How to Choose Excellent Living Picture Books

As a Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschooler, I do a LOT of reading with our kids.  The spine of everything we do is literature.  Well-written, Living Books are the name of the game in our home.   And this includes everything from picture books to poetry to fables, fairy tales, famous stories retold, Shakespeare, non-fiction, novels… with one thing in common – I’m seeking LIVING BOOKS.

I often talk to moms who are new to homeschooling and new to Charlotte Mason homeschooling.  There are two things I usually encourage them to do.

First, I have some favorite Charlotte Mason books I recommend reading to gain at least a good foundational understanding of Charlotte’s philosophies.  Second, I encourage them to just start by focusing on reading lots of wonderful living books with their children.  And when they are toddlers, preschoolers, and early- to mid-elementary aged, Living Picture Books are wonderful.  Start there.

But the more I talk to new homeschoolers, the more I’ve realized that so many have the same question I had when I started with Charlotte Mason – How do you choose a great ‘Living Picture Book’?  I mean, what is a LIVING BOOK, anyway?

Recently, I’ve been working through a series on my blog called What Is a Living Book? to help answer this question and encourage other homeschoolers who are on this journey with me.   In part one, I wrote this simple definition of a Living Book:
For me, simply put, a Living Book is a book that is well-written, enjoyable for both young and old, makes the subject come alive, sparks our interest, inspires us, challenges us, and encourages us to hunger for more.  

I’ve been mulling this over for quite some time now, and after seven years of homeschooling young preschoolers through upper elementary, I’ve come to believe fully in literature-based education.

In fact, our own philosophy is based on three simple steps:

  1. Read great books (These are often Picture Books!)
  2. Narrate and discuss what we read.
  3. Notebook about what we are learning.

No curriculum?  Nope.  Just great Living Books, Notebooking, and Charlotte Mason’s methods.  And guess what?  It WORKS.   Or at least, I’m pretty convinced it’s working in our family.  *smile*

Here’s the thing about Living Books and Learning:

Living Books make the subject come alive for us.  We are not reading facts out of an encyclopedia or textbook; we are making connections with real people–sometimes historical characters and sometimes fictional characters, in a certain time period–and we are living with them.  We are feeling with them–making wonderful connections that etch themselves deep in our memories and into our hearts.

We don’t just read facts about the civil war, we get to know the time period and grow up along with the heart of the man who was Abraham Lincoln by reading Abraham Licoln by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire.  We well-up and feel the pain in the soul of a slave boy named Henry as we read Henry’s Freedom Box.  Then we cheer and revel as Henry mails himself to freedom, fighting for his rights and winning in the most wonderful way.  These aren’t just facts – Abe Lincoln played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement. There were slaves who were desperate to be free.  NO!  These are REAL people that we’ve now connected with, we’ve fallen in love with, we’ve cheered for, cried for, and made an emotional connection to. This is the stuff we remember.  This is how children learn best.

And THIS is what Living Picture Books are so fantastic at achieving.

We are looking to enjoy our reading together, to make a real connection, a relation, with a person, a time period, an idea, a truth – it must touch our emotions.  Dry facts cannot accomplish this vital aspect of real knowledge in young hearts.   Look for living books.

How to Spot a Living Picture Book:


  • Find picture books that have more than a few words on each page and are about ‘real’ things (like nature) as opposed to gimmicky books with movie or TV characters and goofy story lines.   Look for picture books that have full paragraphs on every page–paragraphs with complex sentences, dialog, and rich language.  When I say books about ‘real things,’ I mean not fluff, but real subject matter.  So books about the natural world– animals, plants, biomes, the earth, space, books about real people, real concepts (like math), and that present living ideas that aren’t dumbed down.  Typically, books that have silly story lines only made for goofy preschool humor or gimmicky books featuring movie or TV characters are just not going to be quality books for learning and growing.  Examples of Living Books in this category: As an Oak Tree Grows by K. Brian, The Eagle and the Wren by Jane Goodall,  Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling.


  • Seek out well-written, beautifully illustrated, and award-winning picture books.  This is fairly straight-forward.  Keep your eyes peeled for well-written books.  These are books where you are impressed by the quality of the writing because it is intelligent, rich, and offers challenging vocabulary.  Also, don’t under-estimate the importance of illustrations and art that is engaging and makes the story come alive.  Pictures are POWERFUL!  Look for award-winners.  This is not fool-proof, but it helps.


  • Don’t be afraid to use good quality Booklists.  There are many wonderful lists out there, and Pinterest is a great tool as well.  If you search “Living Picture Books” or seek out lists of books used by companies like Five in a Row, Sonlight, Heart of Dakota, My Father’s World, and similar, you’re sure to find a wealth of information and loads of great suggestions.


I have a bunch of Pinterest boards that I’ve created specifically to help homeschoolers use Living Books in their homeschools, and I’ve categorized them by subject!  Hopefully they will be helpful, and I continue to add to them all the time!

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  1. Thanks for this post Cassandra! I too love living books and the Charlotte Mason style education. I could talk literature and living books all day lol! I am currently posting a blog series titled Picture Books We Love to help guide mothers in choosing living books. So many homeschooling mothers struggle at first to know how to identify a living book. You have explained this very well 🙂

  2. I have read studies that say a good book will stay in our memory in the same way an experience does. I truly believe that is one of the top reasons for using living books and a literature-based curriculum. So nice to read such a well-written post from a like-minded mama. 🙂

  3. There is nothing better than cuddling up on the couch (especially this winter) and reading together. We learn more from reading in around a theme than any worksheet or (dare I say) any project may teach. Books are amazing and paired with real life experiences or field trips–that’s powerful!

    1. Amen! 🙂 We love pairing books and trips too… we just finished Elijah of Buxton, and, well – we plan to visit Buxton, Ontario this summer, since it is only about an hour’s drive!

  4. Hi! I know this is a really old post but I’m not sure how else to get in touch! I found a lot of great looking articles on pinterest by The Unplugged Family but I can’t get into their blog to read them! It says I need to be invited? Thanks for any help.

    1. Colleen, the person who blogs at The Unplugged Family is no longer writing for Hip Homeschool Moms. She decided to take some time off, and she made her own blog private. I think she now only allows close friends and family members to read it. I’m sorry about that!

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