My Switch to Living History Books


“Well, this one country, they were mad at this other country, because of this dictator, you know.” This was my son’s response to my question about what he had just read in history.  We discuss what he reads after he is finished to help work it into his memory and so I can judge his comprehension of the subject.

“Which counties were they talking about?” I asked.

“Oh, I can’t remember, Mom. They all run together.”  For me too, I thought. This was NOT what I wanted him to get out of history.

History was never my best subject. I had difficulty keep up with the dates, and the information never “stuck.” Math and science are my comfort zones. These topics I can make interactive, engaging, and fun. I know just what experiment to look up or math trick to showcase to demonstrate what we are studying, or at the very least, where to find what I’m looking for.  History, I don’t even know where to begin. What I did know, was there had to be a better way.  I spoke with friends for whom history was their forte.  I listened how they were able to make it fun and engaging, how they knew just the right documentary to watch, the right book to read, and the right question to ask. I decided we needed a change.

And this is where Charlotte Mason comes in.  Have you heard of her? Charlotte Mason was a British educator that lived in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s.  Through years of teaching and observing children, she developed her own educational philosophy, which many of the homeschooling community follow.  There are many aspects of her philosophy that I like, such as her narration ideas, but the one relevant to our history dilemma was the use of living books.  Living books are usually written in story or narrative form.  They are meant to engage the child in their storytelling form, making the information come to life.  Having heard of living books before and having used several of them for science, I went in search of living books for our history.  Luckily there are a few good resources.  Simply Charlotte Mason and Build your Own Library both have good book lists to choose from as well as the Zinn Education Project.  Simply Charlotte Mason tends towards Christian books, as Charlotte did include religion in her teachings.  Build your Own Library is a secular Charlotte Mason Curriculum. The Zinn Eduation Project highlights minority and common folk history. For clarification, I didn’t use their curriculum.  I just chose books from their lists to correspond with what we are studying.  I also purchased the Kingfisher’s History Encyclopedia to accompany our journey through our book list, clarifying the fact from the fiction.

This method has turned out remarkably well.  There are no longer complaints about history or ambitious conversations where we cannot determine who did what and why.  Dare I say that he even looks forward to reading the stories? So far we have read three of the living history books and each one has been a great story and a wonderful learning experience for us both!

Gold Rush Fever  (about the Gold Rush)

Nory Ryan’s Song (about the Irish potato famine that lead to the mass immigration of the Irish)

Angel on the Square  (about the Russian Revolution and the beginning of WWI)


The aspect of living history books that I like best is that they give one an idea of what it was like during that time and an idea of what happened when and why.  It describes peoples dress, their customs, and their lives. It helps understand reasons for what happened and sometimes how it could have been avoided. It gives an idea of what it was like to live during that time period and THAT is what I want him to get out of history.  Next year we are looking at American History, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what adventures the living history books will take us on throughout the States.


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