How I Chose Great Books for Excellence in Literature

Everyone has favorite books, so I often get questions on how I chose great books that are included in the Excellence in Literature curriculum. This explanation may help you decide whether or not this is the right curriculum for your family.

There were many factors that went into my choice of books, but I considered the following questions to be most important as I selected what to include.

  • Is this work foundational to an understanding of western civilization and culture?
  • Is it a classic work that is regularly alluded to in current conversation (including newspaper, radio, books, movies, etc.)?
  • Does it tell the truth about life and consequences?
  • Is there something compelling about this particular work that makes it, more than another, deserve a place in the curriculum?
  • Does it offer a unique perspective on the culture of its time and place?
  • Does it have the power to engage readers and cause them to think deeply about important issues?
  • Is it well-written?
  • Has it endured the test of time?

How I chose books for the Excellence in Literature curriculum. While I considered whether or not I liked each work (and included as many favorites as possible), I couldn’t make selections solely on my own preferences. Some works are included because of their place in the literary canon, and the fact that the answers to the primary questions were positive. I have favorite books and historical periods, just as you probably do, but it’s important to have a good overview of the development of American, British, and World literature in order to understand the progression of ideas and the resulting worldviews.

Great literature tells the truth

I don’t enjoy dark, depressing literature, and I’ve tried to be very careful about what is included, while working within the above guidelines. Literature reflects the worldview of its writer, and if it’s written truly, the outcome of various worldviews will be evident. Great literature accurately reflects the fallen state of humanity, and one its great themes is redemption. Literature that fails to acknowledge truth about fallen human nature not only forfeits the opportunity to present a complete picture of grace in redemption, but it also cultivates a warped, unrealistic worldview. It’s like reading romance novels to discover what marriage is all about.

Because great literature addresses essential truths about human nature, characters are not perfect. Literature can vividly portray consequences for poor choices as well as for good choices. Like parables in scripture or Aesop’s fables, stories give the reader an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Because a story usually contains a complete arc of thought, action, and consequence, it’s easier to learn from than real-life examples in which beginnings and endings aren’t always clear.

If you use all five years of the Excellence in Literature curriculum, you’ll encounter vivid portrayals of the great ideas of western civilization. You’ll read stories that illustrate freedom, justice, truth, humility, goodness, and love in action. You’ll also encounter their opposites — imprisonment, injustice, falsehood, pride, evil, and hatred. This is true to life. One of the most important parts of education is learning to discern what is good, and seeing through literature how practical virtue plays out.

What about negative things?

I have had parents ask me whether a book had lying or adultery or other evils in it. If you’ve followed the discussion so far, you’ll know that literature that is true deals truly with these things. Rather than pretending that sin does not occur, great literature shows what happens as a result of it. In any of these books, the emphasis is not on the sinful act, but on what happens as a result. Most older literature treats these events just as the Bible does, with utmost brevity, and in older literature, often with the same phrases found in scripture. There is not a focus on specific descriptive details about the act of sin itself.*

One thing that many parents don’t seem to remember is that married adults read things differently than relatively sheltered young people. I read and enjoyed many of these classics as a teen or pre-teen. Later in life as I re-read them or heard them discussed by other adults, I realized that I’d totally overlooked the bits that were potentially offensive to some adults. The more sheltered the young person, the less they will notice.

In a conversation about another literature curriculum, a parent once commented that it would be nice to have a list of all the potentially offensive things in a book so that they could be skipped. I couldn’t disagree more. First, it would be nearly impossible to guess at everything that might offend someone. Second, I believe that a list could be harmful for young people by calling attention to things that they would in innocence otherwise skim over (and for less sheltered young people who are not being wise, a list could be misused to search for potentially provocative passages).

Finally, chopping into a story to focus on individual elements is much like serving the ingredients for lasagne on separate plates and expecting a diner to enjoy dinner and come away with an understanding of what lasagne tastes like. He may know what pasta, sauce, cheeses, meat, and herbs taste like, but he hasn’t experienced lasagne, and it’s unlikely that he found the meal particularly enjoyable. A student who receives pre-digested literature or a laundry list of things to skip is unlikely to enjoy the work or fully understand its themes.

Where better than home to discuss challenging ideas in a literary context?

I believe that literature can play an important part in the process of becoming “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” (Matthew 10:16). Literature, read and discussed in the home, seems to be an ideal vehicle for learning about life and seeing, in a completely non-threatening way, how various choices and worldviews are lived out. When great literature is coupled with history and context information, it provides a unique window into worldviews and their consequences.

My choices for Excellence in Literature include many of the books listed on major “Top 100 Books of All Time” lists, and in many cases reflect my own Christian worldview (though the curriculum is not religious). Some books such as The Great Gatsby are written from a different worldview, but each of them is included because the answers to the primary questions were positive. Books such as Gatsby speak truth about the author’s worldview, and they don’t gloss over it or make it appealing. This is truth, and while it’s not necessarily pleasant, it is helpful.

My goal in writing Excellence in Literature is to pass along my love for some of the most beautiful, thought-provoking literature in the world, and to help students learn to think critically and analytically while growing mentally and spiritually. Great books raise challenging questions, and I hope your family will enjoy many interesting conversations about what you read. Be ready to get lost in a story and emerge on the other side, having grown and changed through walking in another’s shoes for a time. Great books can be great friends. Enjoy!

***

*One note about editions: For the curriculum, I often chose older editions of translated books, as they are usually the most discreet about things parents might find worrisome. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, if you read a modern translation, you may to want to pre-read and possibly omit the Miller’s Tale. I have favorite editions of many of the books, and you will find Amazon links for them from the focus text page at Everyday Education. I’m also gradually linking to the books on the main page for each level. The Introduction to Literature level is linked so far, and the others will soon follow if all goes well.

47 Responses

  1. Lori Hancock says:

    Your literature program sounds wonderful! We have started planning our next school year and I was so excited when I found your website. Our oldest of five will start high school next year and I wanted to find the perfect literature program for his ninth grade year. We have found it! Thanks!!!!
    What history program do you recommend to complement your literature program? You may not want to endorse one particular publisher, so I understand if you do not wish to answer this question.

  2. vikki schultz says:

    I too would like to know your thoughts on a history curriculum to go along with this writing program.
    Thanks.

    • Hi, Vikki,

      Thank you for asking! I was going to reply privately as I did with Lori, but decided to post it here, as there are probably others who want to know as well.

      There are several ways to approach history with this, and we did a mixture of things (just call us eclectic!). Throughout all the boys’ school years, we purchased and read Sonlight resources at the appropriate levels. I didn’t use any of Sonlight’s assignments, just the reading, because most of their writing was done with the assignments I gave them (I hadn’t written EiL yet– they were my first guinea pigs! I taught them as I’d learned best in college). We used Sonlight because there’s nothing more important receiving information in a vital, living way, and Sonlight’s book choices are one of the best ways to do that.

      In addition, while studying British and World Literature, we used Western Civilization by Jackson Spielvogel, a college textbook to study the history of western civilization; while studying American Lit, we used the Landmark Book of American History from Sonlight which may be out of print. An alternative would be William Bennett’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. Because we have auditory and kinesthetic learners in our home, we also used resources from The Teaching Company (http://teach12.com). They’re college level, but very well done and memorable. They can be used in addition to or instead of a book-based curriculum.

      There are two other resources available now that weren’t available when we were going through high school: Tapestry of Grace and Susan Wise Bauer’s World HIstory. They are both excellent and would work well with Excellence in Literature. If they’d been available we would most likely have used them for at least a year or two. Veritas Press is also good.

      The key to successfully integrating a separate history curriculum is to focus mostly in what I call “input.” Let them take in as much knowledge as they can hold through books, audio, and video resources, and be sure to include historical fiction and biographies. Living books are still very important at the high school level.

      I hope that’s helpful!
      Blessings,
      Janice

  3. Christine RT says:

    Thanks for these information. After living 5 years in Sydney, Australia, we moved back to Switzerland. My daughter who studied in public schools over there is now home schooled with a French curriculum in order to get a recognized diploma. She is bi-lingual and I am looking for English books with a broad range of literature. The one you’ve mentioned seem to be promising and I was wondering if we could use it as a tool on the side for her to continue improve her knowledge of the English language.

    • Hi, Christine,
      You can certainly use the literature curriculum on the side. It’s very flexible, and just reading the books and looking through the context materials will help your daughter become familiar with a very broad range of great literature. Most of the books chosen for the curriculum are those that you’ll find many lists of the top 100 greatest books of all time, and they are both interesting and instructive.
      Enjoy!
      Janice

  4. Jeannie says:

    Janice,

    Any chance you will again teach online. Great need for us from one who has ‘been there and done that.’

    Jeannie

    • Hi, Jeannie,
      I enjoyed teaching online, but writing is really what I have always felt called to do. It’s possible to reach so many more that way. But I’d never rule it out–the Lord opens different doors in each season of life.
      Thanks for writing!
      Janice

  5. Brenda says:

    Janice,
    I just love all of your literature guides. I just found them today. For the past year I’ve been using the Spielvogel text as history and reading through the classics with a group of six homeschooled teens. It has been awesome! I have struggled with lesson planning and was praying for something that I could pick up and use. We have read through nearly all of the books in your English V this year through Shakespeare and we are stopping at the end of the Renaissance in Spielvogel. Do you think it would be possible to combine your British and American guides by picking and choosing from each to go along with the second half of Spielvogel?

    Thank you so much for your time! I am ordering all five guides today!

    Always learning,
    Brenda

    • Dear Brenda,
      I apologize for the delay in answering– we were at a conference. You can definitely combine guides and mix and match. I made it to be flexible, so you can shape it to fit what you’re trying to do. I love the Spielvogel book, and pulling in the literature to fit is an ideal way to study. I hope you enjoy EIL!
      Janice

  6. Gwyn says:

    Hi, I was interested in your writing curriculum. My daughter, who is in 7th grade currently, has done 4 years of the Essential program that Classical Conversations and has completed all 3 of the History IEW writing books. This year we did The Elegant Essay Writing Lessons from IEW. Do you think she would be properly prepared for your Introduction to Literature writing course for next year, 8th grade?

    • Hi, Gwyn-
      It sounds as if your daughter would be very well prepared. Everything you’ve used is designed to provide a solid writing foundation, and Excellence in Lit sounds like the logical next step for college-prep literary analysis and writing. I hope the two of you enjoy working through it.
      Janice

  7. Susan says:

    Hi,
    I just discovered your website and Excellence in Lit. program. I’m very interested in it. My son will be 10th grade for the 2011-12 school year. We completed the Fundamentals of Literature program from BJU this year. What study guide would you do next year? 11th grade? 12th grade? based on his completion of the Fund. of Lit. program. Also, I feel my son has had a good background writing essays as we’ve worked through Jensen’s Format Writing this year. Do you think he would be prepared for the composition part of Excellence in Lit? Thank you. Susan

  8. Kari says:

    I am entering into the land of the unknown next year…high school! Yikes! I thought I had everything all planned out, but I am feeling so uncertain now. I came across your Lit program tonight and am very interested. I am looking for a literature based curriculum. My son has spent very little time writing as of yet. I wonder if this would be over his head. He has read many upper level books, some of which are listed in your program. I noticed in the earlier response that you were willing to share some history options that flow nicely with your lit program. I would love for you to email me those options as well. So far, our history has been literature based. I have been looking at curriculums that are all inclusive: lit/comp, history, and bible. I definately want one that has the option for honors/ap/CLEP to gain college credits. Thanks a bunch!

    • Dear Kari,
      Don’t worry too much– high school is just another year of what you’ve been doing all along;-). If your son is a reader, he should do just fine with EIL. It’s designed to teach writing by doing relatively short assignments at progressively more challenging levels, and it offers flexibility in scheduling if you feel that a bit more time with each unit would be helpful.

      For history, we have many families who use Susan Wise Bauer’s history curriculum, Sonlight, or Tapestry of Grace. Those are all very solid curricula, and work well. For all-inclusive programs that include literature, most parents choose to have their students read all the literature, but use only the writing assignments from EIL. It’s also possible to put together your own history program using a combination of resources, including the excellent Western Civilization by Jackson Spielvogel (a college text). All of these things are good preparation for CLEP exams.

      Enjoy!
      Blessings,
      Janice

  9. Kari says:

    Janice,

    Thank you for the words of encouragement. I have The Well Trained Mind and have looked at it for history. Honestly, I really wanted something that was more laid out to gently (not forcefully) guide me or my son through the year. My goal is to let him begin scheduling his own work/school so he can get use to that responsibility. I school 2 other children and before long it will be 3, so I like the curriculums that are a little more guided or student led (my preference of the two).

    Lately, I have been looking at My Father’s World. I like the way it’s laid out from what I have seen online. I like that it is student led for the most part. Maybe I could do that one and have my son skip the writing projects with MFW and do them through the literature in EIL. I have also looked at Sonlight. I am so torn! For the past three years we have used Ambleside Online. I really like it for the younger years, but I am just not as comfortable with it for the older years.

    Any thoughs or suggestions?

    • Ambleside is a good foundation, and you can build on it in a couple of different ways. The way i prefer to do history is to use a high quality overview text (or Teaching Company video course) as a scope and sequence, then pull in appropriate literature, art, music, and videos and use a timeline such as my TimeFrame to pull it all together. Sonlight has a similar approach, though we never cared for their writing assignments. It’s surprisingly easy to do history this way with Excellence in Literature, as you can just add the appropriate EIL unit to your history text and that brings in the art and music part of the equation.

      Rather than WTM, I was thinking of Susan’s The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome and The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (there are two more coming in this series, but this is a start). These are good overview books for these time periods. Another choice would be Jackson Spielvogel’s Western Civilization. For American history, we used a Landmark book which I believe is now out of print. My oldest son whose BA is in history reads and listens to these things for fun, and he suggests that A Patriot’s History of the United States by Michael Allen and Larry Schweikhart is an excellent choice.

      I haven’t looked extensively at My Father’s World, so am not sure how in-depth it is. In most cases, I prefer materials written for a popular audience rather than texts written for high school, simply because they are usually more interesting and in-depth. I really want my students to graduate with a love of learning and a knowledge of how to absorb it through many avenues. However, I’m also a believer in doing what will work for you, rather than going for a theoretical ideal if it’s overwhelming. When you think of the many ways that people have learned through the centuries, you’ll know that your children can and will learn with whatever you use. Focus on what’s most important to you, and go from there;-).

  10. Monique says:

    I have a son starting 9th grade next year that has struggled with mild dsylexia, therefore hasn’t read by a few books that I’d consider “literature”. He is reading better, but it’s slow. Could most of these lessons be done if he read along or just lisetned to it from http://www.myaudioschool.com or a similar sources? I’m concerned that the pace of reading may be too frustrating, but want him to be exposed to this literature.
    Thank you

    • Hi, Monique-
      For any student who struggles with reading (or is an auditory learner) but is mature enough to enjoy the literature, I recommend audio books. Audio versions of most classics are easily available, and I’ve included links to many in the curriculum. Even a student who reads well can benefit from hearing some of the works, especially the epic poetry and drama. It comes to life when presented aloud as the author intended. I hope your son enjoys these great books!

  11. Stacey says:

    I am considering teaching a high school credit course in British Literature to our co-op. I am currently teaching All Things Fun and Fascinating to elementary students.
    I recognize this particular curriculum is self-guided… but do you feel it could be used to generate class discussion? Does it include the reading of complete books, or is it geared towards snippets?
    The class will run the complete year on a weekly basis, and would need to have an additional 4 hours of weekly homework. Is this enough for a complete year, or would it be more of a semester course?
    Thanks for your insight and willingness to share!

    • Dear Stacey,
      Excellence in Literature is being used by many co-ops and private schools. Many teachers choose to assign a different context area to each student and have them come together to share their research as a basis for discussion. I’ve heard other ideas too, and eventually hope to compile them in a few posts on the EIL site for others to use.

      Each book covers a complete year of study in nine four-week units. With the required reading and writing, there is definitely four or more hours of weekly independent work to complete. There are no snippets– I believe in reading the whole work in order to fully understand it. For Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though, you may choose to have students read the entire work or just the tales listed.

      I hope you and your students have a wonderful year together. Enjoy!

  12. Samantha says:

    Would you recommend the Stobaugh World History to go along with the World Literature? I really love Sonlight, but I have read most of the books for their World Literature 🙂

  13. Hi, Samantha- I think James Stobaugh’s World History would work well, especially if you are looking for something with a distinctly Christian worldview. The lessons are short, and he focuses on key people and movements that will help you understand the era. I hope you enjoy it!

  14. Shawn says:

    We are beginning to research and plan for next school year. We have two daughters, one will be entering the 10th grade and the other 11th grade.

    We are looking at an Honor’s course for one of our daughters with the American Lit course. Will the text be different? Is a syllabus included with the purchase of the book?

    Do you have any recommendations for a grammar curriculum to complement your Literature course?

    Thank you.
    Shawn

    • Dear Shawn,
      The study guide serves as a complete syllabus and course guide. When you receive it, you will see that there is an Honors option contained within the course; it requires the student to do additional reading and writing.
      Regarding grammar, it depends on whether your students have been doing grammar practice for a few years. Most students are finished with grammar by the time they reach high school, and they begin studying a foreign language. A year or two of Latin (my preference) or another language will teach them more about grammar than they are likely to learn any other way.
      I hope that helps! Thank you for visiting.

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