We pause at the word “scarlet” in our reading of Black Beauty, and I ask Ellie if she remembers when we defined the word last week in one of her medieval books. She does.
Later, as we juice purple carrots, Ellie grabs a handful of the vibrant pulp and mushes it through her fingers. We talk about how all dyes were originally made from natural elements; then we remember the apprentice girl using various vegetables, shells, and minerals to create the rich pigments for her illuminations in Marguerite Makes a Book.
I send her over to our Leapfrog Word Whammer attached to the fridge, and we spell out the word “dye” and then we change it to “die.” I casually explain homophones as I stir carrot shreds into our muffin mix, and surprisingly, she seems to get the general point.
It’s so natural, so organic, this learning process.
Yet at the same time, it’s no accident. Did I literally plan out the repeated vocabulary word? Of course not. And the conversation about the word “dye,” was this on my lesson plan? Nope.
When Ellie explains the shape of a hummingbird nest, is it because I taught her this information? Well, not really.
So how then?
Good books, that’s how.
Charlotte Mason called them living books. Books that engage the mind and imagination, rich with vivid imagery and beautiful language.
Through the reading of good books, Ellie’s attention span has grown from barely twenty minutes to over two hours of continuous reading. Whereas previously she couldn’t focus on a story without accompanying pictures, she now can easily focus for several pages without the aid of an illustration.
Yet what has been most exciting is how she’s responding to the “character study” focus in our curriculum.
I chose not to mention the character study to her in advance—we simply worked through our first month of homeschool enjoying a bounty of good literature. Then one day, once she was ready, I spread the books that we had read upon the schoolroom floor and taught Ellie the word “theme.”
We discussed the word for a while, conjuring up multiple examples from movies and fairytales, until it was apparent that she understood the concept. Finally, I turned her attention back to the books on the floor and asked if she could find a common theme that connected all the various stories we had recently read.
Systematically, she pointed at each book and provided a brief summary of its storyline (this was an added bonus, as I hadn’t asked for it). About six books in, she realized that she had said one word over and over throughout her little summaries.
Blue eye shining, she gave her answer.
“It’s bravery, Mama. That’s the theme!”
And we’ve been all about bravery ever since (as you likely know, if you’ve been following along).
Now that we are concluding this portion of our character study and moving on to a new virtue, I thought I might share the books that we found particularly helpful in illustrating courage for a young girl.
1. Brave Irene, by William Steig.
Written in a lyrical prose, Brave Irene is the beautiful story of a daughter’s loyalty to her mother and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Bonus: Talk about Steig’s wonderful use of sound devices (alliteration, assonance, consonance) in his descriptions (and personification) of the wind. Ellie and I identified all of the “w” words & “o” internal-vowel sounds on one page. We read that page over and over until she could hear how letter combinations can imitate sounds even as we read literal words. She now refers to that particular page as the “w-wind page.”
2. The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps, by Jeanette Winter.
After reading The Watcher for the first time, Ellie was simply fascinated with the history of Jane Goodall and wanted to know more about her life with the chimps.
Bonus: Watch together a couple youtube videos about Jane Goodall’s life; it truly is an amazing story of great courage and dream-following.
3. The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch.
The Paper Bag Princess has become a classic as one of the original non-traditional princess stories.
Bonus: Listen together to this fabulous recording of Munsch reading the story aloud!
4. Marguerite Makes a Book, by Bruce Robertson & Kathryn Hewitt.
This is the perfect example of a living book! It tells a lovely, engaging story while teaching medieval culture and art history. We adore it!
Bonus: This book inspired us to create our own illuminated manuscript letter, such as the art activity explained here.
5. The Night Fairy, by Laura Amy Schlitz.
We have also been reading Schlitz’s Newberry Award Winning medieval book, and while it is great, we much prefer The Night Fairy. This was Ellie’s first chapter book, which is special in itself. Since we completed it almost a month ago, she still acts out scenes during our “Theatre Thursday” activities. In fact, we’ve considered creating a more formal dramatization of the book for Ellie to perform in front of family this Thanksgiving holiday.
Bonus: Schlitz is brilliant at creating vivid, age-appropriate similes, making this an ideal book for teaching the concept. After I explained the first few similes to Ellie, she quickly started identifying the figurative devices for herself. We’d be in the middle of a sentence and she would yell out “SIMILE” … and typically, she was right.
6. The Ordinary Princess, M.M. Kaye.
This was our second chapter book. I had enjoyed it as a child, so it was fun to revisit. Originally, I was concerned that Ellie wouldn’t take to the idea of a princess being “ordinary,” but the reverse was actually true—she loved it! The storyline is rich and provides plenty material for discussion. My only small complaint is that the extravagant names of characters and places got in the way at moments; sometimes I just skipped over them to simplify our reading.
Bonus: All of the princesses in this book are named after jewels and gemstones, providing the perfect opportunity for a simple geology lesson. We are lucky to have an amazing exhibit of gemstones at our local science museum; there we identified the namesake for each princess.
7. Seven Brave Women, by Betsy Hearne.
Our experience with this book has been interesting. The first time I read it to Ellie, she simply didn’t get it. The women (all ancestors of the author) don’t do amazing heroic acts, how are they brave? So I put it aside. Then almost a month later, after Ellie had become aware of our character study focus, and after multiple discussions about bravery, we read it again. And this time, she got it. This second reading left her inspired to investigate the lives of women in her own family. Thus her #bravegirlproject was born.
Bonus: Ellie is still collecting stories of women’s brave moments for her #bravegirlproject. If you have a story to share, she would be thrilled to add it to the book she is compiling (you can share in the comments below or on our Facebook page or Instagram feed). Why not look into your own family tree and learn how women in your ancestry have been brave? Or, as we are doing, reach out to other women in your life—grandmothers, aunts, cousins, friends—and ask them to share their brave moments. It will make a special heirloom indeed!
8. Brave Girls Bible Stories, published by Thomas Nelson.
Confession: we haven’t finished this yet. I preordered The Brave Girls Bible Stories, and it arrived at the tail end of our bravery character study. But after reading the unique introduction and a couple stories, I think we are going to love it. Each story focuses on the significant female characters in a particular biblical narrative. For example, in the story of Moses, Miriam is the main focus, but the Hebrew midwives and Moses’s mother are also noted for their unique bravery.
Bonus: Each story is introduced by a “youth group girl,” and while at first I thought this structure was unnecessary and cheesy, it’s actually quite endearing. Ellie loves the different personality types of the girls, who remind her of My Little Pony characters (and that’s a good thing at our house). We were even more excited to discover that one of the girls is a homeschooler!
I hope that you consider reading one (or more) of these wonderful books with your brave girl soon. For us, we have now moved into our next character study unit, one that should align well with the upcoming holiday season: compassion.