Tuesday, July 28, 2009

First Lesson in How to Become a Human Being: The Best Children's Books of All Time

There is a knock down, drag out debate on the worst children's books ever over at the Guardian, and the author of the post gives the award to Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.

My own nomination is The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. There is nothing wrong with the content of this book--and likewise nothing remarkable about it. The problem is with how it is written. I think the problem is that there are some books whose reputation is based, not on the book's quality, but on its place in the history of children's literature. The Five Little Peppers, is, I think, one of these. I tried to read it to my kids once and just had to put it down because you just couldn't read it out loud, the prose was so bad. It is notable only for position as one of the first books written with children in mind. The same is the case with Charles Kingley's Water Babies, and equally atrocious book that is remarkable only for the author's literary pioneering spirit.

But I would like to put the emphasis on the positive here. What are the best children's books? Here's my list of books (in order of reading age) that we have read over and over as a family, and which never get old:
  • Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. We read this to our children when they were very young before they went to bed. There was something comforting and peaceful about the old woman, and the comb, and the brush, and the bowl full of mush. And what fun we had trying to find the mouse on every page.
  • Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss wrote nonsense, the value of which, I think, is that it turns the world upside down so that you can see the wonder of it anew. This, along with Dr. Seuss's other books (with the possible exception of the Cat in the Hat), create a whole Seussian world which provides a comment on this one. For an excellent explication of the value of nonsense literature, read Chesterton's great essay, "On Nonsense."
  • Are You my Mother?, by P. D. Eastman. I am willing to admit that this one may be the one book on this list without universal appeal, and is possibly meaningful to me because it captured me when I was a child. But when my wife is not feeling as accommodating as she normally is, and a child complains that he is not getting his way, my wife will stand straight up and say, "I am not your mother, I am a snort!" And that seems to work pretty well.
  • Just So Stories, by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling captured the mythological spirit in these jataka tales. "How the Elephant Got is Trunk," was a continued delight to our children. These are stories that feed the imagination.
  • Betsy-Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace. These stories take the reader back to the life of the kind of small town that used to be common in this country and that, I am afraid is almost extinct. The prose is that magical writing that evokes the poetry of simplicity. Don't miss Betsy's hysterical attempt to make "everything stew."
  • Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (as well as most of the other books in the Little House series). Wilder will go down as one of the great American authors. Mark Van Doren once said that the job of the poet is to name things. In this sense the Little House books are pure poetry. Somehow she manages to bring the seemingly mundane things of daily existence into life.
  • Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White. This book, as well as Trumpet of the Swan (I didn't like Stuart Little as well) are, again, magical books. E. B. White was one of the great prose craftsmen, and these are his best writings.
  • The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes. Don't be fooled by the Newbery Award Estes received for Ginger Pye, which wasn't particularly good. The Newbery Committee did this because it felt guilty for not giving Estes the award for the earlier Moffats books, which include The Middle Moffat, and Rufas M. These books magically transport you back to the life of a quintessential American small town. Oh, and they are illustrated by the inimitable Louis Slobodkin, one of the great children's illustrators.
  • The Jack Tales, by Richard Chase. This and Chase's Grandfather Tales are retellings of the European fairy tales after having been filtered through the mountain imaginations of generations of Appalachian story tellers. The clever Jack defeats all enemies, and does so without breaking a sweat. If you've ever had any contact with mountain politicians, you'll recognize the cleverness that is valued in the mountains.
  • The Good Master, by Kate Seredy. This and The Singing Tree are stories of a family living in the Balkans during World War I. They are magical stories of a patriarch who watches over those--his family and those under his charge--as a war rages around them. There is nothing here of the modern obsession with everyone being equal. The good master is not equal, he's just good, and those around him thrive on his goodness.
  • The Winged Watchman, by Hilda von Stockum. Hilda von Stockum wrote a number of books, including two series, the first, The Mitchells, and the second, the Pegeen books. They are all wonderful. And they take place, as did her life, in three different parts of the world. This takes place in Holland, the Mitchells in Canada, and the Pegeen books in Ireland. von Stockum captures the uniqueness of each place.
  • Penrod, by Booth Tarkington. An Indiana version of Tom Sawyer, and at least as good. Penrod is a boy who is having trouble figuring out the rules of the adult world, and the adults are having trouble figuring out why Penrod can't figure them out. Tarkington, one of the great and under appreciated American writers, penned this rumination on boyhood in the early 20th century, and produced one of the funniest books ever written. Like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, this is a book about a "bad" boy (really, an ignorant boy). And, like all such books, it helps your own "bad" boy at home see himself in the third person. He sees how silly he is by seeing how Tom and Huck and Penrod look to the outside observer.
  • Papa's Wife, by Thyra Ferre Bjorn. Papa's Wife is an thoroughly and explicitly Christian book. It is about a woman who is the maid of a Swedish minister in Lapland, who then moves to the United States, and eventually marries the minister who joins her in the U.S. Their life together with their children is an endearing and wonderful story.
  • Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. If you could drink of the Fountain of Youth, would you? We never think of what it would do to the meaning of life if it didn't have an end. A young girl discovers a fountain in a wood near her house that a group of traveling people have already discovered. She meets them, and the boy, about her age tries to convince her to drink with him so they can be 17 years old together forever. But she refuses. The final scene, when the boy, many years later (and still 17) travel back through town and visits the graveyard, is a devastatingly poignant moment that puts life in perspective in a way few other things do.
  • Ann of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery. I was introduced to these stories through the excellent PBS television retellings. But as good as the television movies were, the books are even better. A young red-headed arrives in a Canadian village to meet her adopted family, an old maid her brother. Despite her precociousness, she quickly endears herself to her stuffy new family. A bit like the also excellent Pollyanna.
  • The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. What can you say about Tolkien? One of the few authors who is able to create a world that seeming has been there forever. The Lord of the Rings, one of the greatest books ever written is, of course, better. But this book is the introduction to Middle Earth. An old fashioned dragon story that will also serve as a great way to help children understand Beowulf when they read it later in life.
  • The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling had a mythic sense that comes out clearly in these books. Those who were introduced to the Jungle Book through the Disney movie will have to simply erase their memory banks and start over. The book is nothing like the movie. They are serious investigations into the meaning of life and the nature of humanity. Kipling's world is a place where "the Law of the Jungle and the sea are your only teachers" (to quote Dylan). Kipling has an Old Testament sense that pervades the books from "The Water Truce" to the "The Elephant Dance." I have a hard time with books in which there are talking animals, but Kipling's is one of the few (along with the excellent The Wind and the Willows) that pull this off by portraying the particular kinds of animals as the kind of people they really would be if they had human characteristics. Baloo is what a bear would be if her were human. And everyone has met the Bandar-Log somewhere on the road of life.
  • The Old Squire's Farm, by C. A. Stephens. An old Maine farmer and his wife lose their three sons in the Civil War, and all the children come to live. These stories, published in the Youth's Companion in the 1800s, are true stories of the author's life growing up with the Old Squire and his wife in 19th century New England. They are among the most moving, funny, interesting, and compelling stories you will ever read. The final story, in which the children, all grown and moved away, come back home to decide who must stay with their now lonely grandparents in their last days will bring tears to your eyes. The sequel, Sailing on the Ice, is equally as good.
  • Men of Iron, by Howard Pyle. Every boy should read this book. It is the coming of age story of a young nobleman whose father has been disgraced and who has been sent to the castle of a man who, unbeknownst to the boy, is a friend of his father's who is watching him become a man. The boy makes his way from a page to a squire to a knight, and does so by rebelling against the fagging system in the House similar to that which later pervaded the British public school system. He eventually avenges his father in a final fight scene that is one of the best action sequences in literature.
When I come to write my book, How to Become a Human Being, I will include a chapter on these books. This is what it's about folks.


mcyoder said...

This is an excellent list. I would add The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. I've loved this since I was a little girl. I would also include the A.A. Milne books as well as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. By the way, my son and I have just re-discovered the Moffats. I had read those books when I was young, but hadn't thought about them for years. We also liked Miranda the Great by the same author. One of the fun little perks of homeschooling is getting to re-read the books I loved as a child and discovering new ones, too.

mcyoder said...

"But if you're going to call me Anne, would you please be sure to spell it with an 'e'? ...Print out A-N-N, it looks absolutely dreadful, but Anne with an 'e' is quite distinguished. So, if you only call me Anne with an 'e', I'll try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia." ~Anne of Green Gables

Faith said...

I really liked The Water Babies! I had the same experience trying to read The Five Little Peppers out loud to my kids, but I remember with great pleasure reading it to myself when I was young. Other books all my children have thoroughly enjoyed. The Great Brain, The Cottage at Bantry Bay series by Hilda van Stockum, the Moomintroll books, Swallows and Amazons series, Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, all the stories by Beatrix Potter, Half-Magic and other books by Eager. Understood Betsy is also another great one!

Unknown said...

Obviously I am late to the party. That is how I fly around the Internet. Several years ago I had over 50 comments when I mentioned on my blog well-loved books that I hated. People came out of the woodwork to agree or disagree with me. Alas my old blog died a cyber-death and disappeared forever.

Water Babies was mentioned. By me.

I also felt that Vigen's discussion a few years ago at the CiRCE Conference on The Giving Tree was priceless. I was afraid I was going to lose respect for Vigen if he liked the book. Thankfully, I still love Vigen and hate Shel (as a writer).

Little House in the Big Woods just barely tops Farmer Boy as the best American Children's literature ever in my opinion.

The Wind in the Willows is a favorite of ours.

Penrod is also a family favorite but I recommend it with caveats to families who like Victorian literature :)