And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
We do like computers here at the River Houses, but we like books and libraries even more. In order to provide some common background and a set of shared experiences for all the members of the River Houses, we have chosen six standard reference books that can together serve as an excellent core collection for any homeschool library: permanent references for your family home that can be used for years and passed on to your children when they go off to college or set out on their own. We regularly refer to these volumes in our postings and we encourage all our members to add them over time to their home reference library. They are:
- A comprehensive dictionary (American Heritage 5th ed.)
- A world atlas (National Geographic 10th ed.)
- An annual almanac (World Almanac current ed.)
- A world history encyclopedia (History 3rd ed.)
- A North American bird guide (National Geographic 7th ed.)
- An astronomy guide (National Geographic 2nd ed.)
These six selected volumes are not children’s books, they are family books, and they are intended for use not with a specific curriculum or subject, but with all subjects year after year. Small children may not be able to use them directly at first, but they will quickly grow into them and never grow out of them. And one of the best examples to set for small children is to regularly use “the big dictionary” or “the big atlas” at home in their presence, and to model the type of behavior you want to see — That’s an interesting word; I’m going to look it up in the big dictionary — I wonder how far it is to the North Pole; I’m going to look in the big atlas and find out. These volumes, readily at hand, will not only make your children better students, they will also make you a better teacher.
❡ The links below point to Amazon.com, where you can read reviews and make choices on your own. Most local libraries will also have these volumes, often in the non-circulating Reference section. We are an Amazon affiliate, so your purchases through this site do help support the ongoing development of the River Houses network, and they are much appreciated.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th Edition). A good dictionary is the most important reference work in every library because it defines the language through which all other knowledge is gained. The American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t quite rise to the unabridged level, but it’s very comprehensive and has many valuable educational features. It has hundreds of illustrations to accompany key definitions, and it has full biographical and geographical entries included with the main alphabet (as opposed to being relegated to separate appendices). Information about word roots is very important for students developing adult language skills, and the AHD is strong in this area. Special charts cover major alphabets, mathematical symbols, colors, measurement units, and more. The AHD will serve your family well for many years.
National Geographic Atlas of the World (10th Edition). A full-sized atlas is a family treasure that every student should have access to and should get to know well. The National Geographic Atlas contains much more than standard political maps: it also includes a wide range of beautiful physical maps (showing the nature of the land), thematic maps (on special topics such as weather, economics, and biodiversity), maps of the stars and planets, historical notes, charts and statistics, flags of the American states and the nations of the world, and much more. This edition of the NGA also comes with a large folded wall-map of the world to decorate your home classroom. Students who learn to comfortably navigate a large atlas not only learn geography, they also learn a whole range of academic skills that are useful for more advanced study across the arts and sciences.
❡ A globe to go along with your atlas is also an essential teaching tool, especially for beginners who are still learning to relate the flat surface of a map to the curved surface of the earth. We are quite partial to inexpensive inflatable globes, such as the 20-inch TEDCO political globe and the 16-inch Replogle topographical globe.
World Almanac and Book of Facts (2020 Edition). The other books on our list are all permanent additions to your family library, but an almanac is something that should be renewed each year. A comprehensive modern almanac is a one-volume encyclopedia with information on nearly everything under the sun (and much beyond). The annual World Almanac can satisfy any young student’s craving for facts about the World Series (page 929), or solar eclipses (page 339), or Nobel Prize winners (page 258), or breeds of dogs (page 287), or U.S. Presidents (page 486), or Olympic medalists (page 855), or world religions (page 698), or the Declaration of Independence (page 454), or even the Oort Cloud (page 346). (Who could fail to be curious about something called the Oort Cloud?) A new World Almanac under the Christmas tree every year makes for an excellent homeschooling tradition.
❡ Note that the World Almanac and Book of Facts is available in both paperback and hardcover editions. The paperback is less expensive, but it’s also reduced in size making the type exceedingly small for grownup eyes, although your young scholars may have no trouble with it. (Note also that in our posts from previous years, page references point to the appropriate editions from 2019, 2018, or 2017, which are also still available.)
History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Present Day (3rd Edition). This richly illustrated large-format encyclopedia of history is an educational delight. Hundreds of beautiful historic photographs, paintings, objects, artifacts, maps, charts, and portraits appear all through the volume. Do you need an illustrated homeschool review of the life of Julius Caesar (pages 108–109) or the history of the Byzantine Empire (pages 198–199)? How about the Scientific Revolution (pages 266–267) or the Protestant Reformation (pages 256–259)? Or perhaps the Great Depression (pages 384–385) or the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (pages 432–433)? A long appendix gives brief historical chronologies of all the nations of the world, from Canada in North America (page 500) to Tonga in Oceania (page 599). With this volume in your homeschool library you’ll never run short of historical inspiration.
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (7th Edition). This may seem like a specialized rather than a general reference, but we put it to general use in the River Houses. A standard bird guide is an ideal introduction to large areas of science and natural history, and when imaginatively used it can readily connect students not only to their local neighborhood but also to the world as a whole. Learning the names of even a few backyard birds gives you a set of friends for life — the Northern Cardinals you see at your bird feeder every winter (pages 522–523), the Chimney Swifts that appear in your backyard skies every spring (pages 88–89), and many more. An understanding of basic biology and geography, an ability to attend to detail, an appreciation for annual cycles and for the ways in which humans have interacted with nature throughout history — all these can be readily developed with the help of a basic bird guide.
National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky (2nd Edition). This compact and beautifully illustrated guide to astronomy will introduce your students to the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, comets, meteors, nebulae, galaxies, and all the constellations of the night sky. You can use it as a quick reference for facts or as the background for an entire homeschool astronomy course. The section on the constellations includes basic star charts, details on the brightest stars, and notes on history and mythology as well. Since ancient times, a basic understanding of astronomy has been considered one of the core elements of a liberal education. A heavenly handbook like the Backyard Guide to the Night Sky, along with some time spent outdoors under the starry vault, can link your students not only to science but also to history, literature, mythology, and art.
❡ A planisphere or “star wheel” is also an essential educational tool, especially for students still learning how the sky changes over the course of the night and from season to season. The grandest planisphere, highly recommended, is Ken Graun’s large Guide to the Stars, which is packed with information and can serve as an introductory astronomy encyclopedia of its own. Many smaller planispheres are also available, and you can even print and assemble your own for free — it’s a great fifteen-minute exercise for students who are skilled with scissors. Sky & Telescope magazine has free printable planisphere templates and instructions available — why not give them a try today. 😊