Book Lists: Handle with Care


Book Lists: Handle with Care

I'm an avid reader and book collector, as well as a bookseller. I read book lists, compile book lists, and write book reviews for homeschooling families. I own and plan to keep Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson, Who Should We then Read? by Jan Bloom, All Through the Ages by Christine Miller, The Children's Reading by Frances Jenkins Olcott (1927), and several others like these.

In every possible place, I read recommended book lists.  Even a black-and-white list of titles and authors with no annotation can capture my attention, if it's from a trusted source, and every time a book gets a great review in The Bookroom, I put that title and author on my private list.  Who knows? I might find that book at any time for $1 or less--and I'll want to recognize it when I see it!

But I believe that book lists have limitations. First, the fact that a book appears on a reputable book list does not guarantee that it is certainly the best book for a particular subject. There have been innumerable juvenile titles published in the last 150 years. A very knowledgeable curriculum guide author cannot have seen more than five or ten percent of the juvenile titles in existence, if even that many. No curriculum guide author or book list compiler includes a particular book believing it to be the very best of all similar books. 

They know very well and will freely admit that they are simply choosing excellent resources from among what they have seen and reviewed. They understand that there are probably equally good and even superior options available, even if they haven't yet seen them.

If it is true that a title's appearance in a curriculum guide or catalog cannot guarantee its ultimate superiority, then it will not be necessary to pay enormous prices for the latest hot item in the homeschooling world; children will learn with what they have and, very often, there is an equally good title that can stand in for the expensive one.

In 1993, Kingfisher produced a fat blue-and-white book, The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World. In 1999, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer recommended it in their classical curriculum guide, The Well-Trained Mind.

Two other events occurred in the homeschooling book world in 1999. One major, one minor.  First, Kingfisher replaced the Illustrated History of the World with The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia. This was essentially the same book in a bright red cover. The second, minor event was my purchase of a leftover copy of the blue and white book for $7.99 at BookCloseOuts.

I liked my new acquisition, but it certainly wasn't in the running for the best history book in my library. It wasn't the one most compatible with my Christian world view; it didn't feature exceptionally beautiful writing. It was nice for reference; we used it occasionally and planned to keep it.

By the Spring of 2001, remaining copies of the blue-and-white book had disappeared from the last of the discounters' shelves. Because of its inclusion in The Well-Trained Mind's suggested curriculum, this attractive book with its understated but obvious humanistic and evolutionary bias was perceived as far superior to the very similar red version.

Susan Wise Bauer urged visitors to her web site to accept the red book as an excellent replacement, but many homeschooling mothers concluded (some without ever seeing both books) that the blue and white book is "more Christian" because it uses "better" verbs in reference to certain "Christian subjects."

So many mothers reached this conclusion that the book was bringing incredible prices by 2001 and continues to do so today. I had planned to keep my copy indefinitely, but when its market value reached an extreme height, I decided that keeping it for my children just wasn't prudent. I listed my $7.99 bargain buy at eBay, and it sold for nearly two hundred dollars.

I gained this tremendous profit not because The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World is among the very best history books ever written, but simply because it was listed in a popular homeschooling curriculum guide. That $200.00 provided me with enough money to buy each of my (then, seven) daughters two pairs of shoes as well as provide my family with a complete fifteen volume, partially leatherbound set of Dr. John Lord's nineteenth century Beacon Lights of History--a deeply Christian, well-written, passionate, imperfect, and always fascinating historical review.

Against Kingfisher's palpable humanism in the "more Christian" blue and white version, I had Dr. Lord teaching my children the following:
"I know it is the fashion with many thinkers to maintain that improvements on the Christian system are both possible and probable, and that there is scarcely a truth which Christ and his apostles declared which cannot be found in some other ancient religion, when divested of the errors there incorporated with it. This notion I repudiate. I believe that systems of religion are perfect or imperfect, true or false, just so far as they agree or disagree with Christianity; and that to the end of time all systems are to be measured by the Christian standard, and not Christianity by any other system."


"The sale of Joseph as a slave is one of the most signal instances of the providence of God working by natural laws recorded in all history,--more marked even than the elevation of Esther and Mordecai. In it we see permission of evil and its counteraction,--its conversion into good; victory over evil, over conspiracy, treachery, and murderous intent. And so marked is this lesson of a superintending Providence over all human action, that a wise and good man can see wars and revolutions and revolting crimes with almost philosophical complacency, knowing that out of destruction proceeds creation; that the wrath of man is always overruled; that the love of God is the brightest and clearest and most consoling thing in all the universe. We cannot interpret history without this fundamental truth. We cannot be unmoved amid the prevalence of evil without this feeling that God is more powerful than all the combined forces of all his enemies both on earth and in hell; and that no matter what the evil is, it will surely be made to praise Him who sitteth in the heavens. This is a sublime revelation of the omnipotence and benevolence of a personal God, of his constant oversight of the world which He has made."

What does "more Christian" really mean? Kingfisher's humanism in old verbs versus new ones? Or another option altogether?

What happened with The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World is by no means unique. One 1960 picture book increased in value by well over 1000% after it appeared in a popular homeschooling curriculum guide.  I took my children to the library to view this incredible book--but they rejected it on the first reading.

They asked me, "Why would mommies and daddies want their children to read that book? She thinks that it's okay for children to lie to their parents." My children unanimously concluded, "If we ever find it, then you can sell it. We don't want it."

Was it profitable for us to read and discuss that book?  Certainly.  Would paying a high price to read it repeatedly have been a good choice for our family?  Probably not.

Two years after that book was written, the same author produced another book. She used the same cultural setting and worked with the same illustrator. The second book is one of our family's favorite picture books. The writing is more beautiful and the approach to honesty is lovely and vigorous. My children love to hear it read and ask for it often.

What effect did the curriculum guide listing have on the relative values of these two books? For the first book, some homeschooling mothers became willing to pay as much as $200 and more, often without first reading the book! Perhaps they comforted themselves that these were wise investments, but book prices do not always increase in value. This book has now been reprinted; the last time we sold a copy, it sold for $17, and it took over six months before it sold. First Editions in lovely dust jackets cannot touch the prices that damaged ex-library copies demanded four or five years ago, but the better, younger sibling of that book never has exceeded $10-15 for a nice copy.

Few mothers know of the existence of the second book, certainly, but I could as easily draw the same comparison to any of one hundred or more other fine picture books that seem to me to exceed "The Book" in literary and ethical quality.

We have a large library of outstanding picture books.  They serve my children a wealth of history, geography, nature, and imaginative fiction in excellent poetry and prose, with beautiful art.  Most of these were purchased for $10 or less.

Many homeschoolers who normally bar their doors against theological liberalism and new world order humanism have paid $30-$100 and more to own The United Nations in War and Peace Landmark Book and the Landmark Books written by Harry Emerson Fosdick.  Why is this?  These four books were not good investments; their values have fallen substantially in recent years and may not ever recover.  (I hope they don't!)

I have known book reviewers to agonize over this phenomenon.  I know that I have.  How do we say "This is a fantastic book" without provoking wildly escalating prices when demand outstrips supply?  I've seen homeschool curriculum writers beg their readers to consider that the books that they have suggested in the guides, while very good, aren't ever the only suitable choices and often can't be considered reasonable acquisitions at the prices their readers are paying!

A virtuous woman looks well to the ways of her household, makes wise investments, and does not deprive her family for the purchase of unnecessary luxuries. Is there any better example of an unnecessary luxury than a hundred dollar picture book for a five year old? He can't take it to bed like he can his $5 used copy of Mike Mulligan. He can't read it alone on his belly on the family room floor like he can The Little Engine that Could. He can have access to it only when his mother takes it down from the highest shelf and turns the pages with extra care.  And what's more, he might not even like the precious book well enough to mind restricted access!

I suggest that before paying $200 for a single book, based only on its inclusion in a list or guide, it would be prudent to obtain a copy by interlibrary loan, examine the book carefully, and compare it to similar books. It might also be wise to write to the curriculum guide's author or contact other homeschoolers using the guide to see if there is an excellent, reasonably priced book that can be substituted for the more costly one.

I have admitted that I prefer the cheaper Lord's Beacon Lights of History to the more expensive Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World. Are Dr. Lord's books among the best ever published? I have no idea. They are among the best of what I've seen, and I'd like to see a homeschooling family reprint them, possibly in an edited edition. I think that they are valuable reading, but I hope never to see families lay out hundreds of dollars for sets based on my opinion alone!

lists simply cannot guarantee ultimate superiority or make astronomical prices reasonable. Let me also suggest that book lists, if used too strictly, can limit a family's choices unnecessarily. When I began using living books to educate my children, I had no idea that there was another homeschooler in the whole world using "real" books instead of textbook programs! I thought that I was alone in my decision to eschew the deadly dull and dry books intended for institutional learning, and I remember walking into my first library sales and feeling almost completely overwhelmed by the many choices!  

Before eBay and online bookselling became popular, I could go to a library book sale and view five hundred out-of-print children's books with little or no one else in the room with me. The breathing room was nice, but making the choices was very difficult!  (The memory of these experiences led to the creation of my web site; I wanted to give others a helping hand, to at least point in the direction of some worthwhile possibilities.)

I remember praying for a list to help me make my decisions, but God was not pleased to provide me with one. I did not realize then that the lack of a book list would ultimately be a blessing! In the process of opening unknown books and reading paragraphs silently to myself and aloud to my children, I found hundreds of truly outstanding books that I've still not seen mentioned in any published book list. If I had been depending on book lists, I might have missed the treasures that God had so kindly put in my path.  I suspect that I would sometimes have left superior books unopened thinking, "This one's not on the list; it's probably not any good."

I've learned that when an author recommends a list of 100 or 1000 excellent books, these are not the 100 or 1000 best books ever written. They are merely the 100 or 1000 most suitable books that a particular author and booklover has seen and approved.

So feel free to get in the game.  Trust your judgment; you know your own children best.  Pick up a book at the thrift store or library sale for a couple of bucks or less and take a look!  Don't miss the adventure of opening the cover of a dusty stranger and finding treasure within! 

Ask your children to help you. Children who feast on literary excellence tend to have exceptional taste and can spot inferior writing almost immediately. Take advantages of homeschooling discussion lists, like The Bookroom and learn about books that other families have enjoyed.

I have found that if I use and enjoy what I have--and use the book lists and catalogs as something less than a mandate to buy everything--I will not lack for anything that God is pleased to give me, for I do not dare to teach my children that life is all about a never-ending quest for the very best books.  A life lived to that end is a life lived in sin.  A life lived well will really be a never-ending quest to know and love God through Christ!  Great books can be part of that quest, but no more than a part.

My suggestion is to set reasonable priorities, shop prudently, and trust your own judgment.  Buy the books that you like and expect your family to read and love.  And be wary of buying books because you are expecting them to be good investments. Many books that were valuable five or ten years ago have dropped dramatically in price with the increase in reprinting.

And could we consider that the best books of today might be bested in the future? We are right now seeing tens of thousands of homeschooled children brought up feasting on God's Word and other excellent literature.  I suspect that a generation of writers is coming who will find a way to make some of our precious old treasures somewhat less precious!