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Supplementing Your Homeschooling With Literature

By Catherine Levison (Copyright © 2001, All rights reserved)

Books have always been a significant part of my life and there just isn’t a substitute for a great book. There are many people like me -- those who love to read. There are also people who never developed a taste for it, so they avoid it as much as possible. It’s a strong possibility that they did not have the opportunity to meet a book they really loved as a young person, perhaps they were only offered mundane, maybe satisfactory, but not the well-written stories that really captured their interest.

In a previous Link article I wrote about many aspects of book selection -- what to look for in a book and where to locate them. In one more effort to help parents and children, I’ve released a new book, "A Literary Education", in which I have compiled an annotated list to assist in selecting books that go beyond the common, the boring, or the simply factual.

For many years I’ve collected what I considered to be the most interestingly-written books I could find. However, for practicality’s sake I attempted to limit the amount of entries in "A Literary Education", otherwise I might have produced an overwhelming or nearly unusable book. Many parents find that their own educational background did not include much in the way of literature. Keeping that in mind I strove to provide a list of books that I knew well and could recommend and I chose not to include any negative reviews. I also excluded many of my favorite books because I eliminated purely adult titles such as parenting books and/or books that are great additions to home libraries but could not really be classified as aiding childhood education. I did make every effort not to skimp on the children’s classic literature entries even though many have been well-known mainstays for generations.

In attempting to choose books for the list, I kept to certain criteria. Mostly I thought of the term "a well-read person." The books had to be interesting; therefore most of them follow the narrative style of writing. In other words, one person telling another about what he knows. The books had to help in developing the love for reading and knowledge itself. My goal was to provide an easy-to-use format for you and a real education through real books for your students and children.

Each entry has information to aid in locating the book such as an ISBN or a publisher and copyright date. I included an IRL (Independent Reading Level) for each entry which indicates reading level only but does not represent the interest level of the content when reading aloud to children.

Finally, this book is designed to stand alone or as a follow-up to my first two books. In A Charlotte Mason Education and More Charlotte Mason Education I attempted to give straightforward, practicable information on "how" to teach children. Here I’m providing an answer to "what" books to use when teaching children. I strongly believe a literary education is a worthwhile and attainable goal for our children and I believe it is within reach for all of us.

Various Entries From "A Literary Education"


At the Back of the North Wind

George MacDonald, Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

ISBN 0-517-69120-5 (1990 edition), Children’s Classics, dist. by Random House, New Jersey. HB, 342 pgs. (Originally pub. in book form in 1871.)

Scottish author George MacDonald wrote on many topics before he turned his attention to creating fairy tales for his eleven children. He claimed not to write for children "but for the childlike." This book was originally written installment-style for a children’s magazine and ran for two years. The descriptions of Diamond’s life as a boy in London have been compared to Dickens but the encounters with the North Wind have been likened to a glorious, imaginative afterlife and to fictional places such as Oz.

IRL: 6th & above

Canterbury Tales, The

Geoffrey Chaucer

ISBN 0-14-044022-4 (Fourteenth Century), Penquin Books, England/New York. PB, 504 pgs. (Printed under several publishers and editions.)

Finally, a translation of Chaucer that is readable and understandable without being "dumbed down." Professor Nevill Coghill (1899-1980) held many positions at Oxford and co-wrote the play version of Canterbury Tales which ran in London from 1968 to 1973. If you thought Chaucer was incomprehensible due to the old English, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this translation. You do not have to be a poetry lover to enjoy this work but it would help. For high school and adults.

IRL: 10th grade & above

Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, The

Beatrix Potter

ISBN 0-7232-3618-6 (1989 edition), Penquin Group, London England. HB, 383 pgs. (Printed under several publishers since 1901 to 1930.)

Everyone is probably well acquainted with Beatrix Potter’s characters and story lines. Her work is the epitome of great writing for the young audience with its broad vocabulary combined with easy-to-follow and entertaining stories. It’s unfortunate how many of today’s children are only exposed to poorly written, dumbed-down books but it’s also a mistake to avoid children’s literature completely. If you want to have children love reading, love books and have a good time yourself read Beatrix Potter to them again and again.

IRL: 4th to 6th grade

David Copperfield

Charles Dickens

ISBN 0-679-40571-2 (1991 edition), Everyman’s Library (Knopf), New York. HB, 891 pgs. (Printed under several publishers since 1850.)

Have you ever been asked this question? If you knew you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could only take three books, which three would you take? This novel would make my list. I laughed out loud and I was moved to tears as the young hero experiences death and hardships as well as amazing characters and survives everything thrown his way. The story is so good it would be a suitable read-aloud but the length would probably prohibit its being chosen by most families. I would also be careful not to force it on anyone too young to appreciate it fully.

IRL: 9th & above


Irene Dische & Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Illustrated by Michael Sowa

ISBN 1-56846-091-0 (1993), Creative Editions, Minnesota.. HB, 30 pgs.

The Esterhazy’s are a rabbit family originally from London who move to Austria and later to Berlin, in fact this book is translated from German to English. The story is good and the illustrations are of the best in quality and amusement. (My favorite is Esterhazy trying on human boxer shorts before a huge mirror.) One event portrayed is the removal of the Berlin Wall and how it effects the rabbit population. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and it is worth searching for -- it will become a frequent read-aloud with your children.

IRL: 4th to 6th grade


Robert Louis Stevenson, Illustrated by N. C. Wyeth

ISBN 0-517-68783-6 (1989 edition), Children’s Classics, dist. by Random House, New Jersey. HB, 241 pgs. (Printed under several publishers since 1886.)

The author based this on a true story of a murder committed in 1745. Scottish himself, Stevenson combined actual history and fiction. Interestingly, the hero David Balfour, I couldn’t help but notice, was given Robert’s second middle name -- he was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson. (Apparently he even took exception to the spelling of the middle name he did retain.) This novel is written in the first person and draws the reader in immediately.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Legend of Pocahontas, The

Virginia Watson, Illustrated by George Wharton Edwards

ISBN 0-517-12225-1 (1995 edition), Children’s Classics, dist. by Random House, New Jersey. HB, 208 pgs. (Printed under several publishers since the 1900’s.)

Pocahontas was a real person, but as is the case with many legendary people, no one can be certain that all the stories written about her are completely true. She did indeed marry John Rolfe in 1614 and traveled with him to London in 1616. Regardless of any potential embellishments, this is a memorable story of Native American culture and the impact White settlers had when landing on the new continent. Children love this book and it was a another great read-aloud for us.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Load of Unicorn, The

Cynthia Harnett

ISBN 0-1403-0257-3 (1959), Penquin Books Ltd., England. PB, 249 pgs.

Harnett, an award winning author, wrote this in modern English that’s easy to understand but it’s set in the 1400’s. The story has nothing to do with Unicorns, the fictitious animal, instead it happens to be the name of a certain printing paper available at the time. Bendy, the main character works with his family as a scribe. They copy books by hand for a living because the printing press had not yet been invented. As the typeset books begin to make their appearance, Bendy has to choose between the old way which means siding with his family or switching to the competitor’s side.

IRL: 6th to 9th grade

Tales From Shakespeare

Charles & Mary Lamb, Illustrated by Shippen & Elliot

ISBN 0-517-62156-8 (1986 edition), Children’s Classics, dist. by Random House, New Jersey. HB, 377 pgs. (Printed under several publishers since 1807.)

This brother and sister collaborated in paraphrasing twenty of Shakespeare’s works. He authored the tragedies and Mary the comedies. Charles and Mary resided together until his death in 1834. Charles had an aversion for what he called "namby-pamby" also known as twaddle and now commonly referred to as "dumbed down." They succeeded in converting these complicated works into prose without sacrificing vocabulary or beauty and produced something easier to understand with above-average literary quality.

IRL: 8th grade & above

Where Angels Fear to Tread

E. M. Forster

ISBN 0-517-14782-3 (1993 edition), Gramercy Books, New York. HB, 503 pgs. (Printed under several publishers since 1905.)

Forster’s writing style has been likened to Jane Austen’s. He too was English and therefore he sets his scenes and characters in Europe. Where Angels Fear to Tread is an excellent story and one not to be overlooked when making literary choices. His writing style is best appreciated through silent reading and I would not recommend his work to be read aloud. This particular copy also contains A Room with a View and Howard’s End.

IRL: 10th grade & above


American History Stories . . . You Never Read in School . . . but should have

Mara L. Pratt, M.D.

ISBN 0-9640546-0-4 (1993), The Randall Co., USA. PB ,150 pgs.

Reed Simonsen found a 1889 copy of this book at a used book sale. After he found himself staying up all night to read it he decided it was valuable enough to put back into print. He certainly made the right choice-it’s easy to read and easy to love. I have read it aloud to all age levels and found its short chapters very conducive both for attention span and comprehension. Highly recommended.

IRL: 6th grade & above

Autobiograpy of Benjamin Franklin, The

Benjamin Franklin

Written between 1771 and 1789, Houghton Mifflin Co. (c. 1923), USA. HB (PB available), 235 pgs. (Printed under several publishers.)

Franklin’s first words in this book are: Dear Son. This may explain the intimacy and frank detail in which it is written. I found it to be one of my all-time favorite books and immediately devoured it. Much can be learned about our country and the social/economic circumstances Franklin found himself in. This book serves as a perfect example of how much history can be retained even when the material centers around one life. Enjoyable enough to be re-read numerous times.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare

Diane Stanley & Peter Vennema, Illustrated by Diane Stanley

ISBN 0-688-09108 (1992), Morrow Junior Books, New York. HB, 48 pgs.

This book provides a friendly introduction for the younger child to Shakespeare. As an adult, I learned and retained a lot about the playwright and his family. Covering the period from 1569 to 1616 with as much accuracy as possible, the authors did not include any boring or unnecessary detail. Instead they wrote a great read-loud that you can re-read and use as a picture book because of the above-average illustrations. The postscript is most interesting where the famous phrases we use in everyday language such as "seen better days" or "tongue-tied" are identified as Shakespearean.

IRL: 4th to 6th grade

Child’s History of England

Charles Dickens

Rand, McNally & Co.,New York. HB , 470 pgs.

As commonly done with English history, this book begins in 50 B.C. It is a very thorough and warmly written book that covers everything up to 1837 when Queen Victoria took the throne. Due to its exceeding detail I would recommend reading from it rather than through it. Or it could be assigned to an older child for independent reading and the only English history book they would really need. Of course it is very well written and I could spend months with this book and be extremely entertained.

IRL: 8th grade & above

Conversations with Pioneer Women

Fred Lockley

ISBN 0-931742-0-80(1981), Rainy Day Press, PB, 310 pgs,

This is an important, accurate and touching book. It was decided to verbally interview survivors of the Oregon Trail crossing at the turn of the 20th century, before they all passed away. Some entries are extremely short and some run for pages. Written in the first person, these women retell the hardships, illnesses and deaths they actually witnessed or experienced. Many of them were orphans, the sole survivors of the family who had originally set out for the West. You and your children will know -- really know -- why diseases such as cholera were truly catastrophic and how fast they killed entire families as well as other details of what it was really like to make that journey. Highly recommended.

IRL: 8th grade & above

Legends Every Child Should Know

Edited by Hamilton W. Mabie

(1906), Doubleday, Page & Co.New York. HB,261 pgs.

What is a legend? According to Mabie they originated in church and centered around religious people and places. Usually they had some true facts combined with fiction which eventually led to an understanding that legends could be based on either a real person or an imaginary one. Mabie writes, "it throws light on the mind and character of the age that produced it . . . above all, it is interesting." Nineteen legends are presented here by authors such as Tennyson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne. Topics include Hiawatha, Beowulf, Sir Galahad and Rip Van Winkle. Primarily prose, it does include a little poetry.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Scotland’s Story; A Child’s History of Scotland

H. E. Marshall, illustrated by Skelton, Hassall & Crompton

T. C. & E. C. Jack, Ltd., London. HB, 428 pgs.

Caledonia, a little girl, asked Marshall to write "Scotland’s Story for littler children like me." Rather than producing a tedious simplification he wrote 428 pages of the best history I’ve ever read. My family and I really enjoyed our time with this book, and even though it was written to children I like reading the story of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce from Marshall’s viewpoint because of his writing talent. He does not apologize for including "golden threads of romance" as he recorded some folk lore in his history.

IRL: 6th grade & above

Stories From the History of Rome

Mrs. Beesly

(1878), MacMillan and Co., Ltd., London. HB, 189 pgs.

Mrs. Beesly was dissatisfied telling only fairy tales to her children. She wisely noted that the vocabulary in books such as Plutarch were beyond her young children. Deciding that it wouldn’t hurt to experiment with simplifying the old tales from Rome she found the children not only enjoyed them but they requested them over and over again. This led to her publishing the work. As an adult I enjoyed the book and learned a great deal. Appropriate for all ages.

IRL: 5th grade & above

Voices of American Homemakers

Edited by Eleanor Arnold

ISBN 0-253-12986-9 (1985), Indiana University Press, Indiana. PB, 295 pgs.

I absolutely love this book. Over 200 interviews were conducted with women who were raising families from 1890 to 1940, with some entries dealing with the 1950’s. Actual women, using their real names, tell their stories of life in rural America. Everything from childbirth to refrigeration is covered in these anecdotes that make for some of the most emotional reading I’ve ever experienced. The sheer ordeal of washing clothes and feeding the children (who were not always long for the world) will give you and your children a new appreciation for your life and for the homemakers that came before you. Highly recommended.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Wall Chart of World History, The

Edward Hull

ISBN 0-88029-239-3 (1988), Dorset Press, USA. HB, 15 pgs.

The advantage of this wall chart is that it can remain folded into its 17 x 12 inch book format or it could be mounted on a wall. When unfolded it measures 180 inches in length. I have chosen to keep mine in book form and when we need to refer to it we unfold it on the floor of a large room. Young children frequently struggle with concepts such as decades, centuries or millenniums and this kind of tool greatly helps them to visualize time frames. This chart is also very detailed, while using a synchronological order and using the same lengths per line for equal lengths of time. It covers 4004 B.C. to the late 1980’s A.D.

IRL: 6th to 11th grade

Year 1000, The

Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger

ISBN 0-316-55840-0 (1999), Little, Brown & co., New York. HB, 230 pgs.

The subtitle to The Year 1000 is, What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium. This is fun and informative reading and it is not some attempt to cash in on the recent millennium change. It’s a look at the simple, yet short, life one would have lived in England during the year 1000. Much of it is based on the Julius Work Calendar which consists of twelve months on twelve pages. Each chapter of the book covers a month. Clothing, farming, coins and historical figures are some of the many interesting topics covered.

IRL: 9th grade & above


A Tree is Growing

Arthur Dorros, Illustrated by S. D. Schindler

ISBN 0-590-45300-9 (1997), Scholastic Press, New York. HB, 32 pgs.

This is a pretty book and it teaches leaf shapes, tree identification, sap production and root development. Mushrooms, birds, insects, rodents are included as well. It’s so beautiful that it makes a good picture book for young children below the IRL. We all know children learn from picture books -- once you begin using quality books like this one your standards, and theirs, will be raised past some of the inane books available at the stores and libraries.

IRL: 4th to 5th grade

Butterfly Book, The

Donald and Lillian Stokes

ISBN 0-316-81760-5 (1991), Little, Brown and Co., USA. PB, 8x11, 94 pgs.

These authors are really good at what they do. They write an informative book, provide great photography and give people practical how-to recommendations they can actually do. They have many other books such as The Bird Feeder Book, The Bluebird Book, Complete Birdhouse Book, two Wildflower Books and The Hummingbird Book mentioned later in this section.

IRL: 8th grade & above

Chipmunks on the Doorstep

Edwin Tunis, Illustrated by the Author

0-690-19044-1 (1971), Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York. HB, 70 pgs.

This book is almost worth its weight in gold and I approve of it so much that it always accompanies me to speaking engagements as my favorite example of a "whole book." It has everything going for it: First-hand knowledge (and zeal) of the subject, passion (in both the text and illustrations), excellent writing and humor. Tunis and his wife attracted chipmunks and observed them to the point of being able to illustrate and explain their eating habits, burrow details including the storage areas and escape holes, even their swimming ability. By the end you’ll know and love "Chippy" as much as Tunis does.

IRL: 6th grade & above

Garden Crafts for Kids

Diane Rhoades

ISBN 0-8069-0999-4 (1998), Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York. PB, 144 pgs.

Rhoades choose 50 Great Reasons To Get your Hands Dirty as her subtitle for this book. She provides step-by-step, how-to directions for gardening by including helpful photos, text and diagrams on such things as how to construct a cold frame. After preparing the novice gardener with advice on soil, tools and design, she gives craft and recipe ideas to use at harvest time. Even experienced gardeners will find this book inspiring to children whose enthusiasm and cooperation you’ll want sustained all through the project.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Hollyhock Days; Garden Adventures for the Young at Heart

Sharon Lovejoy

0-934026-90-4 (1994), Interweave Press, Inc., Colorado. PB, 95 pgs.

Sunflower Houses; Garden Discoveries for Children of All Ages

Sharon Lovejoy

1-883010-00-4 (1991), Interweave Press, Inc., Colorado. PB, 144 pgs.

Books do not get any more beautiful or enjoyable than these created by Lovejoy. It is not easy to write an "escape" book while providing practical, hands-on activities that you can actually do, enjoy and learn from. The hand-painted artwork using the best inks available, combined with an attractive layout, makes these books outstanding. You’ll find important gardening teaching and innovative ideas such as creating a flower bed in the shape of a butterfly or writing a child’s name when you sow the seeds. Highly recommended.

IRL: 7th grade & above (Even though I chose 7th grade as the independent reading level my 5th grade daughter finds these books to be simple and pleasurable reading.)

James Herriot’s Treasure for Children

James Herriot, Illustrated by Ruth Brown & Peter Barrett

ISBN 0-312-08512-5(1992), St. Martin’s Press, New York. HB, 252 pgs.

The exceedingly frequent requests from my children to read from this book caused us to finish the eight chapters in about eight days. You’ll find each chapter is the perfect length for a read-aloud sitting. The illustrations are far above average and make this a beautiful and outstanding picture book. The stories are good and interesting and you don’t have to be an animal lover to enjoy them. This one is a great gift book too.

IRL: 5th to 6th grade

Nature Journaling

Clare Walker Leslie & Charles E. Roth

0-58017-088-9 (1998), Storey Books, Vermont. HB,181 pgs.

Nature diaries, or journals, are not a new thing. Charlotte Mason advocated keeping them for several purposes. It helps develop observation and it’s very fun. Leslie began nature journaling in 1978 and she has been committed to filling in an entire 92-page sketch book per year. They have become so precious to her that her intention is to grab them first in the event of a fire. I have experience with keeping these journals as well but I learned very much from this book. The numerous ideas and beautiful sketchings included make this book worth every penny. Highly recommended.

IRL: 7th grade & above

Naturewatch; Exploring Nature With Your Children

Adrienne Katz

ISBN 0-201-10457-1(1986), Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., USA. PB, 128 pgs.

Naturewatch is full of activities to do with children. Sure, there are daisy chains, seed necklaces and pressed flowers, but this book just keeps coming up with ideas. There is information and fun experiments for hands-on learning about insects, birds, trees, gardening, and all manner of other plant-related science. One more novel thing about this book: Throughout, there is light print for the teacher, parent or older child and dark print in boxes where the text is directed to children.

IRL: 9th grade & above (for the light print & 6th to 8th grade for the dark print)

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost; illustrated by Susan Jeffers

ISBN 0-525-40115-6 (1978) Dutton’s Childrens Books, New York. HB, 27 pgs.

This book features only one of Robert Frost’s famous poems with delightful illustrations resulting in a young child’s picture book. By using a child-friendly format (which young audiences are accustomed to) the adult is able to present poetry that will entertain. This kind of introduction is preferable and will not cause an aversion to poetry; on the contrary it will help to develop a love for it. A great gift book.

IRL: 4th to 5th grade

Boy Who Held Back the Sea

Thomas Locker

ISBN 0-14-054613-8 (1987), Dial Books, New York. PB, 27 pgs.

Locker’s books are far from ordinary picture books. Each page has a full-sized reproduction of Locker’s oil paintings in full color. His talent is exceptional. His style follows Vermeer’s interiors and his outdoor scenery is very well done. With the dramatic skies and beautiful detail, the story comes to life. If you’re going to read picture books to young children it is wise to invest your time and money in quality books like these. Another Locker book is included below.

IRL: 3rd grade

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew

Daniel Pool

ISBN 0-671-88236-8 (1993),Simon & Schuster, New York. PB, 416 pgs.

Have you ever wondered about the many mysterious pastimes, currency, articles of clothing and customs casually mentioned in English literature? Pool provides a fascinating and page-turning revelation of the social order, daily life and even whist, a favorite card game of the day. Find out the qualifications of a baroness, countess or a lady and enjoy yourself while you do. Following the text is a handy glossary for quick reference of hundreds of unfamiliar terms. I literally could not put this book down and have reread it many times. Great for adults who have begun to delve into 19th century English literature as well as children of all ages. You will enjoy many read-alouds from this book.

IRL: 8th grade & above


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