S7 E5 | The Influence of Living Books (Jeannie Fulbright with Jenn Discher)
Jeannie and fiction author Jenn Discher discuss the powerful influence that living books have on readers, both positive and negative and how choosing the right books can build character and influence a child's life choices and beliefs. Along with anecdotes from her experience as a Charlotte Mason homeschool mom, Jenn shares how, through reading living books to her children as a homeschool mom, she was inspired with a desire to write living books for children. She shares how, as a homeschool mom, she was able to find time to pen her first novel, The Elk King, a middle grade fantasy. She also shares her favorite resources for teaching young writers the craft of writing fiction. In this talk, you will be inspired to embrace the Charlotte Mason ideals of ensuring your children are immersed in a feast of living ideas and convinced that using the Charlotte Mason model of oral narration to written narration will ensure your children become proficient and skilled writers.
Jenn Discher has called 19 places home, including a log cabin in the woods and some less rugged suburbs. She’s now happily putting down roots in beautiful North Georgia with her husband and three adventurous kids. She likes exploring, reading aloud in bad accents, and writing stories. Her book, The Elk King, is the first in a middle grade fantasy series.
She homeschools for many reasons, including the great books she gets to read and the scope for whole-life Christian discipleship. She is grateful for the opportunity to learn alongside her kids and indebted to Charlotte Mason and many classical education thinkers for shaping her homeschooling.
Jeannie Fulbright, a 24-year veteran homeschooler, is the author of the #1 best-selling, multi award-winning Apologia Young Explorer science series: Exploring Creation with Astronomy, Chemistry and Physics, Botany, Zoology, and Anatomy & Physiology. She is also the author of the action-packed historical time travel book series Rumble Tumbles Through Time, as well as preschool science books and activity kits, the Charlotte Mason Heirloom Planner, and many high-quality Charlotte Mason based products. Jeannie and her husband Jeff became empty nesters in 2019. All four of their children all went to the University of Georgia on scholarship (homeschooling works!). For more than 20 years Jeannie has traveled around the country speaking to homeschoolers at conventions, covering a plethora of topics from Charlotte Mason to marriage and prayer.
The Elk King by Jenn Discher
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Jeannie Fulbright Welcome to The Charlotte Mason Show, a podcast that is all things Charlotte Mason and her tried and true philosophy of education, designed to help you homeschool with more confidence, joy, and success. It is our hope that you'll find golden nuggets that will transform the way you think and the way you homeschool. I'm your host, author of the bestselling Charlotte Mason Science Curriculum, Jeannie Fulbright, and I am so glad you joined me today.
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Jeannie Fulbright Well, I am so glad that you have joined me today for another episode of The Charlotte Mason Show. And I'm so excited about my guest today! We have with us Jenn Fisher. And she is a homeschooling mom, and lives in my area, and she is actually an author of a fiction book...a living book that just has gotten rave reviews (five stars on Amazon!), snd it has just been a delight for so many--not just homeschoolers, but people who love fiction...love literature. So, Jenn, welcome to the show today.
Jenn Discher Thank you for having me.
Jeannie Fulbright I'm so glad you came. So tell me a little bit about your journey of writing fiction while you are also still a homeschool mom of young children.
Jenn Discher Yes. Yes, it was...it was a journey for sure. I've always loved to write, but I never really considered writing fiction until maybe five or six years ago. I think that it was actually the homeschooling that led to the writing of fiction. I was reading a ton of living books with my kids, a ton of great fiction-- I'd always loved to read, always been a reader. But I was in a season where I was reading more great children's literature than ever before. And so I think there was something there that was stirring in me. And I remember mentioning to my husband one day, "You know, I'd really love to write a children's book someday, but I don't really have any great ideas. I don't know what that would look like. And I've never written fiction." (I loved writing nonfiction.) And truly, the next day he and I were on a hike on a vacation somewhere, and we were walking through a herd of elk in a...it was a seaside hike. And he just said something offhanded. And I said, "That actually sounds like it would be a really great story. I would-- I'd love to think more about that or write about that." And he said, "Well, what do you mean?" And he started asking me questions. And surprisingly, I could answer all of his questions, like the ideas and the characters and themes and plot just kind of started flowing. And for the first time, I had an idea that I was really excited about, and felt like, "I have to see this through. I have to have to finish this."
Jeannie Fulbright That is awesome. So tell us the name of your book and tell us about the story.
Jenn Discher It's called The Elk King. It is the first in a series of books called Tales from Animalia. It's book one. It is a-- It's middle grade, so kind of aimed toward ages eight to twelve, but for sure can be enjoyed by folks outside of that range. It's a coming-of-age adventure, set in a world of talking animals. And Ancient Elk Kingdom is on the brink of destruction and it needs a new king, but the young heir is planning to run away. So...
Jeannie Fulbright I love that!
Jenn Discher Yes! It's inspired by all the books that I've read, especially books like Watership Down and Narnia and...
Jeannie Fulbright Yeah, that sounds like such a great story. Oh, my goodness. Well, I know our listeners will be excited to go and look in your Amazon. And we'll have everything linked in the show notes where you all can go and look at her book and get a sample of it, or buy it outright. Well, Jenn, we are so excited to have you here. And I'm so excited about this discussion about living books, because I feel like we talk about living books so much, but there is there's so much of a deeper conversation that can surround living books. And I know that you've been a Charlotte Mason homeschooler. And just tell me what-- Wow you feel like stories shape us as humans?
Jenn Discher Yeah. I think I like to think of them as food for our souls, especially the good ones. I think that one thing that stories can do for us is to enable us to live vicariously through another...you know, another situation in another character's life for a period of time. And I think that's really important, especially for children, because I think it helps shape their imagination. If it's a well-written story, it allows you to inhabit that world for a time and it allows you to kind of journey along with the character. Like when we're in Tolkien's books, like we're with Sam. He's written those so beautifully so that you can kind of put yourself right there with Sam and Frodo, and vicariously experience what they experience, and have that experience of almost like vicarious bravery. Like we're practicing these things, almost for real life, I think.
Jeannie Fulbright And our character is being developed as we're experiencing their choices to make wise choices.
Jenn Discher Yes, I think so. I've seen this actually play out in my own life, too, where I've had difficult...I'm in a difficult situation and I remember something from a book. And it's-- I don't know, that doesn't happen maybe as explicitly as often, but the fact that it's even happened once like that, I thought, "Wow, there really is something to this."
Jeannie Fulbright Yeah. And I'm sure for children it's even more powerful. It's even more vivid. Their imaginations are so much more honed and alive at that age. I mean, I've seen a study actually recently that talked about creativity and imagination in children: They measured this group. They followed them for twenty-five years and they measured them at the age of five, and they actually rated their creativity in their imagination. And all...95% of these five-year-olds had a very strong creativity and imagination. And then every few years, they would measure these same group of kids again. And every year, the number of kids who had a strong and vivid imagination, and good creative skills...creative thinking, it would reduce and reduce. And by the time that they were in their twenties, it turned out that only 5% of those kids from that original five-year-old 95%, only 5% still had a vivid imagination. And it's so important for creativity to be honed. And I feel like the Charlotte Mason methodology of education gives our children that ability to stay creative, to stay imaginative, to stay living in those worlds where we can be shaped by books, we can be touched in a powerful way. And that really just also shows us how important it is that we choose the right books.
Jenn Discher Yes. Yes!
Jeannie Fulbright I mean, truly, I feel like that is-- I think we don't realize how much choosing the wrong books-- I remember when my children were little, there was a group of books that were really, really popular for girls back in the 1990s and...or early 2000s. And there was this one book that was really popular, but in the book, the main character was sneaking out at night and lying to her parents, because she was doing something good; she was helping this horse. She was helping a horse. And so I just remember when I read through that book, I said, "No, this is not a book that I want my child to learn from." Doing good things is great, but to do bad things in order to do good things is just not something we want to teach our children. And so that's why it's so important that we know that we have...the books that we give our children are curated. That really they are shaping character in the way that we want our children to be, and to become.
Jenn Discher I completely agree. It's really-- As a mom, it does feel like a bit of an uphill battle sometimes. You really have to be intentional to curate that. And I mean, whether it's working off of book lists or friends recommendations or whatever. But, I mean, gone are the days when you can just walk into the library and say, "It's a free for all kids, go pick out anything." I don't know if there was ever a day like that, to be honest. But-- There was always a need for discernment. But especially today. So, I mean, I have felt-- There have been times when I felt like a library curmudgeon with my-- We love the library. We go a lot. But we've used it very intentionally and very specifically, and I've wondered sometimes, "Am I being..."-- You know, we have had twaddle in the house for sure, we're not complete purists. There have been times and places for certain books, but the majority of your diet...just like you're eating food, you can't just live on cheese puffs. You wouldn't want your child to do that.
Jeannie Fulbright Even Charlotte Mason says, "They must have silly books." But that just not being the main diet, the main food for their education, or their entertainment even.
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Jeannie Fulbright So what do you feel like-- What Charlotte Mason principles do you feel relate the most to writing fiction?
Jenn Discher I love the idea that the child's mind-- Charlotte Mason says the child's mind isn't just a sack to hold ideas. Right? That it's a spiritual organism. That it's a living thing that can grow. And that it-- But we are feeding it ideas. And I love this idea. It reminds me of something that J.R.R. Tolkien said about creativity, and I think he called it the "leaf mold" of the mind. Just this idea-- Which I know is a different metaphor, so we're kind of switching metaphors. Haha! (Cause that is sort of a container actually.) I do agree with Mason that it's a living thing, but there also is this idea that you're feeding it, and what you feed it effects what comes out. Right? Like your...kind of like what we were saying is that you're being shaped by it, but also that the child, the way the child, not only thinks, but how they communicate, how they write, how they interact is shaped, I think, by what they're consuming, what we're giving them. So I've liked to think about that over the years.
Jeannie Fulbright I love that. And so do you encourage your children to dabble in writing fiction?
Jenn Discher You know, not explicitly, but they have-- At least one of them...one to two of them have, just on their own, done things. And then just in their creative play, you see they all love stories. Only one of them is, you know, explicitly talking about wanting to write. But you do see-- Actually this isn't really a Mason-- I don't know if it's actually explicitly (you would know) one of her principals, but one of the methods she uses is narration. And that's really been the bulwark, I guess, of our Language Arts curriculum, if you will, is just written narration and oral narration. It's just been our standby all the way through. And it's been neat now...my oldest is in seventh grade now, and so I'm really seeing the fruit of that. That what they...what we've been feeding them--the ideas and the living books--it really does shape their writing in a really profound way.
Jeannie Fulbright I would totally attest to that! Using oral narration with my children primarily, moving slowly but surely into written narration, visual narration, notebooking-- And using that methodology, all of my children turned out to be strong writers. All four of them, even the ones that are really more math-oriented, went into college as strong writers naturally. Because teaching your children to write what they say--they're speaking through the oral narration--and then being able to express that, their own thoughts in their own words in writing, they don't do that in schools. They have them write some arbitrary essay on topics that they're not really that interested in, and speaking words that are not really their own words, writing these paragraphs that don't sound like them. What Charlotte Mason does is it allows children to develop their own voice. And so our children have a natural ability to express their writing in their own voice. And even though none of my children are-- Well, I guess my oldest daughter is a writer. She's a journalist. But all my other three children are computer scientists. But yet they still, all three of them, can write. They all feel very confident in their ability to write and communicate in writing. And so I love that, that it was a Charlotte Mason thing all the way. People assume, "Oh, my child doesn't like to write." Well, they probably just don't like to write random essays.
Jenn Discher Right. Right!
Jeannie Fulbright Unnatural. Inorganic assignments that-- Yeah, a lot of children don't like that. Most children...very few children like that. But every child enjoys telling their story, telling their thoughts. And then just getting them to slowly but surely, being able to put those thoughts into writing, does form a writer. It naturally develops a skilled writer. When my children were in college-- I remember all four of them have said this: That when they were-- Whenever the professor would say, "Okay, the next...the exam is going to be an essay test." And my kids, all of them, couldn't understand why everybody groaned, because in their minds they're like, "Yes. Oh, yes! I can do well on an essay!" But everybody else groaned about the fact that they were going have to write an essay because they'd never really learned how to express themselves in writing. And that is the natural result of a Charlotte Mason education.
Jenn Discher It really is. And it was for sure, a paradigm shift for me. I was in education before I had kids. I was a high school history teacher. And so I came to desire to homeschool, and then specifically to Charlotte Mason homeschool, but it was a bit of a leap of faith to kind of leave behind some of the trappings of what you think...you grow up thinking that have to be a part of a child's education. So it's been encouraging to hear from moms like you who have— are on the other side of it, who've seen the fruit. And I love that I'm starting to see the fruit in my own children. And frankly, I feel like I'm seeing the fruit in my own life because I am being Charlotte Mason homeschooled along with my children. I am-- I mean, I am being transformed. I remember when they were quite little, I didn't know how else to say it, I'd be like, "Kids, I think Mommy's brain is getting better." Which is kind of a dumb way to say it, but it is, I mean, probably the reality.
Jeannie Fulbright I think I'm smarter than a fifth grader now!
Jenn Discher Yeah, right! Oh my gosh!
Jeannie Fulbright I've been homeschooling for [inaudible] years. I'm smarter than a fifth grader. Haha!
Jenn Discher Yes! And you can see it. I remember when we first started reading Pilgrim's Progress when they were quite young, I was having trouble tracking with a lot of it. Surprisingly, the children were having less trouble than I thought they were. That was the surprising thing. It really is neat to see that they're not intimidated in the same way I think that adults are by a gap in understanding. And I wonder if it's because there's always a gap in understanding for them as they're acquiring language. You know, they don't understand 90% of what you're saying when they're little. And then it just, you know, that gap shrinks over time. But as adults, I think there's this, you know, like this discomfort with lack of understanding, or there's like maybe a pride of like, "Well, I feel like I should," or like a shame of "I don't," or whatever. And so I have, thankfully, I've seen myself become more childlike in this where I'm like, "Well, I'm going to listen to this audiobook about X topic, and I think maybe I understand 60%, but that's okay because I'm just going to keep going."
Jeannie Fulbright So I think with children, one of the things that we don't realize is how plastic their brains are. They're really still developing. They're still forming. They-- I remember reading Charlotte Mason talking about how they love the beautiful language and...like the King James Bible. And we would think, "They can't really handle that. That's too, you know-- The "thees "and "thous" and these words that don't...that we don't use anymore." But actually, children can, when they're young, they can develop the appreciation for that beauty, for the beauty of that kind of language. And poetry! A lot of times we don't appreciate poetry because we were never really given the opportunity to love and enjoy poetry. And so we don't think our children will. Yet they do. And it's just so important that we expose them to beautiful language. Written in, you know, the intricate ways from of old that they used to be written. So I think it's really important that we expose ourselves to that, we grow our brains, but while, at the same time, we're shaping their young minds to be able to absorb information that comes at a higher level. And, you know, obviously, we want to...we also want to give them books that they enjoy that are written, you know, in today's modern language. But not be afraid that they're going to not enjoy something that was written at a, you know, a more advanced level. It's really neat.
Jenn Discher I-- About poetry, I was that way. I never really appreciated it. And I found it really inaccessible, I think. But I think that's just because I hadn't read the right poetry. I needed to start with children's poetry. I needed to start there and enjoy Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear, and just Christina Rossetti...all of that alongside of them. And I've loved it, and they have too, to your point.
Jeannie Fulbright That's amazing. I've actually-- This spring I have a poetry...a Language Arts Through Poetry curriculum coming out that a friend of mine who's been teaching poetry at the high school level-- She wrote it for-- She was a Charlotte Mason homeschooler as well. Her kids have all graduated and moved on. But she's written this beautiful poetry curriculum that teaches poetry in a way that's not intimidating, that is...that it's super just accessible to-- And makes it fun for both the kids and the parents as they're learning. And yes, we have Edward Lear in there and we have, just, all the fun poets. And it's just...it's going to be a great curriculum for both boys and girls. We've actually beta tested it and the parents were realizing, "Poetry's not that complicated. Why did I feel like it was going to be so hard? Why did I make poetry this big, scary monster that I didn't know how to tackle?" So that's-- So I'm excited to be...to have that out. And I would love for...to give you a copy, and you can see if your children would enjoy it. So what are some of your favorite resources for a young writer?
Jenn Discher Well, I think just living books being read aloud to, and reading them themselves is probably the biggest thing. And including the Bible. You mentioned the King James, but that, or any-- Like, I'm more and more persuaded that just reading God's Word, like the whole-- Especially...maybe even especially the Old Testament, just those stories. Like, as you get to know the Creator, the Story Writer, you get to know-- I don't know. There's just...there's something about that. You start to see themes, and you get to know what kind of stories God likes to tell. And that just sort of gets baked into you, I think. And it helps you be a better story writer. But also, there are some great resources online. I've really benefited from Jonathan Rodgers. He wrote The Wilderking Trilogy. It's a middle-grade series, and a couple other books, nonfiction as well. He has a weekly newsletter that's fantastic. He also has great webinars, some for adults, some for students. N.D. Wilson's stuff on writing, I've found super helpful. He has an online class. S.D. Smith I know has a class for writers, which I haven't taken, but I-- Anything he ever says about writing, to encourage, you know, younger writers or adult writers, I've found super helpful.
Jeannie Fulbright That is awesome. Well, is there anything else you want to share with our audience? Well, first of all, I do want to ask you, when your next...when the next book's coming out?
Jenn Discher Oh, well. Hopefully sooner rather than later. The first one was a long journey and we're trying to cut that down. So I'm working on book two now. I am a good ways into it and I'm hoping to get that out before too long.
Jeannie Fulbright How do you balance that? How do you juggle writing and homeschooling?
Jenn Discher Yeah, it's looked different in different seasons. When I started writing, my oldest was seven. I have-- They were seven, five, and two. And it looked different then, you know. There was consistent nap time and whatnot that I was able to write in. But over the years it's morphed and my oldest now is almost thirteen. And so it's it looks different, but my husband actually is really the key to all of it. He's the best! He-- I know writers, you know-- There's all these different situations, different dynamics marriage-wise. I know some spouses are not involved at all. My spouse is highly involved, in a really good way. He's like my coach and my first editor. So he helps me carve out time. He's very supportive. When the kids were littler, he would take them and say, "Go to a coffee shop and write." So I do try to get out of the house to write at least once a week, and then I try to be faithful with the pockets that the Lord provides the rest of the time. It's really just being faithful with the time that I have. And I do have a sense that this is something that the Lord wants me to be doing. There's a...I have a strong sense of purpose about that. And so it is kind of a matter of obedience to be faithful to that, and to really say, "Okay, I'm going to show up and..."
Jeannie Fulbright Be disciplined to just put pen to paper...fingers to keys.
Jenn Discher Yes, yes. Either way!
Jeannie Fulbright Yeah, I've often been asked that question: How I created all my science curriculum throughout the years that my children were growing up? And it really, really did boil down to having an extremely supportive husband who made-- He came home from work and he made dinner, and he did the laundry, and he came home from work for lunch and would do the laundry, and he would-- He was just a huge help! And especially during the summers when I would-- Just actually, during the summer, I wrote most of my books. Most of the bulk of the writing would happen during the summer when I would take the kids to the pool and just sit there and write. And, you know, it was-- They were a little bit older, so I didn't have to keep my eye on them every minute. But yeah, that was a...those were really-- You know, honestly, if I think about it, when people really ask me that, it's just all God. If God desires-- If this is God's will for you, if this is something God wants you to do, He will ensure that it happens. Because I could look at those books, and I don't know how I wrote that.
Jenn Discher Exactly! Yes.
Jeannie Fulbright You know, while I was homeschooling, it was all God. So for those of you who are thinking about writing, and wanting to write-- Because I think everybody has a book in them, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. And if you're thinking about, you know, doing it, just know that the Lord will provide the time and the ability to do it no matter what's going on in your life. So that's kind of the exciting thing, is just to let God...let God have His way with us. So, Jenn, what are some of your favorite read-alouds?
Jenn Discher Oh! Well, I kind of assume Tolkien and Lewis. So besides The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, we love E. Nesbit. We really enjoy The Treasure Seekers and The Railway Children. Love Jonathan Rodger's Wilderking Trilogy. And then, I feel like every year we read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, around the holidays, because it's just hilarious. We love it.
Jeannie Fulbright That's so sweet. That is awesome. So is there anything else you want to tell your audience...our audience? And we're going to have all your links for your social media, and how to find your books that the Lord is inspiring you to write. But is there anything else you want to share with everybody before we close?
Jenn Discher No, I don't think so. But thank you so much for having me. It was just such a treat.
Jeannie Fulbright Oh, I'm so glad to have you. And I can't wait to hear when the next book is out. Be sure to let us know.
Jenn Discher Okay.
Jeannie Fulbright All right. Thanks so much, Jenn.
Jenn Discher Thank you.
Jeannie Fulbright Bye.
Jeannie Fulbright Hey, a couple more things: Do you wish you had a Charlotte Mason mentor? Someone to keep you focused on the things that matter--the Lord, and His word, and prayer, and habit training and living books, nature study, and of course, the most neglected thing of all, self-care? Well, I have the perfect mentor for you: the Charlotte Mason heirloom planner. It is much more than a planner. It's a guide and a mentor and a place to chronicle your treasured moments and memories--all the things you want to remember and keep sacred and special from this homeschool journey. Check it out on my website at JeannieFulbright.com, and learn about that and so many of the other Charlotte Mason curriculum and tools that I've created to make your homeschool journey the richest and most fulfilling experience of your life. Thanks again for listening to The Charlotte Mason show.
Jeannie Fulbright If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast and while you're there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents, like you, get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @HomeschoolingDotMom. That's @HomeschoolingDotMom. And let us know what you thought of today's episode. And don't forget to check out my friends at Medi-Share because you deserve healthcare you can trust. To learn more about Medi-Share and why over 400,000 Christians have made the switch, go to GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare.
Jeannie Fulbright Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? I would love for you to come! On my website, I have a special coupon code that you can use when you register. The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year with amazing speakers, hundreds of workshops to help you homeschool well, and the largest curriculum exhibit halls in the United States. People travel from all over the United States to Missouri, South Carolina, Ohio, California, and Texas to find encouragement, friendship, and curriculum. Be sure to go to my website JeannieFulbright.com for your coupon code. And when you're at the convention, please come by my booth and say hello, because I love meeting homeschoolers in real life. It's always fun to have new homeschool friends. So thank you so much for listening and I do hope to see you at the convention. Have a blessed rest of the week.