Building A Homeschool Library

Reading is the key to the successful homeschool. Books provide everything — reference, information, fun, escape, challenge and inspiration. They light fires and calm storms. Food for the brain, they fill every room in my house and I honestly believe that their presence has encouraged and educated my kids, at times as if by osmosis. A strategically placed book (the bathroom is good) can reap wonderful benefits. My kids have consumed encyclopedias found in the bathroom. Whatever works. Magazines and newspapers are invaluable, too.

My four kids are all very different readers — from the boy who read the Harry Potter series six times to the lad who doesn’t read novels, but will spend hours poring over design magazines and manuals. Another son reads music theory and science literature, and my daughter is reading The Chronicles of Narnia again (and again). “Harper’s” Index is popular, as is their Findings column. Cooking magazines get a fair amount of attention, as do comics. There are, however, a handful of books that I consider the foundation of all reading and learning in our homeschool. This is my quirky list of the literature that helps me feel good about this experiment of ours. After all, it’s all a lab.

1. A Little History of the World

by E. H. Gombrich

Written in 1935, this book is a delight. Deceptively simple and accessible, it’s also fascinating and educational. I read this to young kids and enjoyed it myself. Gombrich’s style is friendly and reels in the reader with excellent hooks. He drops us into time and place effectively, allowing imagination free rein. I have yet to find a history text for students that can make a similar claim. History buffs may find things to quarrel with, but I think this is a stellar first look for young people. I have referenced it time and again — the mark of a keeper.

2. Archimedes and the Door of Science

by Jeanne Bendick

This little book, well-written and with many helpful illustrations, was an excellent introduction to science, math, and ancient Greece for all of my children. And they all loved it — a great endorsement. Read and re-read, referenced frequently, it opened doors in my own math-averse brain and emboldened us to dive deeper. The illustrations are simple, but support the text beautifully.

3. The Cartoon History of the Universe

by Larry Gonick

This is a series of books presenting history in comic form. It is, by turns, hilarious and informative and, I am sure, infuriating to some serious history types. I will say that I have at least one friend who is appalled at the notion of teaching history in such a goofy way. We, however, have thoroughly enjoyed the rollicking, occasionally irreverent tone of these books — they make a great start to a love of learning, and of reading. We have to hook them, or we risk losing them to the dry, dull tone of so many history textbooks. This series provides a great launch pad for the exploration of what should be a thrilling subject. (A note: this series takes you up to the Renaissance and then you will want The Cartoon History of the Modern World, also by Gonick.)

4. Harry Potter

by J.K Rowling

I know. Cliché, but I can’t help myself. This series has provided more fun reading hours for more of us, together and separately, than any other. To be honest, two of my four kids couldn’t care less about Harry, but the pleasure that the other two and I got out of it makes it a top ten. Intelligent and riveting, this series almost single-handedly made one of my sons a serious reader, and my daughter and I had so much fun reading it together that it was almost all we talked about for months. Most of my adult friends have read and loved them as well, so if you haven’t tried yet, maybe it’s time.

5. Calvin and Hobbes

by Bill Watterson

What to say about Calvin? Brilliant, hilarious, touching and humane, he has enlivened many hours in my house for all members of the family. Witty and urbane, silly and puerile — how did Watterson do it? We have roared with laughter and read strips aloud to one another and I’ve greatly appreciated the perfect little messages often embedded in these comics — be kind, take care of the planet, television is toxic, etc. They also go a long way toward improving vocabulary, as Calvin can be quite the little wordsmith. These collections are perhaps the most well-worn books in my house, and deservedly so. Don’t dismiss the comic form until you try it.

6. Ferdinand

by Munro Leaf

This 1936 classic is, to my mind, a perfect example of the best of children’s picture books. The story is so simple, so spare, and the illustrations so clean and expressive, that readers of any age are delighted. My babies loved the story of the bull, and my older kids still recall the tale with affection. My eleven-year-old has been referring back to it lately for a model of writing and illustrating children’s stories. Ferdinand is timeless and for that reason deserves a spot on our permanent shelf. I can’t wait to show it to grandkids. (Okay, I’m willing to wait, but you get the point).

7. The Hobbit

by J.R.R. Tolkien, illustrated by Michael Hague

This version of the ubiquitous classic is a treasure. It is the type of book that gets dragged to and from beds, outdoors, and into the car. The story of Bilbo is thrilling enough in Tolkien’s telling, but Hague’s illustrations make it sing. If you’re going to invest in any hardcover books, put this one on your list.

8. Eloise

by Kay Thompson

Eloise has provided many happy hours to all of us. The text is written in the voice of the mischievous, precocious titular character, so we get a child’s-eye view of the famous Plaza Hotel. Her made-up words, run-on sentences, and raucous joie-de-vivre are charming, hilarious, and touching. All of my children, and any nearby adults, have roared with laughter upon hearing Eloise’s take on life. As she would say, “it’s rawther fluzzery”. (Don’t miss Eloise in Paris, either.)

9. His Dark Materials Trilogy

by Philip Pullman

“Intense and amazing”, in the words of my eleven-year-old. And she has only read the first installment (The Golden Compass- don’t watch the movie). These books introduced some deep and difficult subject matter to the readers in my house and occasioned quite a lot of discussion. Religion, physics, astronomy, geography, politics — it’s all here. This series is intelligent and provocative and is another that begs re-reading. For those who want more, we also enjoyed The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials by Mary and John Gribbin, and Pullman’s own Lyra’s Oxford.

10. Miss Rumphius

by Barbara Cooney

This lovely book holds a special place in my heart and has been read many times to and by all of my children. A beautiful story that simply depicts the span of a life and the meaning therein, much of its power comes from the beautiful illustrations. Natural beauty and the power that each of us has to impact our world are the central themes — this is a book that speaks to young and old.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg — a small collection of desert island books for the stranded homeschooling family. It was difficult to select so few — there are many more that have touched us in profound and lasting ways. Looking at the pile of them, though, I realize what a treasure this group represents. Dive in and enjoy!

A version of this originally appeared in Home Education Magazine. It’s first in a series, so if you’re interested hit the recommend button and I’ll post more. Thanks!

For Part 2, click here —

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