Avoiding Twaddle at the Library

When I was a kid, my mom would take the five of us to the library every week. Each child had a large plastic crate in his/her room for library books, which crates we took with us to the library when we went. With six library cards in the family and a limit of 20 books per card–well you can do the math for how many library books we went home with most weeks. The really hard days were the ones where the library computer system was down, and you could only check out five books on each card. It was like a mini version of “If you were stranded on a desert island . . . ”

Now that we are back in the United States, we make a Saturday morning family outing of library day. I relish going to the library with my children and seeing how much they love books. However, I am often dismayed at the (lack of) literary quality of the books on my library’s shelves. Goosebumps, rehashed Sesame Street and Disney movies, Babysitter’s Club, Magic Treehouse, etc. You know, all those books about which parents and teachers say, “well, at least they’re reading.”

Charlotte Mason had a word for these sorts of books. She called them “twaddle.” Which are the books that actually fall under her expansive definition is a subject of endless debate, and one into which I won’t delve here. The folks over at Simply Charlotte Mason have compiled a nice little collection of helpful Mason quotes on the subject. To be short, I’d characterize twaddle as empty-headed books that talk down to children and lack any really interesting or thought-provoking content.

Unfortunately, a fair percentage of children’s picture books these days fall into that category. So one of the first questions often asked by a Charlotte Mason homeschooler (besides the definition of twaddle) is how to navigate through all the twaddle at the library and keep it from coming home with you. So here’s what I do to help keep our home twaddle-free while still not being too mean of a mom.

First, I do seek out picture books from the general picture-book section by non-twaddly authors like Arnold Lobel, Tomie dePaola, and Verna Aardema. But I spend most of my time with the children in the junior non-fiction section, which in our library also includes illustrated folk and fairy tales, mythology, poetry, and Bible stories. Most of our story books come from these genres, and they’re typically books I also enjoy reading myself.

We also like checking out books about things we’re interested in/studying. Axa has been systematically checking out every frog book in the library (she also spends a fair amount of her nature study time catching, observing and releasing frogs). Raj likes books about outer space and the planets.

My kids also love Greek and Roman mythology, so I get a lot of books about that (we have the D’Aulaire book out right now), and also books about archaeology, because they generally have a lot of pictures of artifacts that depict stories from the myths. Mythology is also a very common subject for art, so my children like looking at photographs of paintings and sculptures and deciding which one is Venus and which one is Persephone.

Both of my children know the definition of twaddle, and that I consider it literary junk food, O.K. to eat occasionally, but not a proper diet for a healthy mind. Still, four-year-old Raj will often pick out twaddle. I let him bring it home, but I also bring home a lot of books of my choosing, and he generally reads the twaddle once and then moves on to the other books (sometimes because I’ve hidden it. We check out so many books he doesn’t miss the odd twaddly book I’ve put away).

I also check out “math literature” (picture books on mathematical topics) to supplement our math curriculum. These go into our homeschool reading schedule once a week, as do composer and artist biographies, selected of the frog books, and books in our target foreign language (Italian).

Audiobooks are a huge hit as well. But I reserve absolute veto power over those. Axa was thrilled to find the Chronicles of Narnia this week on audiobook. We’ve already read them all as family read alouds, and she’s now listening to them again as bedtime stories.

I have not even mentioned to my children that it is possible to check out DVD’s from the library. The only screen time they get at our house (other than the occasional family movie night) is 10 minutes per day of Planet Earth. It is a wonderful BBC documentary series about wildlife and ecological systems around the globe. I get incredibly detailed narrations from them about this series, and they make many connections to it during nature study.

No doubt my library twaddle strategy will change as my children grow older, but I hope I’ve at least given them a taste for the “good stuff.”

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