth, and beauty. Much of this was accomplished through the reading and narrating of living books.
It is my understanding that living books offer life to the reader, not mere entertainment. They often offer a rich and varied vocabulary, important ideas, well-developed characters and a purposeful plot (if it is a story), and a quality of general goodness. They can be fiction or non-fiction, silly or serious, board books or novels. Regardless, they are meaningful and enjoyable to read.
Unfortunately, some of what is written for children is what Charlotte Mason would call “twaddle” – intellectual junk food. It may taste sweet for a moment, but offers no long-term nourishment.
Living books will excite the reader not because they are exclusively entertaining, but because they offer something of substance to the reader. Living books respect the reader as an intellectual, creative, whole person – they don’t treat the reader as a mere consumer.
A living books library, then, is a personal collection of these living books.
Why You Should Have a Living Books Library
Can you read living books without owning any? Of course! And there is a wonderful benefit to loaning books, whether from a library or a friend – you are able to taste and appreciate all of the amazing texts out there for free.
It is, however, important to own books. We tend to purchase what we value, and we ought to value what we purchase. Making a practice of buying living books is a manifestation of valuing reading.
Having a living books library also makes you more likely to actually read. There are powerful benefits to reading independently, but also to reading aloud to children from infancy through adolescence (pick up a copy of Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart and Sarah Mackenzie’s The Read Aloud Family to discover just how wonderful and underutilized this practice is). You will read more if you are surrounded by books you and your family love.
It’s wonderful to know that special texts are available to you and your family to enjoy at any time. Children, especially, benefit from having a variety of high-quality books visible and at their fingertips – it is a delicious buffet for their developing minds. And we know that it is beneficial to read the same texts over and over again. Books, when enjoyed repeatedly, become so more than mere paper and ink – they become familiar friends.
When you have and utilize a living books library, you provide you and your children with an incredible resource that will nurture both mind and soul.
Tips for Building a Living Books Library
1. Know What Constitutes a Living Book for Your Family
An important key to developing a living books library is knowing what constitutes a living book for your family.
Not everyone’s living books library will look the same. Sarah Mackenzie, in her book The Read Aloud Family, notes that just as we all have unique tastes in food, we each have a particular literary palate. Your family will have their own understanding of what a living book is, and it is important to follow the interests and values of your own family.
Know, too, that a bigger library is not necessarily better. The point is not to buy every book you lay your hands on, but to invest in the texts you believe are valuable enough to take up space in your home, both physically and metaphysically. Choose books that reflect what you and your family value most.
2. Start with Your Childhood Favorites
Think back to your own childhood. Which books do you think about nostalgically? Which stories did you want to read over and over again? Get your hands on those memorable texts!
On our very first date, my husband and I discussed our mutual adoration of The Chronicles of Narnia series, and the collection is sitting on our bookshelf, ready for the much-anticipated day when we can read those sacred stories aloud to our own children. Until then, my husband is excited to read his own childhood copy of Miss Suzy to the kids, while I will often reach for Blueberries for Sal.
Start by collecting your favorites. There is no doubt these will be read often and with enthusiasm, simply because of your love for them. And what is more precious than the idea of your favorites becoming your child’s favorites? These beloved personal classics ought to be the foundational texts in your living book library.
3. Seek Out Recommendations
There are so many books out there. The first time I walked into the children’s section of our local library with my little guy, my eyes widened, and my heart rate slowly escalated. I was quickly overwhelmed.
While there is some joy in picking up a random book and giving it a go, it’s a more resourceful to seek out the recommendations of a trusted source. Ask a librarian, a school teacher, or a friend for their opinion on quality books. Poll the neighborhood kids on their favorites. Not all popular books are quality, and not all quality books are popular, but it’s a good place to start.
I also suggest getting your hands on a respected book list. I cannot begin to say how helpful it’s been to reference the book lists provided through Gladys Hunt’s Honey for a Child’s Heart and Sarah Mackenzie’s The Read Aloud Family. I only very recently picked up copies of each of these texts, and I wish I would have had them years ago! Not only do they give you incredible rationale for reading to your children and practical tips for implementing reading practices, but they provide wonderful book recommendations for each age group. Sarah Mackenzie, who is the founder of the well-revered Read Aloud Revival podcast, also has an extensive series of book lists you can download on her website. I am developing several book lists of my own!
The recommendations of others can provide a springboard for discovering the types of books your family will love.
4. Try Before You Buy
From experience, I can say that it is a good idea to try a book out before committing to buying it. I’ve purchased what I believed to be “winning books” only to discover that they fell flat for all of us.
The library is a wonderful place to explore books and give them a test run. There have been several times my children have picked up a book I shrugged at, only to find that we were all equally delighted by it. Our personal library has grown because of our frequent visits to our local public library.
In addition to the library, you can borrow copies from friends or give a book a good look-through at a book store. Once you are able to hold the text in your hand and read from it, you will have a better idea of whether the book is truly a living book for your family. If it is thoroughly enjoyed, or at least looks promising, then consider buying a copy for your living book library.
5. Buy Used When You Can
It’s amazing how a modest stack of books can cost so much money. While I do buy some books new (especially new books or the beloved ones that people are unwilling to give away), I’ve built most of our collection by utilizing thrift stores and used book stores.
Used book stores are my favorite. The books they sell may be used, but are generally in great shape. Thrift stores tend to sell books even cheaper, I’ve found, but are less organized and require a different mindset while shopping; you may luck out, or you may leave empty-handed. While I find this shopping experience a little more stressful, I know some people find it thrilling.
In any case, you can afford more living books if you are willing to get them used. Check out library book sales, yard sales, and online booksellers, too!
6. Give Books to Your Children as Gifts
Give the gift of books to your children. A matchbox car will lose its luster long before a good quality picture book; a new t-shirt will not fade long before the memory of a favorite story.
When your child’s birthday comes around, use some of the budgeted funds for a book or two. Tuck a story into the Easter basket. Slip a novel into the Christmas stocking. In this way, you are exposing your children to a few new living books every year and encouraging them to build their own living books library.
7. Prune Your Library from Time to Time
Building a quality living book library means more than just adding to a collection; it also means cutting out the books that aren’t fruitful.
Take some time to prune your current collection of books and evaluate if each one is worth keeping. If a book is no longer a living book (or never was one in the first place), set it aside and make space for books that are.
One of the more exciting things I’ve discovered lately is that our local used book stores have buy-back programs. As long as they are in good shape, I can exchange our unwanted books for store credit to use toward new books. This has been particularly motivating for me! We have also donated countless books to local charities or our local library.
Whatever the case, be sure that your living books library is filled with texts that you and your family love. Better to have a few beloved texts than endless empty ones!
Enjoy building your living books library!
Click here to access lists of our family’s favorite living books.