But this post is not about literature, because literature is not the problem. One of my frustrations in curriculum development is choosing nonfiction books such as history and science. Of course, Mason had very strict guidelines for choosing books. In order to be "living," they had to be accurate, of a good narrative style, and engaging for the reader. In fact, she said that textbooks were pretty insidious and would kill a child's natural love of learning. And now comes the conundrum.
In Mason's day, people who wrote books for young people often wrote in the narrative, rather than in the pre-digested "bunch-o'-facts" style that is so prevalent today. Books like Marshall's Our Island Story and others that Mason used in her curriculum are a delight to read. But are they always relevant to children today? I have tried using some of the science books that Mason used, and, frankly, while the language is wonderful, they are full of inaccuracies. Science has come a long way in 100 years, for crying out loud! Those books reflect the understanding of Mason's time, but not the understanding we have today. The problem is that it is very difficult to find up-to-date science books that also are written in a rich narrative style. (Authors and publishers take note: We need more living science books!) I find that using lots of smaller books lends better results than larger general science books, but it takes a lot of wading through junk to find the treasures.
The same can be said of history books. I have used Our Island Story with my students, and they seemed to like it and narrate it pretty well. But they are American, not British. In my opinion, Marshall's This Country of Ours is not nearly as good. My students could hardly narrate it at all. I switched over to the Genevieve Foster books. Some of these were better received than others, but overall my students liked them more than the Marshall books, and the illustrations helped them with their Books of Centuries. We supplemented those with biographies, historical fiction, and short trade books on particular subjects. Though the Foster books are narrative and chronological, they lack the richness of language that Our Island Story has, and they jump around so much that some children found it difficult to keep things straight.
Modern history poses a particular problem, because most of the narrative histories stop at one of the World Wars. Much has happened since then. The closest thing to a living spine for modern history has been Susan Wise Bauer's book, but I find it dry. So, like Mason, we use the best we have available to us and hope that someone will write something better soon. In the meantime, I would love to hear about the living history and science books that you have had the most success with. So go grab your cuppa, and then come back and tell me all about them. Or, better yet, get busy writing one! The world needs it!