Book Reviews, Homeschooling

Why I Don’t Use THAT Popular Homeschool Booklist

That super-popular homeschool booklist? I don't use it. This is why.

You know that free homeschool book list? The one making the rounds across the homeschool world — along with the various free and low-cost curriculum offerings by the same author — the one which also includes a not recommended list dozens of titles long?

I don’t use that list.

I know, I know. It’s trending in popularity. It’s everywhere. It promises “wholesome” and “appropriate” titles, and ranks each one according to its “moral merit”. (It also provides a separate, but very lengthy, list of books which the author believes should be avoided.)

Don’t get me wrong. I do agree we should avoid certain books. Some books — like ones about the occult — aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on. Libraries, too, are full of quizzically-named books like “Help! Haunted Werewolves ate the Cafeteria Lady*” — these always make me scratch my head. Literary merit? Moral value? Highly debatable! (*not an actual book.)

But the author of this particular recommended/not recommended reading list isn’t referring to books about werewolves and lunch ladies. When this book list decries books of questionable merit, it cuts out books like Clara and the Bookwagon (due to unkind parents who don’t value education), as well as Tirzah and The Year of Miss Agnes (because the main characters decide to pursue a path other than childbearing.) There are dozens more books similarly not recommended; this is just a sampling.

I’m taking a deep breath here.

Maybe you have parents who were less than kind to you.

Maybe you struggle with infertility.

This does not make you less than.

This does not make you “of questionable merit.”

Maybe you are parenting a child from a traumatic background.

Or maybe one of your own children will grow up to choose a path separate from parenthood (oh, you know, like Amy Carmichael or Gladys Aylward.) We can’t just delete out all the stories which don’t line up with these self-imposed guidelines. Moses was left in a floatie in the river, then raised in a pagan culture, and later killed a man and hid in him desert sand. I’m guessing a novel about his family would land on the not-recommended list.

Friends, the Bible does not offer formulaic paths for the one model Christian life. Even Biblical heroes are not all one-dimensional, predictable or perfect. Since we’re talking about a book list in which literature is ranked on wholesomeness and moral merit, this is relevant.

The road to heaven is not paved with morally wholesome books.

Can we say that again? The road to heaven is not paved with morally wholesome books. We can’t roll our children headlong into heaven on a wave of character education and morality.

This is not “true and undefiled religion”; this is morality-first/Jesus-second education. This is the false belief that you can transform a person from the outside, by teaching them to imitate a list of character traits.

This is not the gospel.

Character education does not save souls, as much as the curriculum peddlers and booklist curators might have us believe it does.

Here’s where my worldview differs from that popular homeschool book list. While we all have different tastes, there’s an enormous ideological difference between

  • using real-life books as equipping tools to overcome darkness in the real world, and
  • using “safe” books as sheltering tools from the real world.

I will never apologize for my belief that kids need to read books with flawed characters. Kids need to read difficult books. Kids need to experience, through books, the phenomenal power of good vanquishing evil. And they need to know the bad guy isn’t always dressed in black, lurking in the shadows, easy to spot.

In fact, I believe an endless literary diet consisting of ultra-wholesome books with impossibly perfect characters might actually be more damaging to child’s faith.

Yes, I really believe this.

And yes, I’ve been told I’ve got this whole thing about books completely wrong.

But hear me out. I was homeschooled myself during the early pioneering years of the home education movement. And I’ve seen how filtered, wholesome, overly-perfect books have negatively affected the faith of my peers, the guinea-pig generation of homeschoolers.

We lived this. This experiment was already performed on us.

As a guinea-pig generation homeschooled in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, we’ve lived through the morality tales — the rewritten curricula and republished storybooks — in which every perfect Peter and spotless Sarah modeled impossibly correct behavior, and in which the bad guy was always easy to spot.

We already went through the shock of realizing darkness doesn’t operate like this in the real world, and realizing discretion requires more complexity and nuance than the pristine characters in wholesome literature (mis)lead us to believe.

And we’re telling you — all this careful sharpie-ing out passages and ordering curriculum from electricity-free farms didn’t strengthen our faith. In fact, in many cases, it did the opposite. (Spoiler alert: Christian homeschooling is not a formula for success.)

It’s tempting to overly shelter our kids, isn’t it? To hide the shadows from them, and make everything light and bright? But when we do this for too long, at too late of an age, exerting too much control, we’re acting in fear, unable to see that God’s power has always, always, been strong enough to vanquish evil.

Don’t we trust God?

“I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” -I John 2:14

Elsewhere when talking about teaching worldview, I’ve written:

“The Israelites of old were instructed to teach their children not only God’s covenant, but also the battles and exploits of heroes of faith who had gone before. When the Israelites instructed their children, the triumph of God was always taught in context of the opposing evil. These conquests were not stripped of all information about the pagan nations, or presented in sanitized, rewritten form, showing only the Israelite’s actions. In Exodus 13:14, we read the following: “And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.’”

How would this deliverance be remarkable at all unless we understood the oppression God’s people had been under? Would early Christian martyrs stand out as phenomenal examples of dedication to the cross of Christ, if we minimized the evil leading to their execution?”

The Bible does not mince words. In its pages we see sin and darkness all tangled up, but we also see the eternal triumph of light over darkness. We see divine threads of hope and saving grace all woven together, all telling the most beautiful and most powerful story of redemption this world has ever known.

We are in this world, but not of it. And we must teach our children to be overcomers. We must become valiant equippers, not fearful shelterers.

My personal homeschool motto is borrowed from author Frederick Buechner. He writes:

“Here is the world. Terrible and beautiful things will happen. Do not be afraid.”

Fear can be a great motivator, and so many homeschool curriculum publishers, convention speakers, and parenting experts capitalize on that fear. (Frankly, the devil likes to capture our fear, too, and use it to bind us up in legalist deception, tying us to rules.) But Jesus has come to set us free, that we should be free indeed. He vanquishes fear.

Second-generation homeschooler, author, and fellow guinea pig N.D. Wilson has a thing or two to say about fear. He writes and speaks often of how stories can be used to illustrate to kids that as dark as evil is, the light will always overcome it. (Don’t we want our kids to know that — indisputably, undoubtably, in the deepest depths of their souls?) But as N.D. Wilson reminds us, equipping kids to overcome evil does not look the same as the homeschool-standard sheltering practices. He writes:

“There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help…

But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.”

I encourage you to read more of N.D. Wilson’s thoughts on magic and fear in children’s stories — even if you don’t agree with him.

Friends, “you know him who is from the beginning…you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” Do not be bound by legalistic, extra-Biblical guidelines. Trust the discernment the Holy Spirit has placed upon your heart, and ask Him to reveal to you whether or not your decisions are based in fear, or are rooted in the freedom and grace — and unmitigated power — of Jesus Christ crucified.

Be bold. I can tell you first hand, this is not a popular idea in homeschool subculture.

But these are the conversations which we in the homeschool bubble so desperately need to have.

These are the issues we need to face.

I’ll leave you with these words from N. D. Wilson:

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not try to pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.”

That super-popular homeschool booklist? I don't use it. This is why.


10 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Use THAT Popular Homeschool Booklist”

  1. I just wish I understood what you were talking about! Seriously, I have no idea. And if you don’t know what super popular book list you are talking about then you really can’t get point. I wish you would at least say what it is called if you are going to write something like this. Just saying.


    1. Hi Jen! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      I made an intentional decision not to name the company for a couple of reasons. 1., I didn’t feel the need to nab any of their SEO, but more importantly, 2., the observations here apply to various pockets of homeschool subculture in general, and aren’t exclusive to just one booklist.

      The ideological driving force at play here — the harmful idea of sheltering kids from too-difficult or controversial material and directing them instead toward a steady diet of ultra-filtered material with unrealistically-perfect characters — this ideology can be spotted in any number of curriculum authors’ worldviews and throughout any number of homeschool approaches.

      And the ramifications of this, really, is the challenge I want to raise. The fallout of overly sheltering (vs. valiantly equipping) is worth thinking about and considering as we make choices for our families.

      Hope that makes sense!


      1. I respect your position that this applies to different book lists, however, you specifically critique one of them. I’ve now figured out which one you mean by googling homeschool booklist “moral merit.” The post makes a lot more sense to me. For all I knew, you thought Ambleside Online was sheltering! Regardless, I just want to encourage you to be more direct in your criticism. To really help people grapple with these issues, maybe nabbing some of the SEO would be a good thing. That way when people are looking for reviews and trying to make a decision about a booklist they could see another side presented. I am familiar with this curriculum and have 2 friends that use it. Interestingly, I know both of them are fine with their children reading books on the not recommended list, like Harry Potter and many others.


  2. I saw this list a year ago and excitingly downloaded it. I very quickly saw so many of the concerns you bring up as I scanned through it…and disappointingly disregarded it. I was looking forward to having a new list of inspiration and ideas for books to introduce to my kids.
    Thank you for so eloquently and discreetly discussing the same concerns I saw when I read through this list, but even more, the importance of homeschooling and raising our children in light of God’s truths. Homeschool is not for the faint of heart. I just might write the Buechner quote on the map my kids use for history! Between our Sonlight curriculum and a few other books and lists I’ve found, we have plenty of inspiration for books to find and read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, isn’t that Buechner quote so good?! It’s such a grounding reminder of the reality of being a child of God — living in this crazy mixed up world of sin, and yet being overcomers through HIM who already conquered all.

      And through it all, do not fear.

      Thanks for sharing your story, Kelli!


  3. Gina – I enjoyed your article. I have no idea what ”the list” you refer to is, but I know well the thinking that you’re confronting. I’ve heard it expressed in the extreme like this: ”It’s dangerous to teach children to use their imagination.” Though it may be well-intentioned I believe it’s a greater danger to the children – indeed to all of us – than the story itself.

    I run into this with movies. I host a quarterly men’s movie night at my church. I’ve been told that absolutely no R-rated movies can be shown. I get the intent, but in reality there are things in PG-13 movies I wouldn’t want to show. And there are R-rated films without a single word of profanity or nude scene. So my saying is, ”There are R-ratings and then there are R-ratings. They’re not all the same.”

    Long and short of it here, I enjoyed your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I used to feel almost exactly like this. I was a “guinea pig homeschooler’ as well and I thought the list author was trying to create a nicey, nicey perfect world for kids to read. My opinion changed when I heard some statistics about how much evil is presented as good or acceptable in modern literature. The characters in the books on the list aren’t perfect. There are plenty of books with bad decisions, difficult life situations and complicated characters. It’s about whether the tone of book presents evil as though it were good. It’s about being wary of what the world is teaching our kids while they are young and impressionable For example in the case of “The Year of Miss Agnes” it’s not on the list because the main character decides “to pursue a path other than childbearing”. It’s because she speaks as though only poor, uneducated women with no opportunities would choose to have children; a common lie the world would have us believe about the value of children.. I would still maybe choose read that book to my kids and discus it with them but being aware of it ahead of time is helpful. I see the book list as just one tool to use to combat the lies of the enemy not as something to be rigidly adhered to.


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