What are “just” living books?

“Just living books” is the title of this website, and in this context the word “just” has two meanings for me. First, when I choose books to read with my children, I aim to choose only contain books that meet my standards for “living” books — therefore “just,” or solely, books that meet my criteria for living books.

But, secondly — and importantly — I am also referencing “justice.”

The stories we tell our children matter. It is my belief that from a young age, we need to put forward the stories that are truly consistent with what we want them to believe and how we want them to see the world. Therefore, the so-called “spines” of our education need to provide information that is true, fair to multiple perspectives, and current. This is my goal in my home learning experience with my children.

I think this is especially important when it comes to history and science, areas in which society’s understanding continues to grow and evolve over time. These are also areas that are often given a dry, non-living textbook (or heavy on graphics “twaddle”) approach. Some homeschoolers have reached to older books from the 19th or early 20th century in order to find “living books” to teach their children these subjects, but those books often contain highly problematic out-of-date language, stories, perspectives, depictions, and information at their very foundation.

I have heard home educators dismiss the problematic content or viewpoints by suggesting that adults can “contextualize” this information for their students. I think this is a good exercise for mature analytical students reading texts that have redeeming qualities beyond the problems (these are books that have rightly earned the title “classics” because of their cultural importance or sustaining literary value). But for the immature student (probably up through late high school), I believe the foundation of their education should be “just.” Problematic books, when included at all, should be sprinkled in like seasoning rather than serve as the base from which the child learns.

I’ll say it again: the stories we tell our children matter. The stories they hear will shape who they become as citizens, partners, parents, neighbors, and workers in the world. Truisms aside, they truly are the future, and they need to be equipped to be empathetic, informed, thoughtful future adults.

In our children’s education, we have the opportunity to teach them about experiences beyond their own. We have the opportunity to help them understand the complexities of human histories. We have the opportunity to instill wonder and awe of the natural world and scientific processes. Just living books can be the powerful — and simple — ways we can provide those opportunities to children.

The good news is that Just Living Books exist on a wide variety of topics. Writers and illustrators continue to produce such books, even if they can at times be harder to find amidst the proliferation of other kinds of books for youth.

My goal with Just Living Books is to document my entire experience of homeschooling with my children, including choosing books that are both “living” and “just.” It is my hope that my documentation process can help others make similar choices themselves.

And, this is when it is important for me to share a disclaimer: the ideas and opinions are entirely my own, and they are limited in their perspective and scope. I may be critical of a book you love; or, I may extol a book that you find deeply problematic. Books (and people) are imperfect. I have done my best to choose with is right for my family and to document that experience authentically and helpfully here. Please engage your own intellect and conscience when selecting books to read with your children.

I also live in the United States, so my book choices will lean heavily toward what is appropriate from people living in my own country, as well as including books that provide a global view. I think that it is important to understand, perhaps on a more detailed nuanced level, the stories of our own countries even as we also learn about stories from places around the world. The goal is not to privilege our own history above that of others, but to better understand the context of our lives within the context of a bigger picture of people throughout time and places. The same approach can be applied to going deep into the social and natural history of Australia or South Africa, but our family will not read as many books about those countries as our own. I hope, however, that readers will find the tools for seeking those books out on their own.

But, knowing that this website has limitations, I still hope that it is a start for educators and parents who want to become more conscious of how they select books to read with their children. I hope that my experience will be one piece of a bigger process empowering educators to honestly evaluate their own values and seek out books consistent with them. I also hope to provide some ideas for really truly awesome books that you may be genuinely excited to include in your reading life with the children in your life (or in your own reading life!).

To further illustrate this concept, in addition to the lists of what to look for and avoid in living books, I’ll add a few more guiding points for how I discern Just Living Books …

When seeking JUST living books, I DO look for:

  • History books that include stories of all people, including those who have been legally or culturally marginalized in society, as a part of the fundamental premise of the book (for example, look for history books that include information about how people actually lived, along with significant wars and political events)
  • Scientific information that is current with contemporary theories and knowledge
  • Depictions of experiences, places, and peoples beyond your family’s immediate personal experience
  • Books written by people personally experienced with the book’s subject matter (for example, books about people of color written by people of color)

When seeking JUST living books, I AVOID:

  • Out-dated historical information or interpretation, especially histories presenting an exclusively Euro-centric version of world or American history
  • Out-dated scientific information (not just in terms of big theories but also in smaller details, such as listing mushrooms as a kind of “flowerless plant,” which can be common in old nature books)
  • Illustrations that present inaccurate, stereo-typed, or intentionally negative images of people or cultures (for me, these kind of images are a complete deal-breaker even if the text otherwise has merits — images are powerful — the exception would be historical images used intentionally to demonstrate out-dated ideas)
  • Illustrated books set in an otherwise neutral contemporary context that only contain depictions of white people
  • Books about famous historical figures that might be described as “hagiography” (i.e. biography that sets out idealize its subject and often includes false myths, creating a shallow, inaccurate portrait of a real complicated person)