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Sowing Living Book Seeds by Liz Cottrill

15 Jul 2012 5:35 PM | Anonymous member

Charlotte Mason was fond of pointing out the untold possibilities of one life. Her own life is a perfect example. Certainly it has profoundly influenced mine. When I first read about her method of education, the idea of living books immediately took root. I loved them and was delighted to begin educating my children with living literature. At the time, I thought I was sowing good seed in their lives alone.

A fruitful garden my children and I took nourishment from was Children’s Preservation Library in Traverse City, Michigan, where a homeschool mom with a background in library science had a collection of 20,000+ volumes of mostly out-of-print literature. Whereas at the public library we were accustomed to spending hours combing for something worthy amidst the mediocre towers of twaddle, in this living library we were offered the cream—books from an era when children were considered capable of comprehending fine ideas. There our choice was only between better, best, and excellent. When our family relocated to a small town with a meager selection of quality literature, I had no alternative but to begin book collecting in earnest. There’s not space here to write of the many amazing and unusual ways God began pouring quality living books into our home. Soon I had to consider the unimaginable: should our family operate a library?

It did happen, but not without many wrestlings within. Frankly, I was fearful of loaning my precious treasures to families who might not treat the books responsibly. Yet I saw the need:  in the first three years we lived in southwest Virginia I met no one who did not use boxed curriculum. Yet young moms with many children of multiple ages were struggling, feeling frustrated and inadequate in teaching. My dilemma was solved when I obeyed the command to love my neighbor as myself.

Beginning a library in my home opened my eyes to a greater need than I had imagined. It wasn’t long before I realized that people were not reading, not just for “school,” but for any reason. There were families in our library from every walk of life — mothers with post graduate degrees and mothers with high school diplomas. They wanted their children to read. Yet many of them confessed to not reading themselves or not having been read to as children. Incidents like the following became common:

A mother would ask, “What shall we read?”

“Have you read Wind in the Willows?” I would inquire.


“Charlotte’s Web?”– “No.”–and, as a last resort–“Make Way for Ducklings?” –“No.”

This was alarming. I had a bigger problem than book damage on my hands.

Introducing children and adults to the wonderful world of literature is a thrilling opportunity. In six years, we have been able to serve about fifty families each year. We have been rewarded by helping reluctant readers sail out into the big ocean of reading, finding our two shelves of Shakespeare practically empty, having mothers write beautiful thank you messages about how they are learning to educate their children in ways they had always dreamed of, but did not know how to do. I often say that it is not the books themselves that keep families coming in, however, but the desperate desire for community our culture is starving for that draws them. The reading of books leads to sharing of ideas, conversations, and relationships. It has also opened the door for us to teach about Charlotte Mason’s ideas for education.

Living Books Library was one of three such libraries when it began. Since then, we have assisted another to get underway in northeast Tennessee. In the last six months, an increasing number of homeschool families have contacted us about how to begin to share the rich store of living books they love. When God is moving, you can’t hide under the bed. We offered to hold a conference for them.

While attending this year’s CLUSA conference, Makoto Fujimura encouraged me tremendously when he compellingly described the need for “culture care.” I had been discouraged by many recent bits of information about reading in our culture that confirmed my own experience in our library. The National Endowment for the Arts’ report “Reading at Risk,” for example, concluded that less than half of all adults read anything of any kind for pleasure; less than one-third of college graduates in 2003 read at or above a proficiency level. Mako’s encouragement to sow seeds of light turned my heart in the right direction. Still, I was not prepared for what would follow at our small event three weeks after that night.

It was the first “Homeschool Librarians Conference” held in our small mountain neighborhood in southwest Virginia. Twenty-six attended. Some  of them are currently operating homeschool libraries, most are not but plan to begin their own in the near future. Emily and I, along with our entire family, were  privileged to host it, organizing the two-day conference, preparing and serving the meals, and presenting the workshops. The theme was “A New Vision for Old Books,” and we tried to cover every aspect of running your own private lending library that we could possibly think of: how to find living books, where to put them, how to repair them and make them ready to be borrowed. There was information on the Dewey Decimal System, how to design enough shelf space within the confines of your existing home, and how to manage the cost of the library without interfering with your family’s budget. This information was delivered to an eager, enthusiastic, teachable group of parents who are committed to home education and passionate about books.

So what is the new vision for old books? That, after all, was what we had gathered to consider. Learning how to label and cover, catalog and select books was absolutely enthralling to us all. (Oh yes, I know we are a different breed!) But the overwhelming thing we had most in common was a heart-felt passion to share our hard-to-find books with a generation who doesn’t know much, if anything, about them and doesn’t even know why they should.

Can you imagine generosity such as this? These books have been collected and are prized by these families yet they are willing, even intensely desirous, of sharing them with other families, most of whom do not really understand the value of them. A single mom who attended the conference has a burden for the young children who just hang about her inner-city neighborhood, apparently without anything to do or anyone to care that they don’t. Why? Why, in this world of easy media entertainment, would anyone want to interest children, home-schooled or otherwise, in reading dusty old books? That is the question that motivated people to come to our little out-of-the-way area from Washington, California, Kansas, Texas, Georgia, New Jersey and other states. We all sense an urgency, see a need.  Books are in trouble, reading is in trouble, living ideas are in trouble, children are in trouble.

The burden of these would-be librarians is for the children in their communities who learn “how to” read, but do not spend their time doing so, or if they do, have no idea what a truly soul absorbing experience a book can be. Like me, these prospective book lenders were meeting parents who had never heard of such a thing as the Little House on the Prairie series. This is not an exaggeration. It is not a joke. It is a  frightening reality. Home-schooled children, unfortunately, are not necessarily any better off either, for though their parents have departed from the public school system, they still follow the cultural model that education is a matter of acquiring the information necessary to ultimately hold down a successful career.

And this small group of ordinary people is preparing to do something about it. We feel a bit like the disciples facing five thousand hungry persons looking to Jesus for help and hearing him say, “you give them something to eat.” We know our resources and efforts are insufficient for such a time as this, but we have read the Living Book and believe that He can bless and multiply our meager offerings. We believe that some child, in some book, is going to be impacted by some living idea that takes hold and nourishes him – perhaps one of tomorrow’s great leaders. Greater still, we believe that many children learning through nourishing literature will take delight in the beauty of story and, realizing the purpose of God’s story for themselves, will grow up to raise godly children who will increase His light in the world.

God has chosen the foolish things in the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things in the world to put to shame the mighty. As Mason reminds us, it is not through slick programs and educational gimmicks, but with truth revealed by the Spirit. Our confidence isn’t in ourselves to change the world through libraries, but we do have confidence in the Living Word, who makes Himself known through words and reminds us, “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Reading is not optional. It’s critical. We are working on unique libraries, working to feed literature-impoverished lives. There are a couple dozen families building such libraries because they are convinced it just might be a matter of life and death. All who attended last weekend have felt this call, and as a result of the conference, we now know we are not alone in the good fight.

I have shared this lengthy tale to you who are so immersed in living literature and ideas as a way of life you might possibly be unaware of how a generation of children is growing up without the life sustaining richness of books. The mom mentioned above just wrote to relate how one week after attending the Homeschool Librarians Conference she received a text from a neighbor in her apartment building: “Have you heard of Charlotte Mason?” After the affirmative answer, the next question was, “Can you tell me what a living book is?” My new friend from Los Angeles promptly invited her over, opened a currently popular volume full of facts and beautiful photos and devoid of narrative text and laid an older science book with the story of Pagoo the hermit crab beside  it. Because of her new vision for old books, this living example demonstrated to a non-reading mom what a new world is awaiting her children in the pages of some old books. So we continue to sow seeds.

Just yesterday, a mother in my library who now has this vision germinating in her own soul, pointed out a passage from an old book we had given her. Though written a decade after Mason’s death, the story takes place at the time of the formation of the P.N.E.U. Apparently my concerns are not unique to this digital age. In A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge, an elderly man is trying to persuade his reluctant grandson to run the town’s bookshop:

“I’ll think about it,” Jocelyn said.

“That’s right, dear boy, that’s right. But mind you do think. Don’t just take out your feelings and look at them, which is what passes for thought with most of us pitiful, self-centered creatures. Look at the questions from everyone’s point of view, not forgetting that of this illiterate city.”


“Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” Research Division Report #46, National Endowment for the Arts. 2004. (http://www.nea.gov/pub/ReadingAtRisk.pdf )

A City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge. (Coward-McCann, 1936).

© Liz Cottrill 2012


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