Home-schoolers of all stripes find common ground in some good, old-fashioned books

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A new class of best sellers has arisen--mainly old books, given new life by the Internet, specialty bookstores, librarians and word of mouth--for parents who home-school their children. There is no one book they all read, but each group of home schoolers has its favorites, and some have crossover appeal. Conservative Christians, for example, have flocked to the Elsie Dinsmore books, by Martha Finley, 28 novels that sold millions when they were published between 1867 and 1905. The books tell the life story of Elsie, a Louisiana heiress whose mother dies in childbirth, leaving Elsie to be raised by an irreligious father. Fortunately, a black nurse reads the Bible with Elsie, and she grows into an exemplar of Christian virtue from motherhood to widowhood and all the way into her dotage. Vision Forum, a Christian ministry whose book catalog is sent to many home-schoolers, has sold more than 100,000 Elsie Dinsmore volumes.

But Elsie is no favorite among secular or liberal home-schoolers. They, too, have a backward-looking impulse, but they're more interested in the return-to-nature aspects of the olden days than in corseted Victoriana. Pat Farenga, who has written several books on "unschooling," a movement that rejects formal curricula and lets children decide what to study, used to run a home-schoolers' bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. He says that his store's best sellers always included Noah Blake's 1805 book, "The Diary of an Early American Boy"--which described old-fashioned crafts like nail-making and shingle-splitting. A more recent illustrated edition has been popular "because it has all these beautifully drawn pictures of how to do things before technology."

According to recent polls, nonreligious families now make up more than 40% of the home-schooling market. For much of this group, the reading list is determined by the "curriculum in a box" companies. The most famous of these are K12, founded by former Education Secretary William Bennett and popular with parents who want a heavy emphasis on "values," and Calvert, in Baltimore, which created the market in 1906, when it began mailing its lesson plans to the children of missionaries and diplomats.

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