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Building Character Through Literature

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By Lorraine Curry

Noble character comes from example and teaching. Most importantly, a child becomes what their parents have modeled. Teaching (telling, correcting, disciplining, etc.) effects character somewhat, but without example, a smaller degree of teaching "sticks." To help overcome our flaws as parents, we can use the lofty examples found in literature. An advantage to using literature in building character is that the teaching is neutral, and not perceived by the child, especially older children, as judgmental or condemning. In other words, our approach can now be sympathetic to the child, letting the literature do the teaching.

The teacher should also be the example in her esteem of books. She should read well and interestingly. She should read privately and share from her own books. For reading aloud or for assignments she can choose character building selections such as legends, myths, fairy tales, fables, parables, allegories, poetry, short stories and novels.


"They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power; to make known to the sons of men His mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of His kingdom." (Psalm 145:11-12)

"The influence of the Bible, particularly the King James version, upon the development of the English language and literature, has been attested to by critics for generations."1 Not only is there exceptional literary value in the Bible, there is also life changing power inherent in the Word, being living and God-breathed. The Bible should be the primary resource for the Christian homeschool, while particular sections such as the Proverbs give concentrated doses of wisdom and character. The Holy Bible covers each and every area of character training and development and can stand alone as our character building textbook.

A teacher and pupil met after 20 years. The pupil said, "Do you remember the commandment you had on the blackboard for a week 'Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth'? Well," he said, "that marked the beginning of my Christian life, though you never made a comment upon the verse, and you never knew that it was responsible for any change in my life."1

You can also use this idea in your own homeschool. Copy a verse from the Bible onto a board or print the verse out in a large font and tape it up on the wall. Leave it for several days to familiarize your children with the verse and principle. Memorizing will be easy because the child is seeing it continuously.

One can find high moral value in other types of literature too. Some of the loftiest examples are Pilgrim's Progress; Faust; and Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. Even lesser known works such as Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Way of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Eldorado, I Will Repay, Middlemarch, Jessica's First Prayer, Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush, The Little Minister, and The Hoosier Schoolboy illustrate Biblical principles. After reading any literature, choose a Bible passage to describe the main message of the work.


Some of the best character building material can be found in the biographies of people who lived righteous lives before God and man. Once again, let us first look to the Bible. It makes morality live through biography. Consider Jonah, Noah, King David, Paul, Ruth, Esther and numerous others as examples of both lofty and poor character.

We have read aloud, in our own homeschool, the life stories of Queen Victoria, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon and Billy Sunday. As our children see what kinds of lives others lived before God and man, they are inspired to like character because virtues are more potent in modifying character when the virtues are found in man. Your child will think, "If they could, why can't I?"

The life of Sir Walter Scott along with being interesting and charming is a most powerful example of integrity that is much needed today. When Scott's publishing house failed he refused to file bankruptcy but committed to paying off his debts no matter the cost to him and worked rigorously to produce many books in a short time, earning what was needed to clear his name.

Another person worth emulating is Clara Barton, who overcame timidity as a 16 year old teacher by reading her Bible her first day in class, and replacing her timidity with concern for her students. Her mission was to serve.

Frances Willard not only championed the emancipation of women, she also fought for the purity of home life and against intemperance. One can also read of Helen Keller, Jacob Riis, Booker T. Washington and Dr. Grenfell. Older students may read Emerson's Representative Men, Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History and Plutarch's Lives. Another choice, if you can find it, is the book, Lives of Poor Boys (Girls) Who Became Famous by S.K. Bolton.

"One of the best discoveries a boy or girl can make is a man or woman of real worth; one who by example has shown the world what the factors are which constitute success and true greatness."1

Fables and Other Literature

Fables can teach morals. Consider which has more lasting effect, telling your child that lying has consequences and that he shouldn't do it or reading the story of the boy who deceitfully cried "Wolf!" over and over and was ignored when he really needed help?

The adventure loving boy can read Captains Courageous, Treasure Island, Red Rover, and The Pilot by Cooper, Robinson Crusoe, and Around the World in 80 Days. Vintage books such as Tom Swift, Pony Rider Boys, Horatio Alger's and Henty's books also fall in this "good book" category. Instead of the cheap modern romance, the older girl can read works

such as Lorna Doone, Mill on the Floss, Ramona, The Virginian, or Princess Aline. Nature lovers may choose Long, Payne, Seton-Thompson and Theodore Roosevelt. Choose other character building literature such as "The Great Stone Face" or "Midas and the Golden Touch" by Hawthorne and "The Vision of Sir Launfal" by Lowell. Sir Launfal starts out in the pride and haughtiness of youth, yet eventually learns:

Who gives himself with alms feeds three
Himself, his hungering neighbors and me

Dickens' Books: "If you suspect that you may be just a little too selfish, read Martin Chuzzlewit; if avaricious, Our Mutual Friend; if you are given to public display, and think more of position and power and pomp conferred by money than of doing good to humanity, loving and being loved at home, and happy in the humbler walks of life, read Dombey and Son"2

In your reading, call attention to the elevating themes of literature. Discuss the characters and their actions. List the good and bad traits of the characters. Memorize character building excerpts. Include recitations as part of each school day.

Historical Literature

Virtuous deeds have about them a degree of contagion and an infectious character. The child who identifies himself with the people of history will be taken out of his smallness and grow larger in goodness and greatness. The pages of history are filled with heroism, self-sacrifice, love of country and devotion to principle no matter what the cost. Early American history is especially rich with good and great examples of character. Other periods of American history worthy of study are the Civil War period, the temperance movement, and World War II. World history is also rich with heroes, although not always heroes who knew God.

In no other subject area can we see so clearly by the panorama of man's doings that "the wages of sin is death," and that God's principles never change. For example, the student of history is reminded of the truth that a nation cannot endure when its citizens are lacking in morality. Goldsmith's voice in his "Deserted Village" rings clearly from the past for us to consider today:

Ill fares the land,
To hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates,
And men decay.


Even scientific literature can build character. Humility abounds in scientists who know God realizing how limited man is and how very little he knows. Respect and love for God spring from a study of His creation in its miraculous and perfect construction. The lives of godly scientists can be studied as well as their works.

Character building literature completes your tool kit for training your children to be moral, upright adults. It is the plane that smooths off the excess, exposing the clean and clear, and should be used diligently, along with the hammer of daily example and the saw of didactic teaching.

1 W.M. Welch AM, How to Study (Chicago, W.M. Welch and Co, 1889)

2 J. O. Engleman, Moral Education in School and Home, 1918, Chicago: Sanborn & Co.

Lorraine is mom to four, ages 13-17. She sells and reviews vintage and classical Exceptional Books! and publishes a free email newsletter. Her own book EasyHomeschooling Techniques, is available from her site,, Christian Book Distributors, Lifetime Books and Gifts, other booksellers or you may request a copy from your local Christian bookstore (through Ingram/Spring Arbor Distributors). Website:

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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