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Remember when we were young and I conducted these craaaazy polls asking you guys to vote on your Top 10 Picture Books and Top 10 Children’s Novels? Remember when I enlisted the help of some talented survey monkeys and we calculated the results, coming up with some top 100 lists? And remember when I promised you that if you signed up you could get jaw-droppingly gorgeous PDFs, suitable for printing/framing of the Top 10 of each list with the full 100 along the side? Yeah, whatever happened with that?
Well the good news is that the people of SLJ have bent over backwards to make these PDFs as pretty as can be. They’re up. They’re amazing. And if you haven’t gotten a copy you can just fill out the form for the Top 100 Children’s Novels here and the Top 100 Picture Books here and they’ll be sent to you.
How easy on the eyes are they? A glimpse:
There are even quotes from readers included that didn’t make it into the online edition.
So sign-up! It’s free and colorful. My two favorite things in life.
By: Betsy Bird
Blog: A Fuse #8 Production
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, Ayun Halliday
, Becky Quiroga Curtis
, book to film adaptations
, censorship issues
, Giant Dance Party
, James Dashner
, Lois Duncan
, Micah Player
, my books
, Sally Ride
, Stephenie Meyer
, tattoos for every occasion
, The Infinity Ring series
, Tomi Ungerer
, Top 100 Children's Novels Poll
, Top 100 Picture Books Poll
, Add a tag
I apologize for the recent radio silence, folks. There’s something goofy in the state of Fuse 8. For one thing, I can’t seem to comment on my own posts. Most peculiar. I will assume that this is just a passing fancy of the blog and that all will be well and good from this day forward. Onward then!
This year, as some of you may know, I eschewed plastering myself with fake tattoos in favor of instead impaling myself with Shrinky Dinks at the Newbery/Caldecott Banquet. Shrinky Dinks: The classy choice. I did this because I was tired of picking clumps of multicolored skin off of my arms in airports, but if we want to get to the real reason behind the reason I can sum it up in three words: Becky Quiroga Curtis. More specifically, Becky Quiroga Curtis, the Children’s Book Buyer and Event Coordinator of Books & Books (also known as one of the only reasons to visit Miami). This is a woman who takes her love of children’s books and turns it hardcore. Oh, you think you love picture books? Really? Enough to have them tattooed onto your arm?!?! Just one arm, mind you. In any case, you can see how she convinces artists to draw on her arm here and you can see a feature on her at the Scholastic blog On Our Minds here and an older PW article on her here. You can also enjoy a slew of posts showing the tattoos if you follow the Becky’s Arm tag. Hard. Core.
- By the way, folk. A bunch of you signed up to get cool PDFs of my Top 100 polls, yes? You may be wondering where the heck those PDFs are, yes? Well fear not. I have it from on high that they are almost done, looking good, and you should see them within the next week or so. Stay tuned, faithful readers!
- On the One Hand: The recent news that Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan is being turned into a film is fantastic and I am very excited indeed.
- On the Other Hand: The book is being turned into a screenplay by . . . . Stephenie Meyer. Hubba wha?
- So I was looking at the very cool Spring 2013 Sneak Preview provided by PW, which offers a glimpse of some of the upcoming books next year. Fun stuff. And as I look I note several things of interest. The most notable is by far the fact that Yuyi Morales has a book coming out called Niño Wrestles the World that features a kid dressed as a Mexican wrestler . . . I’m beyond thrilled. Oh, and then there’s this little picture book coming out with Greenwillow called, um, Giant Dance Party. And who is it by? Well let’s see here. . . could it be by me? I do believe it could be. *smile*
#5 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
The book that made me a reader, by a writer whose pure enthusiasm for life and story carries you on a lion’s back through the best of adventures. – Susan Van Metre
I remember at my vast old age in 7th grade sadly concluding that I was too old for the Narnia books now. (I had already read them many times.) Then I took them up again in college and found new riches. I know I will never “outgrow” them again. No kid who reads this book will ever look at a closet door the same way again. – Sondra Eklund
The first series I read to myself, starting halfway through when I switched from listening to my mom read them aloud, to sneaking them off to my room to read ahead. I was convinced that someday I would meet the Pevensies and tell them that I knew about Narnia, too. Sadly, Turkish Delight did not live up to my expectations. – Jessalynn Gale
I still remember the day I finished this book, laying on my parent’s family room couch on a bright, sunny summer day. I would have been playing outside in the sprinkler had I been able to put it down. Instead I was SOBBING on the couch as Aslan died. I finished it and read it again. And again. I don’t always think the oldest, most classic version of a tale is the one that kids should keep rending. If someone else comes along and does the tale better, by all means, let’s read that one… but has anyone done this better? – Nicole Johnston Wroblewski
I remember a sense of magic while reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child. And I’m not referring to the magic contained in the storylines. But rather the giddy awe of falling into the story. It was thrilling. It’s a very specific emotion, one I don’t think we have a word for, one I don’t think I’ve ever felt as an adult — but it’s an emotion that I remember perfectly. The characters and worlds seemed so alive. I think it’s one of the few times I really felt transported to another place through the pages of a book. And being the Chronicles of Narnia, that’s rather fitting. – Aaron Zenz
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are sent to stay with a kind professor who lives in the country, they can hardly imagine the extraordinary adventure that awaits them. It all begins one rainy summer day when the children explore the Professor’s rambling old house. When they come across a room with an old wardrobe in the corner, Lucy immediately opens the door and gets inside. To her amazement, she suddenly finds herself standing in the clearing of a wood on a winter afternoon, with snowflakes falling through the air. Lucy has found Narnia, a magical land of Fauns and Centaurs, Nymphs and Talking Animals — and the beautiful but evil White Witch, who has held the country in eternal winter for a hundred years.”
According to 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey (do you own your copy yet?) when Lewis was sixteen he envisioned a faun carrying an umbrella in a wood full of snow. “Then nine years later, a lion leapt into a story, and Lewis began working on a book entitled ‘The Lion’.” I was unaware that he was only twenty-five when he began the tale. He’d be fifty-two by the time it published, though. That’s what we call in the business a gestation period. He did show an early manuscript to one Roger Lancelyn Green, though, and Green helped him get his manuscript up to snuff. The book was originally meant to stand alone, which is part of the reason it bugs me when publishers release
#4 The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
The original dystopian. – Jennifer Padgett
My 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Morgan, read this aloud to us. My best friend and I checked a copy out of the library and finished it on a sleepover, sharing a single copy until we finished it because we could not wait. – Jessalynn Gale
It’s likely that Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Medal winner has introduced more readers to dystopian fiction than any other book. Covering themes of mortality and religion, it’s also a regular on the most challenged list. One thing is for sure – you’ll never forgot it. – Travis Jonker
One of the cooler things about getting old is when you meet adults younger than you who, for instance, may have read an amazing book you first read when you were 18 but THEY read at that perfect book age, when they were 10 or 11, and it is for them what YOUR #1 is for you, and it’s like, WHOA. Awesome. I loved it enough when I was 18. – Amy M. Weir
I think I might have an little bit of a Lois Lowry addiction. I had such a strong need to read The Giver while I was abroad in the Middle East that I wept with joy when I happened to find a copy of it in a used bookstore in Damascus. – Dana Chidiac
Blew my little mind. – Miriam Newman
The plot description from the publisher reads, “December is the time of the annual Ceremony at which each twelve-year-old receives a life assignment determined by the Elders. Jonas watches his friend Fiona named Caretaker of the Old and his cheerful pal Asher labeled the Assistant Director of Recreation. But Jonas has been chosen for something special. When his selection leads him to an unnamed man-the man called only the Giver-he begins to sense the dark secrets that underlie the fragile perfection of his world.”
As per usual we turn to good old 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey for the skinny on the creation of this title. It was her twenty-first novel, you know. No newbie to the children’s literature biz (as the fans of Anastasia Krupnik will all attest) the book was inspired by both the old and the young. On the one hand, Lowry was visiting her parents in the nursing home. Her mother had retained her memory but lost her sight. Her father could see but was losing her memory. This became coupled with a comment from Lowry’s grandson while on a Swan Boat ride in the Boston Public Garden. “He said to her ‘Have you ever noticed that when people think they are manipulating ducks, actually ducks are manipulating people?’ “ Mrs. Mallard from Make Way for Ducklings would have something to say about that, I think. Whatever the case, these seemingly disparate thoughts combined in Lowry’s brain giving us the book we have today.
It was a big time hit from the start. Maybe this was partly due to the fact that it was the first middle grade dystopian novel to get any attention since the early 1980s. For a while there, folks were convinced that the ending of the book was ambiguous. Does Jonas live? Does he die? In her Newbery speech Ms. Lowry said, “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.” Ambiguity sort of went out the window, though, when the sequels Gathering Blue, Messenger and Son (out this fall) came out and Jonas was wandering about.
It gets cha
#3 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)
Oh, our family got hours and hours and hours of enjoyment out of these books. We read all of the first five out loud as a family, with no reading ahead. (Or as little reading ahead as we could stand.) Her imaginative details are unsurpassed, and she’s knows how to leaven her writing with plenty of humor. – Sondra Eklund
Sometimes hype is just hype, but when it came to the anticipation surrounding the release of each Harry, the substance of what was hoped for met the expectation. Beyond Block-buster movies and Lego sets, beat the heart of true heroism. By the end of the seven book saga every character on the side of right had a moment to shine. From Mrs. Weasley, to Neville, all the way down to Dudley and his cup of tea. Rowling stands alongside Jane Austen in her ability to allow her characters to open their mouths and prove themselves a fool. Rowling also created, hands down, the most evil villain in all of Children’s lit. No, I’m not looking at you Tom Riddle. Delores Umbridge wears that vile crown. Voldemort never put on airs that he was anything other than a power mad megalomaniac, whereas Umbridge coated her pious bigotry in pink virtue and creepy kittens. There lies a cautionary tale. – DaNae Leu
There’s a boy who lives in a cupboard under the stair, and he has an unusual scar on his forehead… Harry Potter is no doubt the most famous wizard since Gandalf, but what makes him and his friends at Hogwarts so compelling that half the world seemed to be reading the series at some point? I would say that Rowling showed us the power of writing about friendship and writing with originality. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are easy to root for, and things like quidditch and every-flavor jelly beans are the freshest details in children’s fiction since Cinderella showed up in a pumpkin coach wearing glass slippers. – Kate Coombs
Although not necessarily the best in the series, this was really a ground-breaking book. I love the way that the reader is drawn into the story. Harry is an “everyman” character, not knowing any more about magic and the wizarding world than we do, and so we learn along with him. I think Rowling is very respectful of the young reader in this book, not over-explaining things like the Cerberus and the “mirror of erised,” but rather giving the reader the opportunity to make discoveries. – Sarah Flowers
The first book is one of the most generic in a series that becomes increasingly (and rewardingly) complex in it’s study of human nature, but it’s an essential beginning, and still a great one. Seeing Hogwarts for the first time is as satisfying in rereads as it was the first time around. Harry Potter is a pleasure that, once having, you never want to give up. – Nicole Johnston Wroblewski
I love this series not only for its fantasy, imagination, love, courage, and loyalty shown in the book; there are also a lot of situations, characters, that can be used as discussion materials with students from third grade up. This series will become a new classic. – Dudee Chiang
Turned the tide of children’s literature. – Cheryl Phillips
The description from the publisher reads, “Orphaned as a baby, Harry Potter has spent 11 awful years living with his mean aunt, uncle, and cousin Dudley. But everything changes for Harry when an owl delivers a mysterious letter inviting him to attend a school for wizards. At this special school, Harry finds friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, a
#1 Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
I’m sure this will be number one again, and for good reason. A magical barnyard that maintains its “barn”ness. Amazing stuff. – Heather Christensen
I know, I know it’s so predictable but I loved this book as a kid (despite having a terrible fear of spiders) and still love it as an adult. It has changed and grown with me – and isn’t that the testament of something that is truly great? As a kid I saw it as a book about friendship and now I see it is a book about loss. It’s deep stuff. And nothing is better than the audiobook read by E.B. White. I like to have it on in the background while I do mundane things like clean and fold laundry hoping that I will absorb some of his genius. – Sharon Ozimy
Because it has to be here. I adore this story of friendship and farm smells. Even if a child has never experienced farm life up close, they will immediately identify with Fern’s desire to rescue Wilber and put doll clothes on him. As a rule I am not drawn to talking animal books, but when it comes to geese with speech impediments I’m putty-utty in the masterful E. B. White’s hands. - DaNae Leu
My second grade teacher read this to our class in the 1960’s. This was my first experience with chapter book. I’ve read it again several times as a child and a teacher myself. – Dee Sypherd
The first chapter book that I read by myself and the first chapter book I read out aloud to my own boys. Timeless language, animal characters… lovely – Charlotte Burrows
A children’s book that has stood the test of time and never grows old. – Pam Coughlan
All of my boys have had this classic read aloud to them, then we watch the movie with popcorn and candy. It’s a rite of passage into the club of reading in our family. – Tess Alfonsin
I read this book for the first time during the summer between 3rd and 4th grades. It was then that I decided it was more interesting to lay in bed and read rather than watch cartoons. I was hooked from the very start, and I could barely put the book down long enough to eat or sleep. – The Sauls Family
Humble. Radiant. Terrific. Some Pig. – Hotspur Closser
I’ve never looked at a spider or a pig in quite the same way since. – DeAnn Okamura
” ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
And here we reach the end of the Top 100 Children’s Novels poll results. I think what I’ve learned from redoing my old polls is that some books are so firmly entrenched in the public consciousness that it is impossible to conduct a poll of this sort and expect them to be anywhere but #1. And you, Charlotte’s Web, you will always be number one to American children and adults everywhere.
The plot, as it appears in Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book reads, “In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte, a spider, serves as the main protagonists; Fern, a young girl, plays a supporting role. Both females work to sve the life of Wilbur, the runt pig of the litter. In fact, the reader learns to appreciate an entire group of talking animals and watch their interactions in the barn. Than at the state fair, Charlotte asserts the power of the pen – in this case the words she weaves in her web. With just seven words, she convinces everyone that Wilbur, “some pig,” is truly something special and must
#11 When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009)
I sell this to kids in the library by saying it’s a cross between Beverly Clearly and Lost. And I always say “the ending will BLOW YOUR MIND.” Because it does. – Sharon Ozimy
This is a book you can give to any kind of kid with any kind of interest and they will probably like it. Adults too. It’s such a strange but expertly written sci-fi meets mystery meets… something else. It’ll also make you scratch your brain a whole lot thinking about destiny and free-will. – Nicole Johnston
Sometimes, not very often, you pick up a book and read it, and when you finish, you think, This book was whole and complete and beautifully, wonderfully crafted. That’s the experience I had reading When You Reach Me. Not a cliché in sight, just clean, pure prose and a story that takes you by the hand and doesn’t let go till the last word. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to thank the author personally for writing it. – Kate Coombs
Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written. – Sam Eddington
Why helloooo, little miss I-almost-made-it-to-the-top-ten-children’s-novels-of-all-time! The last time this book appeared on the Top 100 list I wrote, “There is no way of knowing if When You Reach Me would be this high on the list if it hadn’t just won itself a shiny gold Newbery Medal. When I redo this poll in ten years, there is a fairly good chance that the book will either disappear entirelly from this list, or crawl even higher in the estimation of folks as more and more people read it.” Well, it hasn’t been ten years yet, but judging how quickly this book climbed from its original position at #39, things are looking up, don’t you think?
The summary from my original review reads, “It’s the late 70s and the unthinkable has occurred. While walking home, Miranda’s best friend Sal is punched in the stomach for no good reason. After that, he refuses to hang out with Miranda anymore. Forced to make other friends, Miranda befriends the class yukster and a girl who has also recently broken up with her best friend too. But strange things are afoot in the midst of all this. Miranda has started receiving tiny notes with mysterious messages. They say things like ‘I am coming to save your friend’s life and my own’ and ‘You will want proof. 3 p.m. today: Colin’s knapsack.’ Miranda doesn’t know who is writing these things or where they are coming from but it is infinitely clear that the notes know things that no one could know. Small personal things that seem to know what she’s thinking. Now Miranda’s helping her mom study for the $20,000 Pyramid show all the while being driven closer and closer to the moment when it all comes together. When you eliminate the possible all that remains, no matter how extraordinary, is the impossible.”
Originally titled You Are Here (which may explain the image on the cover a bit better), author Rebecca Stead had only previously written the science fiction middle grade novel First Light, before penning this newest book. In May of 2009 I, being no fool, interviewed Rebecca right quick so as to talk to her about the book. I asked her where the ideas for the book came from. She answered, “The ‘big idea’ behind the book w
#13 The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (1997)
I wish this series had been out when I was a kid! One of the best written ever. – Martha Sherod
A classic adventure story that’s still less than 20 years old. I love Gen, and loved being completely surprised by the ending the first time around. - Libby Gorman
When we were reading to both our kids together, my older son said we had to read this book next. I was skeptical, but by the time I finished, I was a complete fan. And it grows on me with each rereading — because I notice more clever things each time. – Sondra Eklund
Eugenides may be my favorite literary character that I would not want to actually hang out with in real life. - Ann Carpenter
While I might love the later books in the series a bit more, it’s easier to argue that this one is a middle grade book. Plus, it’s where it all started and it features one of my favorite fictional twists ever. – Jessalyn Gale
Previously #83 on this list I have this mental image of Eugenides taking a flying leap and crawling his way up a book 70 places to reside here in the top twenty at last. The last time I conducted this poll I wondered what would happen if Ms. Turner’s vast fan network were aware of this poll. This time around it seems they still didn’t hear about it in time. Otherwise you can bet he’d be residing proudly at #1.
The plot, as described on the author’s own website, reads, “The most powerful advisor to the King of Sounis is the magus. He’s not a wizard, he’s a scholar, an aging solider, not a thief. When he needs something stolen, he pulls a young thief from the King’s prison to do the job for him. Gen is a thief and proud of it. When his bragging lands him behind bars he has one chance to win his freedom– journey to a neighboring kingdom with the magus, find a legendary stone called Hamiathes’s Gift and steal it. Simple really, except for the mountains in between, the temple under water, and the fact that no one has ever gone hunting Hamiathes’s Gift and returned alive. The magus has plans for his King and his country. Gen has plans of his own.”
The Thief, as it turns out, was only Turner’s second book. This might surprise some folks who find her writing to be particularly good. Yet her first published title was actually a short story collection called Instead of Three Wishes. And how did she get that published? In an interview with HipWriterMama she said, “I owe it all to Diana Wynne Jones. She recommended my work to Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow.” In her entry in Contemporary Authors Online, some note is made of the creation of this book. “Published the year after Instead of Three Wishes, Turner’s debut novel The Thief was inspired by a vacation she and her husband took to Greece, where they became steeped in the history and landscape of the Mediterranean.” Prior to that she’d had a vague idea for a book. “I did have an idea in mind about a group of people traveling together with one severely undervalued member of the party, but I couldn’t start writing until I decided on the setting.” With Greece, that little problem was solved.
This is the first in a series too. The next books to follow (so far anyway) were The Queen of Attolia (2000), The King of Attolia (2006), and A Conspiracy of Kings (2010).
#12 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)
After all these years, this one is still my favorite: it’s the last true Middle Grade novel of the bunch, and it’s got everything: adventure, scary sequences, a daring escape, and time travel. And I can’t beat that my kids still adore Harry and his world. – Melissa Fox
Love this series, like everyone else. I chose #3 because when I read it, I knew enough about Harry’s world to get right into and feel at home, which is part of what I think the overall appeal is…that you could almost see yourself going to Hogwarts. I also love the Ron and Hermione interaction in this book, and Hermione’s developments (time turner classes, taking on Malfoy) in particular. – Libby Gorman
The best balance of funny and charming to dark and exciting. – Emily Myhr
Now this IS an interesting development. Remember that I asked folks to only list the first book in a series unless they felt that a sequel deserved to stand on its own. Not only has #3 in the Harry Potter series cracked the Top 20 but it came THIS CLOSE to cracking the top ten too! Previously appearing at #18, Rowling’s most beloved sequel has its following. Oh yes indeed it does. And to be perfectly honest, it’s my favorite Harry too. It was the first HP I ordered from Britain because, at that time, you could get the English edition faster than the American. I also preferred the English covers (though that love affair was soon to grow sour).
The plot description from Amazon reads, “For most children, summer vacation is something to look forward to. But not for our 13-year-old hero, who’s forced to spend his summers with an aunt, uncle, and cousin who detest him. The third book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series catapults into action when the young wizard ‘accidentally’ causes the Dursleys’ dreadful visitor Aunt Marge to inflate like a monstrous balloon and drift up to the ceiling. Fearing punishment from Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon (and from officials at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry who strictly forbid students to cast spells in the nonmagic world of Muggles), Harry lunges out into the darkness with his heavy trunk and his owl Hedwig. As it turns out, Harry isn’t punished at all for his errant wizardry. Instead he is mysteriously rescued from his Muggle neighborhood and whisked off in a triple-decker, violently purple bus to spend the remaining weeks of summer in a friendly inn called the Leaky Cauldron. What Harry has to face as he begins his third year at Hogwarts explains why the officials let him off easily. It seems that Sirius Black–an escaped convict from the prison of Azkaban–is on the loose. Not only that, but he’s after Harry Potter. But why? And why do the Dementors, the guards hired to protect him, chill Harry’s very heart when others are unaffected?”
While reviewing this book for the New York Times, author Gregory Maguire considered the ramifications of Harry’s world in the article Lord of the Golden Snitch. Said he, “C. S. Lewis made a literary distinction between fantasy as magical happenings and fantasy as wish fulfillment. ‘Lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story. … We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairyland. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl.’ Lewis concludes that stories that satisfy the desire for magic are healthy for the imagination and the spirit, while stories that pander to the desire to be Head Boy or sports star are dangerous “
#14 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1938)
I know this isn’t exactly a children’s book, but I first read it when I was nine, and I loved it so much I read it and the LOTR trilogy over and over until I was “grounded” from checking them out anymore. - Anna Ruhs
Probably my favorite book kid or adult, reading it has remained a pleasure throughout the years – and there are quite a few years for me. – Pam Coughlan
I remember reading this book on the way to elementary school and having to stop right when Bilbo was in the tunnel leading to the dragon’s lair. That was excruciating! – Sondra Eklund
Undoubtedly the upcoming movie has helped grease the memories of my readers, but I’m sure it would be just as high on this list, cinematic adaptation or no.
The synopsis from Amazon reads, “‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’ The hobbit-hole in question belongs to one Bilbo Baggins, an upstanding member of a ‘little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves.’ He is, like most of his kind, well off, well fed, and best pleased when sitting by his own fire with a pipe, a glass of good beer, and a meal to look forward to. Certainly this particular hobbit is the last person one would expect to see set off on a hazardous journey; indeed, when Gandalf the Grey stops by one morning, ‘looking for someone to share in an adventure,’ Baggins fervently wishes the wizard elsewhere. No such luck, however; soon 13 fortune-seeking dwarves have arrived on the hobbit’s doorstep in search of a burglar, and before he can even grab his hat or an umbrella, Bilbo Baggins is swept out his door and into a dangerous adventure. The dwarves’ goal is to return to their ancestral home in the Lonely Mountains and reclaim a stolen fortune from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they and their reluctant companion meet giant spiders, hostile elves, ravening wolves–and, most perilous of all, a subterranean creature named Gollum from whom Bilbo wins a magical ring in a riddling contest.”
In Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children I discovered a veritable treasure trove of information about this book. And while I’d love to just lift the whole passage hook line and sinker, I will endeavor to hit only the highlights.
Where did the book come from? Well, like many fine books on this list, Mr. Tolkien had a tendency to tell his kids stories about Bilbo. He’d already written about Middle-earth in The Silmarillion so it wasn’t hard to continue in that world. Once a publisher showed interest, Tolkien was asked to illustrate the book himself, so he did, creating two maps and the runes. “Tolkien had even hoped that some of the lettering on the map would be printed using ‘invisible ink.’ However, the publishers found this idea too expensive, and, eventually, the map – with all the letters completely visible – appeared a the front endpaper.”
The craziest thing is that Tolkien went back and changed The Hobbit years later when he was finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy that would follow. Chapter Five or “Riddles in the Dark” (the Gollum chapter) got a few changes. Good luck finding the earlier edition then!
Now part of the reason that Allen & Unwin decided to publish the book in the first place was because Mr. Unwin gave the manuscript to his son Rayn
#15 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
This the very first book I read by myself, and my dad insists I read this book to him over 1000 times. It’s one of the few picture books I keep on my shelf, rather than my son’s. – Erin Moehring
Back before having small children zapped my time/attention span, I read this every year around March. Because it feels like spring. And “Here Comes the Sun” is my favorite song. These may be related. – Amy M. Weir
How nice to start a book with an irritating child instead of a lovable one. And Mary’s plea, “Might I have a bit of earth?” has been calling across the decades to hundreds of young readers who long for—something. It took Frances Hodgson Burnett to give that yearning a shape, and even if the shape isn’t quite what a particular child might ultimately choose, the reader knows the feeling for what it is. This is a book about hope. Its old-fashioned plot about Colin being healed rather mystically is almost beside the point. There’s just something magical about that secret garden. – Kate Coombs
Coming in at #8 on the previous poll, Mary Lennox slips a little, leaving wide open another spot on the top ten. Meanwhile this is almost a perfect children’s book.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “Has any story ever dared to begin by calling its heroine, ‘the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen’ and, just a few sentences later, ‘as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived?’ Mary Lennox is the ‘little pig,’ sent to Misselthwaite Manor, on the Yorkshire moors, to live with her uncle after her parents die of cholera. There she discovers her sickly cousin Colin, who is equally obnoxious and imperious. Both love no one because they have never been loved. They are the book’s spiritual secret gardens, needing only the right kind of care to bloom into lovely children. Mary also discovers a literal secret garden, hidden behind a locked gate on her uncle’s estate, neglected for the ten years since Colin’s birth and his mother’s death. Together with a local child named Dickon, Mary and Colin transform the garden into a paradise bursting with life and color. Through their newfound mutual love of nature, they nurture each other, until they are brought back to health and happiness.”
A.S. Byatt once referred to Frances Hodgson Burnett as “Perhaps the first truly transatlantic writer.” This may strike you as strange, until you know the woman’s history. When The Secret Garden was written Ms. Burnett was living in . . . wait for it . . Long Island, New York! Tis true. According to Elizabeth Keyster in the October 1991 edition of Hollins Critic, ” An Anglo-American, Burnett came to the United States while in her teens, returned to England for nine years in midlife, then spent the remainder of her life in this country.” By this point in her career she’d already written Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess so her reputation was secure. According to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, “First serialized in American Magazine, the story appeared under the title ‘Mistress Mary.’ It sold out its first edition even before publication and was widely read by adult fans of Burnett’s earlier books, but it achieved little notoriety during the author’s life.” Instead, she got far more praise for Fauntleroy of all things. Says Silvey, “In fact, her New York Times obituary never even mentioned The Secret Garde
#10 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)
I had read many other books where characters died, but it was always for a “good” or “glorious” reason. This was the first time I read a book that reflected real life, where death is sudden, pointless, and gut-wrenching. I was so upset that I refused to re-read the book for years. – Ann Carpenter
The teacher read this book to our class. I still remember that punch-in-the-stomach shock and trying-not-to-cry throat ache I felt when she read the ending. I never knew before Bridge to Terabithia that a story could make you care so much about people who don’t actually exist. – Bigfoot Reads
“The time a child needs a book about life’s dark passages is before he or she has had to experience them. We need practice with loss, rehearsal for grieving, just as we need preparation for decision making.” – Katherine Paterson.
Our former National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature appears yet again on this list, and her Terabithia (which did not crack the Top Ten last time around) sits proudly here.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “All summer, Jess pushed himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, and when the year’s first school-yard race was run, he was going to win. But his victory was stolen by a newcomer, by a girl, one who didn’t even know enough to stay on the girls’ side of the playground. Then, unexpectedly, Jess finds himself sticking up for Leslie, for the girl who breaks rules and wins races. The friendship between the two grows as Jess guides the city girl through the pitfalls of life in their small, rural town, and Leslie draws him into the world of imaginations world of magic and ceremony called Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess rule supreme among the oaks and evergreens, safe from the bullies and ridicule of the mundane world. Safe until an unforeseen tragedy forces Jess to reign in Terabithia alone, and both worlds are forever changed.”
How did it come about? According to Children’s Literature Review Paterson’s career started in this way: “In 1964 Paterson began her professional writing career formulating curricula for school systems. She eventually began writing fiction and, nine years later, her first novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, was published in 1973. While her literary career began flourishing during the 1970s, Paterson was also faced with a number of difficult personal events, including surviving a cancerous tumor and losing her mother to cancer. During this period, her young son David lost a close friend who was tragically struck by lightning. While attending the annual meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington that same year, Paterson recounted her son’s recent loss to the attendees, and Anne Durell, an editor for Dutton Publishing’s children’s literature imprint, suggested that the incident could be the basis for a children’s novel. Thus, Paterson began writing the manuscript for Bridge to Terabithia, which became a critical and popular success.” Durrell, to her credit, also said to Paterson at the time, “Of course, the child can’t die by lightning. No editor would ever believe that.” True.
As Ms. Paterson said in her Newbery acceptance speech, when her son’s best friend was struck by lightning, he went through “all the classical stages of grief, inventing a few the experts have yet to catalogue. In one of these he decided that since Lisa had been good, God had not killed her for her sins but as a punishment for him, David. Moreove
#8 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)
Oh how I wanted to be Anne Shirley growing up! I could relate to her so much-I was imaginative and had a temper to match, so I always felt as though Anne was a kindred spirit. And who wouldn’t want to end up with Gilbert Blythe?? This is a series that whenever I would read them, I would find myself in a “reading fog”. I would stop reading and have to remember that I wasn’t on Prince Edward Island with Anne and Diana. It always seemed like such a magical place and I wished for those books to be real. A friend said it best when she told me “there’s always a Anne book for every stage of life.” I think that’s what makes them timeless. – Sarah (Green Bean Teen Queen)
Anne took this skinny, awkward, mousy-haired suburban lass from the age of bell bottoms and sunset-print polyester shirts and dropped her into a world of Victorian charm. A world of puffed sleeves, bosom friends, strolls down wooded lanes, and unbridled imagination. I must have reread Gilbert rescuing Anne from under the bridge a million times. Oh, the transforming power of literature on a young romantic soul. Anne, how I dreamed of being you. – DaNae Leu
L. M. Montgomery’s books are the sort of books I reread every few years just to feel that life is good. – Sondra Eklund
L.M. Montgomery, to my mind, single-handedly destroys the notion that authors give themselves initials as their first names so as to throw off potential male readers who wouldn’t want a book penned by a woman. Is there any book in this world girlier than Anne of Green Gables? Or, for that matter, any other of Ms. Montgomery’s works? Be that as it may be, tis a fine novel for both the boy and girl set. Aside from Pippi Longstocking, there’s no other literary redhead of quite the same tomboyish aspects as our Anne.
How it came to be: In 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey we learn that when Ms. Montgomery began writing the book she, “first intended the story to be a mere seven chapters long, ideal for a serial treatment in a Sunday school paper.” That plan quickly fell by the wayside and so she submitted it to several publishers. It was rejected multiple times, and according to What Katy Read, after she got four rejections in a row, “Montgomery put the manuscript in an old hat-box, intending at some later date to cut it back to its original proportions. But she changed her mind when she rediscovered the forgotten work in the winter of 1906, and decided to try it out once more.” So it reached L.C. Page and Company. They offered her “either an outright fee of $500 or a royalty of 9 cents a book.” Thank the heavens above she went with the royalty. Her first royalty check = $1730. The book was an instant hit.
Obviously the publisher wanted sequels and she obliged, though she would say that the, “freshness of the idea was gone . . . I simply built it. Anne, grown-up, couldn’t be made as quaint and unexpected as the child Anne.” Seven books would follow, but they never quite lived up to the first.
Book #1 remains hugely beloved. Indeed in December 2009 a first edition of this book sold at auction for $37,500. This smashed the previous child vintage children’s novel record of a mere $24,000. Sotheby’s also auctioned off the book in 2005, but that sale was marred slightly by the fact that the
#7 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967)
A brother and sister run away to Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City. Is it plausible? Dude, you’re missing the point. For kids, this 1968 Newbery Medal winner is escapist fiction at its best. – Travis Jonker
I listened to this book on audiobook cassette every night for weeks in the fourth grade. I was too shy to run away to a museum, so I lived vicariously through Claudia and Jamie. Add in an art mystery? I was obsessed! This was also the first I learned the sad truth about movie adaptations. The made for TV movie came out a few years after I read the book and it failed miserably to meet my 13-year-old expectations. I cried so much after the movie aired and consoled myself in the book once again because the book was of course much better. – Sarah (Green Bean Teen Queen)
When I had the kids read this book as part of my library bookgroup I told them all about automats. They were enthralled. Now my library is opening an exhibit that will feature a real automat in the center of the exhibit space. I’m oddly excited about this.
The synopsis from the book itself reads, “Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away . . . so she decided to run not from somewhere but to somewhere – somewhere large, warm, comfortable, and beautiful. And that was how Claudia and her brother, Jamie, ended up living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and right in the middle of a mystery that made headlines.”
Origins. According to Perry Nodelman in American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, “Konigsburg has said the book originated at a family picnic in Yellowstone National Park, during which her children complained about everything they could think of: ‘I realized that if my children ever left home, they would never revert to barbarism. They would carry with them all the fussiness and tidiness of suburban life. Where could they go…? Maybe they could find some way to live with caution and compulsiveness and still satisfy their need for adventure’.” I love that quote. It sort of allows the entire book to make sense to me.
Anita Silvey in 100 Best Books for Children adds in some other pertinent details. “In 1965 she read in the New York Times about the purchase of a statue by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Lady with the Primroses, possibly the work of Leonardo da Vinci.” The characters of Claudia and Jamie were also based on her own kids.
In terms of the book, Nodelman quotes John Rowe Townsend who says, “The fact that Mrs. Frankweiler narrates the whole story, which she herself does not enter until near the end, seems to me to be a major flaw.” Nodelman adds, “indeed, the biggest question about this novel is why Mrs. Frankweiler is in it at all. But it is Mrs. Frankweiler’s presence in the book that allows it to be more than lightweight.”
Pop Quiz, Hotshots: What do the E. and the L. in E.L. Konigsburg’s name stand for? You have until the end of this post to answer correctly. Tick… tick… tick…
When asked in an interview in the February 1986 edition of Language Arts how she crafts her stories, Ms. Konigsburg had this to say: “Somewhere in the course of writing the characters take over and oft
#31 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
A full out absurdist assault at the arbitrary nature of language, Carroll challenges everything about the way we speak and write, from homonyms to idioms. When people talk about children’s movies and books being entertaining for both kids and adults, they usually mean that there are jokes that are way over the heads of the child audience that adults will find funny. The beauty of this novel is that the same exact jokes are equally entertaining to children and adults, often for the same reason, although in some cases adults may understand more clearly why they are funny. It is almost impossible to believe that this novel was written almost 150 years ago, as it remains one of the truly brilliant, and accessible pieces of children’s literature. – Mark Flowers
Because these books freakily enough do look a great deal like the inside of my head. – Amy M. Weir
One comment about your request to try to include more diversity: I considered it pretty seriously, as I am Latina and that kind of thing matters a lot to me. And after looking at my bookshelves, both at home and in my classroom, I concluded that there just isn’t enough out there in middle-grade land yet. In terms of Hispanic or Latino literature, that is. Everything I came up with, including books by Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle and Pam Munoz Ryan felt good, but perhaps not quite good enough for my top 10. And it may be that for this kind of list, we go with books that we remember from childhood, or books we’ve reread hundreds of times over the years, and there just isn’t as much that’s been available for that long. I realized that almost all the books that I look to as inspiring examples of Latino culture and experience are by adult or YA authors, which I thought was interesting. Just an observation. – Cecilia Cackley
I include Cecilia’s comment (which really was her comment for this book) because it brings up an interesting point. It’s important to look at the representation of race on this book, and to see whether or not all cultures have at least some representation. Not so much? Can we infer something from that, good or bad?
Don’t be thinking that the recent 100+ million dollar grossing Tim Burton film played any part in this appearance on the poll, by the way. Folks were voting for this book long before the Burton ads reached their peak. People just love them some Alice. And how can I object? I love her too. She’s like Dorothy, only she never seems to care whether or not she gets home.
The description of these books’ plots from the publisher reads, “Alice begins her adventures when she follows the frantically delayed White Rabbit down a hole into the magical world of Wonderland, where she meets a variety of wonderful creatures, including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts who, with the help of her enchanted deck of playing cards, tricks Alice into playing a bizarre game of croquet. Alice continues her adventures in Through the Looking-Glass, which is loosely based on a game of chess and includes Carroll’s famous poem Jabberwocky.”
Foul play, cry the masses. Two books as one? ‘Fraid so. Considering that half the time these books are packaged together as one, I felt few qualms putting them together. Most of the votes were for the two of them anyway, so what does it matter really?
The double quicktime recap of how the books came to be comes via Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Kn
#32 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (1976)
This series took me to a time and place so different from my reality. It opened my eyes and made me think. – Martha Sherod
As with all my polls, there is often a shocking derth of authors of color. However, there was never any doubt in my mind that Mildred Taylor’s classic novel would make the list somewhere. I was pleased as punch to see it crest the Top 50 to rest at #32. This is certainly one of the best novels in the whole of children’s literature, as many a child and adult can attest.
The synopsis from B&N reads, “Set in a small town in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this powerful, moving novel deals with issues of prejudice, courage, and self-respect. It is the story of one family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. It is also the story of Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to her family. The racial tension and harrowing events experienced by young Cassie, her family, and her neighbors cause Cassie to grow up and discover the reality of her environment.”
In 100 Best Books for Children Anita Silvey tells of Taylor’s saga in this way: “Mildred Taylor had unsuccessfully tried to reconstruct her family history, and then she heard about a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Booksl After attempting to write a piece using the voice of her father, she shifted the storytelling to a young girl, Cassie Logan, four days before the contest deadline. That shift and the resulting book, Song of the Trees, won the contest for Taylor. On the way home from the award ceremony, Taylor heard from her father and uncle the story of a black boy who had broken into a store and how he was saved from lynching. Taylor began to tell that saga, one that she thought might make an adult book. It turned out to be a book many children’s literature critics consider the most important historical novel in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
Much of the book is based in reality. In fact, to keep her land, the land discussed so often in her books, Ms. Taylor eventually “sold the typewriter on which she had written Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
Silvey says too that “the novel has become the most popular children’s book written by a black writer, selling close to 3 million copies in paperback.”
In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, author Ann Martin credits this book as the one that meant the most to her. She says, “I was exposed to, and distinctly remember, many classic picture books. But the most moving children’s book I’ve ever read was one I encountered as an adult, Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I read it for the first time around 1980, and then I was struck by the story itself, by its messages. Rereading it twenty-five years later, I was able to look at it with a writer’s eye, and I was struck anew.”
In the Slate article Great Kids’ Books About Financial Ruin, a passage is dedicated to this particular book. In it, Slate argues that, “it wasn’t until the recession of the late 1970s that there was a strong resurgence in stories about economic woes,” and, “The book’s message to kids of the ’70s was: If you think the Great Depression was just about a bunch of old white men losing their shirt
#33 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien (1971)
My Dad was my 5th-grade teacher, and he read this book to our class. When I re-read it in library school I was still affected by the story. I have such fond memories of this book. – Hilary Writt
First book I ever stayed up reading, under the covers, with flashlight… just couldn’t put it down. – Charlotte Burrows
Considering O’Brien only wrote 4 children’s books (all of them wonderful), it’s pretty impressive that I seriously considering two of them for my top ten (the other being The Silver Crown). But Mrs. Frisby was such an integral part of my childhood. The mystery of what happened to Jonathan. The slowly unfolding backstory of the Rats. The lee of the stone. The Disney movie has its charms (even the strange change of name to Brisbee), but one of the things that makes this book so amazing (and different from the film) is that, once you get past the idea of talking animals, it is amazingly grounded in real life: animal testing, childhood sickness, death, etc. - Mark Flowers
All right! One of my favorite science fiction books out there (or is it fantasy since Mrs. Frisby can talk too?). You’ve got your rats. Your lee. Your stone. What else do you need?
The plot, according to the publisher, reads, “Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma.”
According to Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Anita Silvey says of the author that, “He wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH while on staff at National Geographic. Since the magazine frowned on their writers developing projects for others, Robert Leslie Conly adopted a pseudonym based on his mother’s name and published this novel covertly.” As a kid, I always wondered why the sequels (Racso and the Rats of NIMH, R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, etc.) were written by a Jane Leslie Conly and not Mr. O’Brien. It makes a lot more sense once you know it was a pseudonym. Jane was actually his daughter. Nice when they keep it in the family like that, eh?
In the end, the man didn’t do that many books. Just The Silver Crown, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, A Report From Group 17 and Z is for Zachariah. I’ve read two of those four. Now I’m mighty curious about The Silver Crown (which gets republished every once in a while) and A Report From Group 17 (which I have NEVER heard of!).
On September 29, 1995, the New York Times reported that Dr. John B. Calhoun, “an ecologist who saw in the bleak effects of overpopulation on rats and mice a model for the future of the human race,” was the inspiration for this book.
British journalist Lucy Mangan is a fan, as it turns out. In Silvey’s book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book she says that after reading a section where Nicodemus speculates about a potential rat society, “I read that when I was nine, and it rocked my world. Everything I took for granted only existed because
#28 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
It’s refreshing when children’s literature tackles grand themes and trusts that the reader can handle them. Such is the case with Philip Pullman’s landmark 1995 fantasy. What’s more grand than a meditation on the human soul? But maybe Pullman’s greatest feat was to craft a story that is exceptional for all, full of bear kings, cowboy aeronauts, and animal “daemons”, it’s a mind-expanding trip. – Travis Jonker
Glorious. And what an ending — simply operatic. – Emily Myhr
For the first time I need to make a titular decision. Do I stay with the Yankee moniker “The Golden Compass” and list the book that way, or do I reach back to the book’s original British roots and call it “Northern Lights”, as was originally intended? Since I didn’t decide to list Pippi Longstocking as Boken Om Pippi Langstrump, I’ll continue to name the books here under their Americanized names. I am, after all, a Yankee.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “The action follows 11-year-old protagonist Lyra Belacqua, accompanied by her daemon, from her home at Oxford University to the frozen wastes of the North, on a quest to save kidnapped children from the evil ‘Gobblers,’ who are using them as part of a sinister experiment. Lyra also must rescue her father from the Panserbjorne, a race of talking, armored, mercenary polar bears holding him captive. Joining Lyra are a vagabond troop of gyptians (gypsies), witches, an outcast bear, and a Texan in a hot air balloon.”
I may have come to the adult world of children’s literature thanks to Harry Potter, but it was Pullman who pulled me in the rest of the way. Living in Portland, Oregon shortly after graduating college (a lovely town to live in, but not ideal for the penniless post-student) I spent a lot of time in Powell’s Bookstore. One day I read an article in the paper that was accompanied by an image of a large cat boxing with Harry Potter and winning. The gist of the piece was that Harry was all well and good, but if you wanted some serious children’s literature you wanted to get your hands on the His Dark Materials books. That’s how they sold Pullman’s series at the start. Reviewers would contemptuously pooh-pooh the Harry Potter phenomenon in light of Pullman’s sophistication. You weren’t supposed to like them both. Many did. And in the coffee shop portion of Powell’s I devoured all three books and found them gripping, each and every one.
The term “embarrassment of riches” comes to mind when searching for information about this book. Particularly in terms of literary scholarship. So the question becomes less, “what is there to say?” and more “what should I not bother to say?” Let us begin at the very beginning then.
In a conversation with Leonard Marcus (found in the book The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy), Pullman describes the “lonely” process of writing the first two books, his dinner with Tolkien, and whether or not he had a plan in mind for the three books from the start. “Not a plan. But I knew what the story was going to be and where it was going to go and when it was going to end, and roughly how long it was going to be. I didn’t intend to write three books. I intended to write a long story. But it very quickly became evident that it would have to be published as three books because otherwise it would just sit on the shelves. It probably wouldn’t have gotten published. Who wou
#29 The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall (2005)
There are two families I would love to live next door to: the Cassons and the Penderwicks. Adorable in it’s classic charm, you can’t help but fall in love with the absent-minded professor father and his four sweet, normal, delightful daughters. – Melissa Fox
The characters are so well-defined, they felt real to me – like friends. Fierce Skye is my favourite; I wish I had had her to read about when I was young and uncompromising. – Emily Myhr
I’m including this book because it’s the perfect marriage between true classics of children’s literature and contemporary children’s fiction. The Penderwick girls live in our 21st Century Society, but they have the same imaginative and exciting outdoor adventures as any Moffat, Melendy, Swallow, Amazon, or Boxcar Child. Batty emerges as one of the strangest and best little sisters I’ve ever read about, and the girls’ empathy for Jeffrey in his struggle against his domineering mother allows them to have an enemy, but one who is not likely to physically harm or destroy them. There are a lot of books about girls that end up mired in friendship drama, boy/girl entanglements, and fights against evil teachers and overprotective parents. The Penderwicks takes a different route, which is refreshing, and which preserves the fun and innocence of childhood for just a while longer. - Katie Ahearn
Proof that you don’t need to live in the days of corsets and long skirts to experience satisfying sisterhood. Batty, Jane, Skye, and Rosalind may your days be long; I know your mark on children’s lit will be. – DaNae Leu
When The Penderwicks swept away the competition at the 2005 National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature it was the first moment I’d heard of this clever mix of homage and downright awesome storytelling. Some of us still scratch our heads from time to time and wonder why it never got that ALA accredited award it so deeply deserved.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures. The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget.”
On her website, Ms. Birdsall explains a bit about where some of the ideas for this book came from. “From my own past, and from the children around me—in particular, my niece and nephew who live nearby. My nephew’s passionate love for animals went right into Batty. His sister’s calm way of going about being the oldest helped me with Rosalind. My nephew was also kind enough to turn into a brilliant soccer player—and is now my expert when I write about Skye and Jane and their antics on the soccer field. I also borrow from other books, especially the ones I loved best when I was young. The idea of four sisters came from Little Women. Batty’s adventure with the bull came from Emily of New Moon.”
#30 Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
I loved that Dahl wrote completely for children. A kid reading Dahl knows he can make something or be someone or do something, no matter what anyone else around him says or does. – Heather Christensen
It just wouldn’t be right to make a list like this without Dahl. Last time, I included The Witches, my personal favorite as a child, but having just read Matilda to my daughter, I have to admit that this one is probably his best written book. – Mark Flowers
Matilda has the customary humor and bits of vileness that all of Dahl’s children’s books have that make them so fun and so true to life. It has loveliness and celebrates knowledge and reading. It has enthralling writing that you just want to devour and wonderful illustration. But most of all it has somebody to cheer for. Yes she has supernatural power, but in the end it’s Matilda’s sensibility and thoughtfulness, it’s just doing the right thing that leads to the take down of a horrible villain and encourages all the kids around her. She’s someone to root for. And it’s like eating candy, reading this book. One of the best storytellers of all time. You must read him, so why not start here? – Nicole Johnston
Those parents! The Trunchbull! What’s not to love? – Tracy Flynn
Watch out for the quiet ones.
It may surprise some to see Matilda standing higher on this list than poor modest Charlie Bucket. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that while most (not all) Dahl books starred boys of one stripe or another (George, James, Charlie, etc.) Matilda was the only gal to get her name front and center in the title. This is the closest Dahl ever got to a feminist vision, and little girls everywhere love them their Matilda. She was a kind of proto-Harry Potter complete with a nasty family and secret magical abilities. For a certain generation, Matilda was our Harry.
The plot description from the book reads, ” ‘The Trunchbull’ is no match for Matilda! Who put superglue in Dad’s hat? Was it really a ghost that made Mom tear out of the house? Matilda is a genius with idiot parents – and she’s having a great time driving them crazy. But at school things are different. At school there’s Miss Trunchbull, two hundred menacing pounds of kid-hating headmistress. Get rid of the Trunchbull and Matilda would be a hero. But that would take a superhuman genius, wouldn’t it?”
This could be all heresay and conjecture, but at a past ALA event I spoke with an editor who told me that Dahl’s original vision for Matilda was quite the opposite of the final product. By all accounts, Dahl wanted Matilda to be a nasty little girl, somewhat in the same vein of Belloc’s Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death. Revision after revision turned her instead into the sweet little thing we all know and love today. He retained her tendency towards revenge, however, and I think that’s another reason the book works as well as it does. In the end Matilda bore some similarities to James and the Giant Peach, though Dahl had the guts to go and make the actual parents in this book the bores, and not just mere aunties.
- In the book Revolting Recipes, there is a recipe for the chocolate cake The Trunchbull makes poor little Bogtrotter devour. That also happens to be my favorite scene, you know.
- True fan dedication.
Publishers Weekly said of it, “Adults may cringe at Dahl’s excesses in
#20 Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (2000)
Because of Winn Dixie was my #1 pick the first time you did the chapter book poll; in the time since, no other book has threatened to overtake its place as my favorite chapter book of all time. It’s one of the greatest dog stories by one of the superstars in children’s literature. – Jennifer Schultz
I’m not a person who likes dog books, but I do like a good story about quirky small-town folk, and Because of Winn Dixie is the best one of those I’ve read. Winn-Dixie is of course the reason Opal is able to make so many friends, but he is just the bridge between Opal and these people, and not really the main focus of the story. Rather, it’s people like recovering alcoholic Gloria Dump, Otis, who plays music for animals, and even Amanda Wilkinson, whose pinched-up face masks an inner pain Opal could never guess – these people are what make the book such a delight, and so interesting to read and re-read. Winn-Dixie is a great dog, and his near-loss at the end of the story tugs at the heartstrings, but what makes this book a favorite for me is how carefully Kate DiCamillo develops each character and his or her pain, and how in so few pages, she is able to heal each person with the magic of friendship. – Katie Ahearn
Sometimes I’ll sit around and lament how there really aren’t enough books where kids live in trailers and their lives aren’t horrendous, horrible, and terrible. And what I forget is that there’s a Newbery Honor book out there that made trailer living something other than the pits. When we talk about lower income characters in children’s literature, forget not the Winn-Dixie.
The plot from the publisher reads, “The summer Opal and her father, the preacher, move to Naomi, Florida, Opal goes into the Winn-Dixie supermarket — and comes out with a dog. With the help of her new pal, whom she names Winn-Dixie, Opal makes a variety of new, interesting friends and spends the summer collecting stories about them and thinking about her absent mother. But because of Winn-Dixie, or perhaps because she has grown, Opal learns to let go, just a little, and that friendship — and forgiveness — can sneak up on you like a sudden summer storm. Recalling the fiction of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers, here is a funny, poignant, and unforgettable coming-of-age novel.”
I love a good How-They-Hit-It-Big story. Gives newbie authors hope, I think. Who hasn’t loved the tale of single mom Joanne Rowling scribbling Harry Potter down in coffee shops or Madeleine L’Engle getting rejected umpty-ump times? In the case of DiCamillo, this was her first big hit. In a 2004 interview with School Library Journal, DiCamillo said that, “In college [at the University of Florida], I attached myself to the idea of becoming a writer mainly because several professors told me that I had a way with words. But it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I actually started to write. Then when I moved to Minnesota, I got a job at a book warehouse. I was assigned to the third floor, which was where all the kids’ books were. I had been writing every day by that point, and I entered into that job with, I think, a prejudice that a lot of literate adults have, which is that children’s literature is something less [than adults']. But then I started to read the books, and I changed my mind.”
According to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, “For years, Kate DiCamillo tried unsuccessfully to get her writing published. Rejected by several publishers, the manuscript for Because of Winn-Dix
#16 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
Imagine coming upon a fountain of youth in a forest. To live forever–isn’t that everyone’s ideal? Babbitt asks profound questions about the meaning of life and death, and leaves the reader with a greater appreciation for the perfect cycle of nature. Intense and powerful, exciting and poignant, Tuck Everlasting will last forever–in the reader’s imagination. – Kristi Hazelrigg
A beautiful story about mortality. Gets you thinking without being morbid. – Nicole Johnston
Wise and engrossing. The writing burns from the first page. – Emily Myhr
I did not think that I liked Tuck Everlasting when I was a kid. I was a sensitive child, which is to say, a wimp. Happy endings were far preferable to unhappy. Life was to be tied up in a neat little bow, thank you very much. None of this moral complexity business. And unhappy children’s literature? Every time I met an ambiguous ending or one that didn’t ascribe to my strict sense of how-a-story-should-end (Stuart Little stands out in the mind) I was perturbed. Seriously perturbed. Tuck Everlasting perturbed me. Yet even as I lamented the lack of a joyous finale as well as the fate of the poor eternal toad at the end (the true victim of the book, in my eyes) I was fascinated with this story. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Here was a book that brought up an issue that humanity has grappled with since the dawn of time. I couldn’t look away. I still can’t.
The plot from American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction reads, “The heroine of Tuck Everlasting, Winnie Foster, is an overprotected child who inhabits a no nonsense house guarded by ‘a capable iron fence.’ Unaware that the spring of eternal life quite literally bubbles in the nearby wood, Winnie has lived in the protected oasis of her home for ten years. When she finally ventures into the woods, she is kidnapped by the Tuck family, who have innocently drunk from the fountain of youth with pernicious results. They learn that immortality without growth, change, or death is an infernal paradise–a curse, not a blessing. The Tucks realize that their secret has cosmic implications, that it must be guarded from the villainous ‘man-in-the-yellow-suit’ at all costs. When this evil person threatens to use the secret to acquire wealth and power for himself and to use Winnie as a freak, after he forces her to drink the water, Mae Tuck kills him in an act of violent retribution. While the act resembles the swift justice of a folktale, it has complicated consequences. Winnie in her turn must act to save Mae, whom she loves, and to protect the secret, which she is not sure she believes. Eventually the reader learns that Winnie has embraced her mortality and affirmed her humanity, her place on the wheel, by choosing to become ‘Winnie Foster Jackson, Dear Wife, Dear Mother’.”
Back in 2000 Betsy Hearne interviewed Natalie Babbitt in the March/April 2000 issue of Horn Book about the book for its 25th Anniversary. About the story’s creation Babbitt said, “It was hard to find the right way to begin it. There were a couple of other beginnings that aren’t around anymore, because there were so many piles of paper that I finally gave everything to the University of Connecticut. But once I got started it was easy–partly because of the setting, which is a real place. It’s always fun to write about a real place. In upstate New York we had a cabin on a pond, exactly like the Tucks’. . . . Everything about that place in the book is true
#17 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
Obviously. – Denise Rinaldo
More brilliant and sophisticated than most any adult novel, and yet still captivating for my 7 year old. – Lee Behlman
I don’t know which I like best, the people on Harriet’s spy route, the fact that she makes up a middle initial, or the realistically painful way her classmates treat her when they find out she’s been spying on them. And let’s not forget Ole Golly, who makes Mary Poppins look like a complete fraud. Harriet is one of my favorite book characters of all time. - Kate Coombs
There are certainly dated elements, and elements that are so NYC-specific that I think my fifth grader brain must have rolled right over them when I first read it. Even so, there isn’t a girl who could read this an not immediately want to grab a notebook and start up her own neighborhood spy route. There’s a lesson about gossip and secrets and friendship and just plain old growing up at it’s heart, but’s it’s Harriet’s self imposed “job” that’s so thrilling. Harriet M. Welsch was a take charge gal, and I wanted to be just like her. I think, or at least I hope, kids still feel that way reading it today. – Nicole Johnston
“Harriet, you are going to have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them: 1) You have to apologize. 2) You have to lie . . . But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
Any summaries I find of this book tend to sound a little trite, so I guess I go with the one on the book itself. “Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. She’s staked out a spy route, and she writes down everything about everyone she sees – including her classmates and her best friends – in her notebook. ‘I bet the lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and feels just terrible.’ ‘Pinky Whitehead will never change. Does his mother hate him? If I had him I’d hate him.’ Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before Harriet can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?”
You can get quite a bit of backstory on Harriet the Spy from the letters of her editor Ursula Nordstrom. In Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom we learn that “Prior to the publication of Harriet, LF [Louise Fitzhugh] had been known as the illustrator of a send-up of Eloise called Suzuki Beane, by Sandra Scopperttone.” I have searched in vain to see a copy of Suzuki Beane for years, by the way. Apparently there is a copy lurking within my library. Someday I shall request it and see what all the fuss was about.
In a letter to Charlotte Zolotow, Nordstrom mentioned the beginnings of Harriet the Spy in this way. “Anyhow, if you hadn’t called my attention to that Fitzhugh unpublishable picture book we would never have drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise.” She related the full story of Louise’s life and writing in a later letter to Joan Robbins. You see Zolotow, then a senior editor at Harper, had showed Nordstrom some sample pages from Fitzhugh of what would become Harriet’s words about her classmates. So they brought in Louise to explain to her what they wanted the book to be. “Louise sat sullenly, hands jammed into her pockets, while we expressed enthusiasm over what we’d seen . . . After at least an hour she looked up and said, ‘So you’re not really interested, are you?’ We a
#18 The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964)
The best children’s fantasy series I know, and still very much underrated. – Lee Behlman
The assistant pig-keeper’s world is the standard by which Fantasy worlds should conduct themselves. Where three mystical women weave destinies and discuss the digestibility of toads. This is a vote for the series. Although Taran Wanderer is my personal favorite, and The High King is the perfect culmination to this rollicking adventure, the whole is greater than its parts and should be consumed as such. – DaNae Leu
One of the few books in my life I would say was “Important.” It had great influence in shaping me… mentally, emotionally, creatively. I lived in the Prydain books. They had a huge effect on my lifelong tastes and tendencies, and they shaped my writing style as well. – Aaron Zenz
To the uninitiated, Alexander’s best-known series looks like a rough copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s. It would be an unfair characterization. For one thing, Alexander had a sense of humor. For another, one of the things I always loved about this series was the hero’s capacity to learn and grow. Cause when you first meet dorky Taran in this book, you have a pretty hard time believing he’s going to turn into the man in The High King later on down the road.
Laura Ingram describes the plot this way: “The first novel of the series, The Book of Three (1964), is named after a legendary magical book which contains between its covers the wisdom of all time. It is the story of the orphan Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, who is bored with his peaceful life under the care of the farmer Coll and the old magician Dallben. He longs for adventure and the chance to perform heroic deeds and finds them sooner than he expects when the search for the runaway oracular pig, Hen Wen, draws him into a battle between good and evil.”
In Lloyd Alexander’s entry in American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, it is said that, “Alexander’s most important work has been the Prydain cycle, a series of five novels inspired by the Welsh Mabinogion. As originally planned, the novels were to be simple adaptations of these legends, a special interest for Alexander since he encountered them in his research for Time Cat. When he began to dig more deeply into the roots of Welsh mythology, however, the project ‘grew into something much more ambitious.’ He had ‘discovered that place which was, for him, the spiritual expression of something hidden.’ So, Prydain grew into something much more than a thinly disguised ancient Wales; undeniably, it was similar to that land, but reshaped by the addition of contemporary realism, modern values, and a generous dose of humor, as well as the special depth and insight provided by characters who not only act, but think, feel, and struggle with the same kinds of problems that confuse and trouble people in the twentieth century. In addition to human characters, the novels contain magical creatures both good and evil, including members of an ancient line of enchanters, the Sons of Don, who share the Earth with the human race.”
It’s funny to note that it wasn’t universally loved from the start, though. A reviewer for the Junior Bookshelf said that “this sample fails to come up to expectations” and that the people in it were so “trivial… that the menace is rendered ineffectual by their reactions.” Harsh!