Guide to Guides to Children’s Books

October 10, 2012

Fatherhood has provided me an attractive opportunity to indulge one of my obsessions under the guise of “responsible parenting”: I have turned my bibliophilia loose on the world of children’s literature. Because I did not have much exposure to good children’s literature during my own childhood it is a world about which I know relatively little. If I am going to stock our home library with quality books I have some learning to do.

During the past year or so I have been not only reading a great many children’s books, both to my children and to myself, but I have been reading a number of “guides” to children’s literature as well. Here are brief notes on a few of them:

100 Best Books for Children
Anita Silvey
(Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
192 p.

Well, an enumeration of the “best” books for any audience will have to come wrapped with qualifiers as to the inevitable element of subjectivity that enters such judgements, but Anita Silvey has made a helpful attempt to list only books with some broadly acceptable claim to classic status. The book focuses on literature for young children, from birth to age 12 or so, with special sections devoted to picture books, books for beginning readers, middle readers, and a substantial list for competent young readers (say, age 9-12). The recommendations cover nearly a century of publishing, from The Wind in the Willows in 1908 to the onset of the Harry Potter franchise in 1998. (The fact that Harry and friends made it onto the list perhaps casts some doubt on the selection criteria, especially for more recent books, but I am not familiar enough with most of the books listed to offer a fair appraisal on that point.)

Silvey devotes a page or two to each title she recommends, discussing its origins, its author, and a basic sketch of its appeal. She has spent most of her professional life working in the world of children’s literature — she claims to have read 125,000 children’s books in her lifetime! — and these “behind the scenes” stories are often quite interesting. (Did you know, for instance, that Curious George was originally going to be called “Fifi”?) As with most books of this sort written in the past few decades the long shadow of political correctness looms over all, and one wonders what otherwise fine books have been disqualified on those grounds.

With only a few exceptions, the books selected for discussion are works of fiction, and I think I found only one book of poetry. No collections of fairy tales or folklore made the top 100, though a few are listed in a supplemental “Beyond the Best 100” list included as an appendix. I appreciated the generous helping of picture books for young children.

Overall, this is a well written and well informed book, and as a result of reading it I have added a long list of new titles to my “wish list”. It would be a good book to have on hand in a family library.

Guide to Children’s Books
Michele Landsberg
(Penguin, 1985)
272 p.

I found this to be a reasonably good guide undermined by some serious faults. Landsberg appears to have sound judgment on most matters — at least insofar as she treats books with which I am already familiar (which are a distinct minority). I must say, however, that her writing fails to pique my interest in most of the titles she discusses. There is an emphasis on the relatively minor world of Canadian children’s literature, if that sort of thing warms your igloo. The book includes a number of quite extensive lists of recommended books in various categories, but regrettably the number of titles listed far exceeds the number of titles given detailed consideration in the main body of the book, which leaves the reader with essentially no information about the other titles (apart from the titles’ titles . . . as it were). There is also rather too great a concern about political correctness: books aimed specifically at boys or girls are grouped together with anti-Semitic books and other anathamatized miscellania in a chapter called “Girls’ Books, Boys’ Books, Bad Books and Bias”. Pass.

Books Children Love
Elizabeth Wilson
(Crossway, 1987 [rev.2002])
320 p.

This book, in its second edition, gives a wide overview of books for children, with a special emphasis on books consistent with “traditional values”. Unusually, about two-thirds of the book is devoted to recommendations of non-fiction for children in a wide variety of categories: science, music, art, biography, crafts, religion, humour, and so on. To my mind, non-fiction books, especially those written for children, are likely to be more ephemeral than works of imagination, and I would have preferred to see a greater focus on fiction and poetry. In all, hundreds of titles are considered, but for each the author provides little more than a brief description. As far as I can tell the quality of the recommendations is, generally speaking, fairly high, but the descriptions only rarely convey much enthusiasm. Fiction is helpfully split into three groups, for early, middle, and upper-level readers.

Written for Children
John Rowe Townsend
(Lippincott, 1965; rev. 1987)
364 p.

This is the book I was looking for: it gives a nice overview of children’s literature right from medieval times down to the present, and it is written in a calm, sometimes wryly humorous tone. The bulk of the book is devoted to nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, not least because that is the period in which the vast majority of children’s literature has been written. (No doubt children have enjoyed stories at all times, but written children’s literature prior to the nineteenth-century seems to have been mostly limited to Aesop and religiously-oriented poems of moral instruction.) The focus is on English-language fiction for children aged roughly 6-15, though the final chapter is devoted to picture books for younger children. Most of the discussion is of American and British authors, with some Australian authors included as well, and is structured largely by genre: fantasy, adventure, “school stories”, “realism”, poetry, and so on. The book was originally published in the mid-1960s, though I read an updated edition dating from the mid-1980s; still, I was pleased to find a book that had been largely written before the cultural revolution of the 1960s (which naturally has affected children’s literature along with everything else). Many authors are discussed, but it is clear which Townsend considers the greatest: Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, Mary Norton, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.A. Milne, and so on. He doesn’t seem to care much for C.S. Lewis, and, curiously, Dr. Seuss is passed over with hardly a mention. Nonetheless, this is one of the best such books that I have found thus far.

12 Responses to “Guide to Guides to Children’s Books”

  1. Janet Says:

    I need to write one of these books. I hope you are reading Iona the real Winnie the Pooh.


  2. cburrell Says:

    I’ll bet you would write a good one. I’d buy it.

    The only one we have at the moment is House at Pooh Corner, which I trust qualifies as the real deal? I know there are a vast number of shoddy imitations in the Winnie-the-Pooh empire.

  3. Adam Hincks Says:

    Most books with the Newbery medal on the front are worth reading.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Given the age of our kids, I’ve been focusing on the Caldecott medal winners for now. (This is the award for illustrated books.) With the help of the public library we’ve read most of the winners from the 1930s through to the 1970s (so far). The results have been surprisingly mixed: quite a few of them failed to make much of an impression. I believe that technical advances in printing have rather spoiled us for the bulk of older illustrated books. Some of the winners look downright awful by today’s standards.

    I am beginning to take a look at both the Newbery medal winners and the “runners-up”. There are quite a few of both on my list now.

  5. Jim Says:

    Would love to see a children’s book list (which may be part of your year-end stuff, I can’t remember)

  6. cburrell Says:

    Don’t hold your breath, Jim. Actually, I’d not thought of doing that, but now that you have planted the seed in my mind… — well, nobody knows the future.

  7. I’m trying to remember if that Landsberg book is the one that left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. In the one I’m thinking of, the literary judgment was good, but there were moments of blithe anti-Catholic prejudice that annoyed me.

  8. cburrell Says:

    I don’t recall anything specifically anti-Catholic, but in certain ways the general ethos of the book ran against our grain.

  9. The only specific thing I can remember, and I guess it’s because it was so jarring, was in her discussion of a book about a kid who rebels against his Catholic school. She was panning the book, but gave it credit for accurately depicting the evil religious brothers who ran the school. I may well be making too much of it, but it stuck with me because she seemed to be taking it for granted that the portrayal was accurate. Much as one might say that the description of a landscape was accurate.

  10. cburrell Says:

    I don’t remember anything like that. She’s written more than one book, so it might have been another, or I suppose it might have been another author altogether that you recall.

  11. Janet Says:

    Robert McCloskey picture books? Yes, House at Pooh Corner is good.


  12. cburrell Says:

    I finally found a large, hardback copy of Make Way for Ducklings this week. (A first edition too!) If I should ever find myself in Boston I’m going to have to walk the route.

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