Great Children's Books

Why They Strike a Chord and Stay With Us Through Adulthood

By Andrea Cleghorn

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The need for good books goes deep, says author Katherine Paterson. It’s like music. Something deep inside of us loves melody, and something deep within us loves a good story.

mily: Verdana;">What makes a great children’s book? Though everyone has favorites – and they vary widely – most book lovers agree that there has to be a good idea, believable characters, wonderful language and, for picture books, illustrations that help tell the story.

mily: Verdana;">There are characters we meet as children and take with us the rest of our lives. “I think so many times about Heidi and what it must have felt like to put all her clothes on and go up to live on the mountain,” says veteran children’s librarian Sharon McDonald. “I’ll always remember the boy in Lois Lowry’s The Giver‚ who had to live with the pain of carrying around a memory that no one else had.”

mily: Verdana;">The memory of books takes us back to where we were and how we were when we read them. For children, the experience is all the more vivid.

mily: Verdana;">One mother in her 40s remembers the year Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat came out: “Our library got one copy. I was in first grade and got on the list for it; everyone did! I couldn’t wait for my name to come up and was thrilled when it finally did.”

mily: Verdana;">For young children, McDonald says, the three little kittens who lost their mittens is a catastrophe they can truly relate to. “To them, this is Hamlet! I have read children the story Alfie Gets in First, about being locked out of the house, and kids are on the edge of their seats.”

Author/illustrator Shirley Hughes agrees. Everything that happens to a small child is high drama, from losing a rain slicker to getting shoes on the right feet, she says.

Trying to narrow down a list of “The 100 Best Children’s Books of All Timeis reminiscent of making a guest list for a wedding or bar mitzvah and just as likely to produce objections or hurt feelings. For our list, we got input from children’s book authors, literature experts, librarians, our staff and you, our readers. Nevertheless, some of the books you think of as classics may not be on the final list. 

Literature Trends and Trendy Literature

The publishing of children’s books as a viable business didn’t really start until the 1930s, Cathryn Mercier, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston, points out. But, in the last several decades, children’s books have hit the market at a record pace. The number published annually in this country has more than doubled since 1960.

However, there is evidence that those numbers are beginning to shrink. Today, the big money is going to a few established authors and for the promotion of a smaller number of books. Changes in ownership and consolidations within the publishing field have led to more caution. Mercier, who has been in the field for more than 20 years, is not as optimistic as she once was. “We are hearing from fewer voices,” she says.

Many high-profile entertainers and celebrities have cashed in with popular children’s stories. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, for example, recently scored a winner with her Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, a picture book about a couple racing off to pick up their newly adopted daughter.

There are also many good books that are published and go unnoticed. “You used to be able to count on a couple of years,” says Paterson, author of The Bridge to Terabithia, which had an original print run of 7,000 and went on to sell several million copies. “Now, if a book doesn’t make a big splash right away, it’s never given a chance. There are fine writers who can’t get published again because there was no response to their first book. There was none to mine (initially), for heaven’s sake! There’s no patience anymore.”

Under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, school and library book budgets were enormous, Paterson says. “Now, if publishers can’t envision selling 10,000 to 15,000 the first year, they won’t bother doing it.”

Today, nonfiction books are booming in popularity, but there are concerns about what’s happening to this genre.

“Nonfiction is getting better and better,” McDonald says. “It used to be tightly packed pages of tiny print, and it’s getting more experimental. But some of it is also getting skinny. It’s a point-and-click mentality.”

While authors Russell Freedman and Jean Fritz are exceptions, McDonald says, much of nonfiction is moving to pictures with captions.

“There’s something wonderful about settling in to read 200 pages about mummies, or discovering that sea horses hold on tight with their tails, but if you tickle them they’ll let go,” she says. “You just wouldn’t get that from a little caption.”

Over the last few years, several books have had a successful crossover from young adult to adult readers, Mercier notes. Robert Cormier’s Fade was marketed to both audiences, as was Peter Sis’ Tibet: Through the Red Box. Perhaps most notable are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which have garnered a fanatical following among children and adults alike.

More critical attention has been paid to multicultural books, Mercier adds, particularly with the Coretta Scott King book award, “which is an important one.”

Meanwhile, a nationwide drive to promote reading as something that should interest us all has met with both praise and criticism. While reading to children is the best way to make them love books, not all kids become enthusiastic readers. They may grow into adults before they find a place for books as recreation.

“Where did we get the idea that everyone likes to read?” asks Natalie Babbitt, author of Tuck Everlasting. When teachers use novels in the classroom, they take the fun out of reading for some kids, she says. “They do projects with the books and it becomes homework, not pleasure.”

Winning Ingredients

Traditionally, Mercier says, children’s books must have hope. The Newbery Medal (for which Mercier has been a judge) has been criticized for not having good role models, “but what the judges look for is literary excellence,” she says.

Some books are right for certain times. When the cherished family dog is failing and dies, a child can be comforted by Good-bye Max, by Holly Keller. Once the initial grief has subsided – no matter what the family’s religious beliefs are – a child can appreciate the sweet vision presented in Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant.

Babbitt judges a children’s book the way she does any book: “It’s good characters doing interesting things.”

“As a child I loved Alice in Wonderland. I still think it’s the best book,” Babbitt says. “People either love it or hate it. Dr. Seuss has made a huge contribution to the field, because he made kids stop and listen to the language. His books are fun. I also love Where the Wild Things Are‚ because there are no goody-goodies in it.”

One person who’s been instrumental in promoting good writing for children is David White, director of the annual Children’s Literature Festival at Keene State College in New Hampshire. For 23 years, White has been leading the October celebration, which features talks by five top authors and illustrators. The event draws more than 1,000 children’s book lovers from all over.

To White, a good book “makes you think about life in a different way. It’s in the beauty of the language, how words are hooked together.”

White gives some examples of books that stand out and why:

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt – “Some people say it is important because it shows the miseries of immortality. The book says we can’t live the way the Tucks do (which is to live forever). It is about friendship, but also about the loss of friendship and how we are shaped by people no longer there.”

The Devil’s Arithmetic, by Jane Yolen – In this book, White says, “we see the danger of the way we treat people who are labeled as different, and the (false) justification of mistreatment.”

Thank You, Mr. Falker, by Patricia Polacco – While many books show the mistakes of the past, such as slavery or the Holocaust, White points out that others, like Polacco’s book, “show how just one person can change your life forever.”

Respecting Child Readers

Patricia MacLachlan, author of Sarah, Plain and Tall, stresses the importance of writing up to children, not down: “They are the most ferocious readers and will know if you are pretending. A good children’s book has many levels and when children of different ages read it, they will get different things out of it.”

Mary Brigid Barrett, of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, agrees. “I believe we underestimate our kids,” says Barrett, who teaches the fundamentals of stories to preschoolers using The Eensy Weensy Spider.

What about the shorter attention span of children today?

“Even in our fast-paced, MTV world, children still love a story,” Paterson says. “Giving them MTV on the page damages their thinking. We need to give them the opportunity to strengthen the brain and develop intelligent thinking. Do we want a wise generation? Or one that only knows sound bites? We need to slow down and be compassionate.”

And what about guiding children’s reading in a world where they have increasing access to adult or inappropriate messages?

“I would let my kids read anything they liked, but I hung around if I had questions about it,” Paterson says.

She herself has been accused of writing depressing books. “I don’t think I do. I want a book to ring true, but not leave the reader so debilitated with despair that he or she can’t be lifted out of it,” Paterson says. “Bad things happen. Horrible things happen, in fact. But you write out of what you are. I am basically a hopeful person.”

Author Patricia McKissack, known for her several dozen books about African-Americans, emphasizes the importance of the story line: “Whether it is a board book for a 1-year-old or a book for a 13-year-old, the one element that makes a book is the story. A good story will hold any child.

“I wrote about Sojourner Truth and showed her as a feminist as well as an abolitionist, so young girls have a role model,” she says. “The way slavery is presented is that we were heathens and barbaric. ... It is negating the historical significance of African people. You have to go through the anger, discover it, get mad, overindulge yourself. I want to say, ‘Let’s see what really happened.’”

Like many authors, McKissack ultimately wants to build bridges of understanding with her books.

“I am so careful that what I write is uplifting. I do not write for African-American children. I am more interested in the white child in the all-white classroom who only knows African-Americans from what he or she sees on TV.”

Andrea Cleghorn has reviewed children’s books since 1986, when her children, Alex and Abby, were preschoolers.

Read All About It

For more on children’s literature, authors and the art of storytelling, check out:

Behind the Pages - Seven noted children’s book authors share their childhood memories and influences

The 100 Greatest Children’s Books of All Time – See whether your favorites made our list. If not, then add yours in our Best Children’s Books Family Forum.

What Makes a Great Children’s Book? – A look at why great children’s books strike a chord and stay with us through adulthood.

The Very Creative Children’s Book Author – A Conversation with the inimitable Eric Carle.

Why Reading to Your Kids Works – Celebrated storyteller Jim Weiss discusses how sharing books and stories fosters deeper parent-child bonds.

Reading Begins at Home – Partnership for Reading helps parents help their children during the critical years of learning to read.

Reading to Two – How and what to read to siblings.

More Books and Beyond

From United Parenting Publications, July 2004