Living Lapbooks for Teens

What do you know about the phrase “living books”? How about the word “lapbooks”?

I presume you’ve heard of these expressions before, but it isn’t very often that people combine engaging, narrative non-fiction (ie, living books) with a scrapbook-type artefact (ie, lapbook), and even more rare to hear this approach applied to high school unit studies.

This combination, however, is exactly how I almost always tackle history subjects in our yearly co-op setting. You might also think about using it in your own home, especially if you want to cover one subject with a range of ages and/or abilities.

I think the first stage of a living-book lapbook study would be to familiarize yourself with lapbooks. Traditionally, these are made with a couple of file folders, glued together in a kind of mini-display board, onto which are glued a variety of folded papers, flaps, wheels, etc, to convey information about the subject of study.

We started off with this kind of arrangement, but later decided a scrapbook worked better for us because we could extend our study for a full year and still have a repository of booklets, flaps and wheels, etc.



Finding the kind of scrapbook we used to use in England was an difficult task in the US this last year (especially at the minimal price we paid for them), so assuming you can’t import them in your luggage like I did, I think the best approximation would be to use a comb-binding machine to attach about 24 large sheets of construction paper together.

The next stage would be to explore the variety of ways to present information. This is where you have permission to browse: Pinterest, Hands of a Child’s lapbooking website, people’s personal blogs, the books by Dinah Zike that started it all, and some wonderful, free templates such as those found here:

Now that you’ve got the idea of how to present your unit study, it’s time to turn your attention to your source of information. I prefer to use narrative-style non-fiction books, though I may mix in some historical fiction if they’re the right level and fairly accurate.

For example, when we did World War II, I used the Sterling Point history series. The Deadly Hunt by Shirer, Old Blood and Guts about Patton, and the Pearl Harbor and D-day books, not to mention the account of the real Great Escape.

I thought it might be helpful, though, to talk about our Texas history study that we just undertook this last year. Not because you need to do Texas history, but because it will serve as an example for the process that you can re-create for your own topic.

The first challenge for most history topics is to weed out the boring textbooks, the silly and babyish books, the twaddle, and the dross.

While I don’t suggest buying any book like this, they can be useful as a starting point on Amazon. Type a well-known title or subject into a search bar, and usually the first hits are the most popular for the search terms. Now scroll down to the section called “Customers who bought this item also bought” and click on any promising-sounding books. Try to search inside them or download ebook samples so that you can hear the writer’s voice.

For example, compare the two extracts and see which one sounds more “alive”, interesting, and in-depth – which one is taking you seriously and going to engage your mind, telling a story, and which one is being quite babyish:

Extract 1: What comes to mind when you think about change? Have you changed schools, or has a parent changed jobs? Have you moved to a different street or a new town? Has your form of transportation to and from school changed? Texas has undergone many changes throughout your lifetime so far and will experience many more in the future. Maybe even your own community has changed since you have lived there.

Extract 2: Usually, fall is the good time to go to the Brazos, and when you can choose, October is the best month – if, for that matter, you choose to go there at all, and most people don’t. Snakes and mosquitos and ticks are torpid then, maybe gone if frosts have come early, nights are cool and days are blue and yellow and soft of air.

Hopefully, you can see the difference in just these little snippets that one of these is really talking down to students, and the other is being lyrical and engaging. I mean, that phrase “days are blue and yellow and soft of air” is just about right when it comes to experiencing the cooler temperatures of Texas in the Fall.

Another step in the planning stage of your project is to look at other homeschoolers’ blogs who have been there/done that. I was helped by the 2012 blog post at This resource led me to my first living-books purchase, described on the site as written in a narrative/ literature form and from a Christian worldview (more on this book in a minute).

Third, I dredged up titles of books I’d read to the kids when they were younger. For example, I knew of a novel called Journey to the Alamo by Melodie A Cuate. It’s one of those stories where modern-day children get whisked back in time by a magical trunk, and find themselves in the midst of the battle. Not especially strong for high schoolers, but a favorite for the middle-grade kids, and helpful for the search threads on offer when looking on Amazon.

Combining engaging, narrative non-fiction with a scrapbook, and applying it to high school unit studies makes history lessons memorable.

The last leg of this preparatory journey was my local library. It has a very creditable collection of Texas history books, its shelves fairly full of living books in the adult section. It was here that I hit on the best find: my spine book of the year.

Good-bye to a River is a memoir by John Graves, and its opening lines are Extract 2 above. He took a canoeing trip down the Brazos in the 50s, and along the way, picked up lore and legend, myth and hearsay, and as he floated down the river, camped on the shores, fished and hunted and tried to keep his puppy warm and dry, he turned the adventure into a reminiscence of frontier days of the 1880s.

The only problem with the book is that it has its moments of gruesome raids and scalpings due to the time period it’s focused on, so I think it needs some careful pre-reading and perhaps editing – or even skipping entirely – some of the chapters.

Photo by Dr. Kat Patrick

My second book of choice was Sam Houston’s Republic, the book I found from the “Classic Housewife” blog I mentioned above. While it’s definitely a living book, it turned out to be a disappointment. It’s not very well written, extremely digressive, and the kids literally groaned whenever I opened it.

Not a good sign, but you win some, you lose some.

Once you have your spine books, it’s now time to plot out your general direction. For Texas history, I chose to focus on regime change. That is, the famous “six flags of Texas”. We began the year by looking at the era of indigenous peoples, then moved into the Spanish quest for gold and glory, and, to a lesser extent, French forays in the eastern regions, then colonial Mexico, independent Republic, and the difficult years of unity and civil war. The overall idea was to vist the six flags of Texas while acknowledging the ever-present danger of the Comanche peoples to the north.

Along the way, we did a couple of weeks on just bird-watching and making a mini-study on them. I also assigned each student to research one of the luminaries of the Alamo on their own, then present their biographies to the class complete with some way of presenting the information in their scrapbooks.

I hope this glimpse at a lapbook unit study with living books will encourage you to try something like this in your own homeschooling year. The reason I really like it is that the children can look back over their portfolios for many years to come, re-visit the material, and gain ideas and experience for similar projects in their future.

There’s also been research into lapbooking and brain development, particularly in boys because of the way it integrates both their right-brain and left-brain thinking unlike most school activities don’t.

The source for this claim as well as more examples of folds, tabs, flaps and

Photo by Dr. Kat Patrick

wheels, pictures of lapbook elements, and using them in co-op settings, can be found on my Boyschooling blog at this label link:
* Extract 1 is from a school textbook that was found on a Moodle online for Northwest School District, but without a title page or any publication information. Extract 2 is from Goodbye to a River by John Graves.

2 thoughts on “Living Lapbooks for Teens”

    • Thank you so much, I am THRILLED to hear you love it! Please feel free to chime in with anything you’d like to see in the future too. 🙂 And did you notice the special? Use BACK2SCHOOL when you check out and you’ll save 25% on the first two years of print, it’s good until the end of August!


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