Thinking Out Loud…Old Books

I go back and forth on using old books (specifically from the late 1800s, which seems to be the majority of AO selections).


  • Older books seem more literary. Maybe because they were more dependent on text vs. photos? Or assumed a high level of interest and ability in the reader?
  • Challenging material is good for learning, and it’s important to me that our kids grow in their ability to understand a wide range of subjects and styles.
  • Big vocabulary!


  • The language and writing style are hard to read and understand for children living 100-150 years after these books were written. This is less of an issue for something in the literature or poetry category; more of a concern in history and science. I would rather give them something easier to read if they will understand the content better. So…Arabella Buckley or Allan W. Eckert…or both?
  • There have been an awful lot of books published in the last century! Some are high quality. I’d like them to read the best books regardless of publication date…but what determines “best”?
  • There’s criticism of kids today not being able to understand old books…but it’s hard for me too! We don’t talk or write that way anymore. It would be the same if a 19th century child was plopped down in the middle of texts and youtube and freeway traffic.
  • Some of the flowery, moralistic Victorian/Edwardian/Georgian style is really hard for me to stomach. And the personification and romanticism of nature is very period-influenced (i.e., the Nature Fakers). It may not be good just because it’s old…it depends on what is the purpose of the reading.

I guess it depends on the goal of the reading….if a book is used for literature (Treasure Island, Pride and Prejudice, Tom Sawyer) or poetry (Goblin Market), then I am enthusiastic about reading old books. They are part of our culture, and I’d like our kids to be able to appreciate them and enjoy reading them. If they are for history, I would like the kids to practice comprehension so they are able to read and understand original sources (the Declaration of Independence, Livingston’s Missionary Travels, Plutarch’s Lives). But if they are simply books about history, written in the 1800s, I’m inclined to look for more modern books. That way, the kids don’t have to decipher the language AND assimilate new content. Science seems similar. I hate Usborne and DK style books for science read-alouds (they aren’t literary or cohesive), although some have nice projects, illustrations, and photos. But I also dislike books like Madame How Lady Why or the Burgess Bird book–the personification is annoying and the science is outdated. They may have literary value, but I don’t really want to use them for learning science. There must be a sweet spot in the middle, something like Wild Season, or Jim Arnosky’s books, or Jean Craighead George…


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