My Living Books Life – Nancy Kelly


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My life has been forever enriched by reading slowly, surely, and widely

When did my living books life begin? My mom tells a story of when I was hospitalized at age nine with spinal meningitis.  She says that when the nurse leaned over the bed and asked what I wanted to have – and I could have anything – I whispered, “My books, please.” I like that story, and always remember that I loved books, but I’m not sure what books I was reading at that age.  Some Little House on the Prairie with some Nancy Drew on the side, most likely. Pretty sure I didn’t do any reading that day after the spinal tap.

I’d say that my real journey with living books began when I moved from California to my husband’s small hometown in Minnesota in 1993. With only preschoolers in tow at the time, I really didn’t have much of a library.  But then came a call from a retiring school librarian which changed things.  That sweet lady had heard that I might be homeschooling and so wouldn’t I need books?  And would I like to come pick through the stacks and take what I think might be useful? They were pruning most books printed before 1975.  Truth is, I didn’t even know what to look for and there was no time (or internet!) for research. So I filled up a dozen boxes with what looked like they might make for good reading – Landmarks, Signatures, Messners, as well as books by McClung, Wheeler, Earle, Petersham, the D’aulaires and many more. Then I giddily threw myself into the author research, the library sales, the donations, 4 more children and a 3 story house that happily creaks with all those books today.


In the early days of my living books life, I was reading all about Charlotte Mason and her ideas of what a living book actually is. I could see that it needed to be well-written, engaging, by a passionate author, and that it should stir the emotions.  But I think there is something else going on with living books, something spiritual between each individual child and certain books that makes them living.

But I think there is something else going on with living books, something spiritual between each individual child and certain books that makes them living

I found that out early on as I sat for hours reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my two  young sons. I watched and observed how those precious children responded with excitement and wonder, acting out scenes and describing episodes to their father at the end of the day. Whatever was going on with their strong reaction to the story is exactly what I wanted more of for them, for their education, and for their lives.

Whatever was going on with their strong reaction to the story is exactly what I wanted more of for them, for their education, and for their lives.

Because I’m never sure which book will move which child, variety is important.  Just because one daughter has read the 12 books from the Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons twice, doesn’t mean the next child will be interested in them.  Why one son wants every Jim Kjelgaard ever printed and the other prefers Leonard Wibberley, I can’t say. Why the quiet child consumes everything by Roald Dahl and the loud one prefers Ursula Le Guin is a mystery to me.

I love what Charlotte Mason says about the child and living books:

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case (School Education,  p. 228)

For myself, Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald goes down as the first book to make me cry. Years later I read it aloud in school (unabridged)  and it took almost 2 years.  No one minded.  I cried that time, too.  As a family we have enjoyed dozens of titles out loud such as Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer, Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan Eckert , the Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, A Family of Foxes by Ellis Dillon, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, to name just a few.

My life has been forever enriched by reading slowly, surely, and widely. Think the turtle, not the hare! I’ve enjoyed all the Miss Read titles, old books about my favorite president James A. Garfield, theology from N.T. Wright, Richard Foster, and John Piper and my current interest – beautiful vintage collections of devotions, prayers, and poetry that follow the church year (see my reprint of The Cloud of Witness). By establishing an atmosphere filled with books and an expectation of learning, every family member has been positively and eternally enriched. With a living book to look forward to every evening when I crawl into bed, alongside my morning devotions, and during the school day with my children, I invite and ensure that new ideas will be at the ready in my mind on a daily basis.  That, I have found, leads to a living a very full life.


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Nancy Kelly lives in a little town on the prairie called Windom, Minnesota. She and her husband Kent have home-educated their six children for over 20 years using the principles and practices of Charlotte Mason.  After listening to Susan Schaeffer Macaulay speak on education at the 1994 L’Abri Conference in Rochester, MN, she decided to wholeheartedly pursue this way of learning and living. Nancy has helped build a thriving educational community in southwest Minnesota that continues to learn and grow.  She administrates the Parents’ Midwest Educational Union (PMEU), a parents’ book discussion group; Truth, Beauty, Goodness (TBG), a student learning cooperative; the teacher-training Awakening sessions; and the Living Education Retreat, now in its 10th year of sharing and spreading the ideas of Charlotte Mason. Ten years ago she began sharing her knowledge and experience across the country speaking on Charlotte Mason’s philosophy at conventions and retreats. She is a sought-after educational consultant and mentor.  A trip with Kent and dear friends to Ambleside, England in 2014 forever changed her understanding of Mason’s teacher training and deepened her love for Mason’s relational philosophy. Nancy has a Bachelor of Science in Multidisciplinary Studies with cognates in English and Education from Liberty University. She is a current board member of the Charlotte Mason Institute and writes at her CM-inspired blog, Sage Parnassus.  She enjoys family, ‘bright eyes’, flower gardening, collecting vintage honeypots, exploring the flora and fauna of new places, and of course…books.

You can contact her at .

My Living Books Life – Emily Kiser


To introduce children to literature is to instal them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served – Charlotte Mason

I’m so delighted to introduce you to my guest on the blog today, Emily Kiser. Emily and I met over the wonders of social media and it’s my pleasure to have her share a little of her living books story here today, enjoy!

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I come from a family of readers. My mother, Liz Cottrill, (who has written and spoken about her own reading background quite a bit) was diligent to read extensively to me and my siblings as we were growing up. Being blind, she read to us from Braille books, the ones she read as a girl. So my early reading life was drenched in classics like Heidi and Little Women, The Wind in the Willows and The Yearling. I loved to read and began reading for myself quite early, but still, my mother continued to read aloud to me, and I am eternally grateful that she did.

Despite the solid foundation I had in reading good books, my personal reading culture grew stagnant once I discovered Nancy Drew. I devoured mystery after mystery, not caring that the plots were all very similar. The problem wasn’t the books themselves (I still credit my reasoning skills to the hours spent solving crimes with Nancy), the problem was that I stopped reading anything else. Slowly, bit by bit, I backed out of this dead end and expanded my reading taste once again in my late teens. I discovered beauty in the sensitive writing of Madeleine L’Engle whose books led me to discover others.

After I finished college, I moved back home. My younger siblings were still being home educated, so I used to take my mom to used book sales at the public libraries in the surrounding areas combing the stacks for treasures. I didn’t really know what I was looking for beyond a few trusted authors, and the term “living book” didn’t mean very much to me at all yet. It wasn’t until I found a copy of Who Shall We Then Read by Jan Bloom (a collection of 155 excellent authors and lists of their books) on the homeschooling shelf that I stumbled into the pages of the best books I’ve ever read. Often tears would come to my eyes as my heart was overwhelmed with truth and beauty glimpsed in the pages of these books. Here I was, a twenty-something adult crying over books intended for children. While reading Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen, I actually said aloud, “Does someone have to die in every good story?” I had an epiphany at that moment. I realized that yes, someone does have to die, because someONE did die to save the world. Living books, I learned, reflect the True story that God has already written. These stories I was coming to love were not only enjoyable, they were teaching me more about myself, and also the true nature of the world. They taught me to empathize with others whose experiences are so different than my own. These books were living books and they have enhanced my own life beyond measure.

Living books, I learned, reflect the True story that God has already written

From that time on, I have been collecting books from “The Golden Age of Children’s Literature.” As my collection grew, my mom began urging me to consider helping her open a lending library for homeschooling families in our area. In the spring of 2006 we opened Living Books Library to 12 local families with our meager collection of about 3,000 volumes. We now have about 17,000 volumes and about 45 families currently check out books to use in their education. Though I am now married and have children of my own, the library is still a large part of my life. It is a great honor and responsibility to help put the right book into the right hands at the right time. Looking back, I think it was my shyness that kept me from asking for new book recommendations. I hope to be the kind of librarian that invites children to explore new horizons, to seek out unexplored lands, to walk in a different person’s shoes–the kinds of things that happen in the pages of really good books.

EmBioPicEmily Kiser lives with her husband and two sons on their small, family-owned Organic farm in southwest Virginia. She is the author of Simply Charlotte Mason’s Picture Study Portfolios and librarian at Living Books Library. She and her mother, Liz, along with Nicole Williams host the weekly Charlotte Mason podcast, A Delectable Education.