Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our List of "Great" Books: A Response to Kristof

What is it that makes a children’s book a *great* book? In his July 4, 2009 article in The New York Times, (“The Best Kids’ Books Ever”), Nicholas Kristof provides a list of his favorites, many of which seem to center around the exploits or adventures of personified animals (Charlotte’s Web, Wind in the Willows, Freddy the Pig, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, and Lad, a Dog, to name a few). Kristof’s other choices seem to center around boys’ detective fiction (Hardy Boys, Alex Rider) and books about class mobility (Little Lord Fauntelroy and The Prince and the Pauper). See

While this post doesn’t pretend to be a full review of Kristof’s list (forthcoming), it does bear noting that many of his chosen books have in common a tendency to 1) prioritize adventure stories over books that emphasize imaginative escapes from the worlds that children inhabit; 2) avoid social critique by animating social problems through animals; and 3) reproduce capitalist, middle-class values. Kristof even begins the essay with a cheer for American-style capitalist values when he praises “middle-class students whose parents drag them off to summer classes or make them read books” and he calls for “self-improvement” for “poor kids” whose I.Q.’s drop “each summer vacation”—presumably because their parents are letting them vegetate in front of one screen or another.

One of Kristof’s favorites is Freddy the Pig (and its series), written in the 1950s by Walter R. Brooks. As one example of how Kristof’s choices tend to reproduce capitalist values, the animals in Freddy the Detective, which Kristof particularly recommends, help out their adopted human farm family by cheerily performing chores around the family’s house and farm. One scene in this book features a squirrel “foreman” who scolds his fleet of gardeners for being lazy, untrustworthy workers: “[Squirrel] broke off to shout angrily at one of the workmen…’ Excuse me sir, he apologized to Freddy. You can’t trust these fellows a minute. They know the difference all right, but they pretend they think the nasturtiums are weeds so they can pull ‘em up and eat ‘em. They like the taste.’” (31)

Not all of Kristof’s choices so blatantly reproduce capitalist values, but many simply avoid the question altogether in favor of human-animal friendship (Charlotte’s Web, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be) or, in the case of Little Lord Fauntelroy, imagine a fabled world in which one could easily escape the hardships of working-class life. Kristof addresses his projected audience by framing his list with an appeal to wealthy parents who likely have their children in expensive test-prep programs: “this is a book so full of SAT words it could put Stanley Kaplan out of business.” By thus appealing to them, Kristof is suggesting that one central reason why children should read is so they can get ahead in the competitive world of capitalism. But is that really what the *best* children’s books should be doing?

We look forward to reviewing the entirety of Kristof's list someday. In the meantime, we offer our own list of favorites. What makes these books "great" to us is hard to pin down, and it may not be enough just to say that we loved them as kids and still love them now. Reflecting on what the books on our list have in common, we note that some of the books use magic as a means of exploring and imaginatively conquering the anxiety of adaptation to the world of adults; others involve a struggle against an unjust, often tyrannical authority; and some are non-fiction books (or fictionalized real-life stories) that convey individual responses to their own, often unjust, worlds. We have not annotated the list, but plan, in the near future of this blog, to offer some discussion of why, for us, these books belong on any list of the *great* children’s books of our time.

Our Favorite Children’s Books

Fantasy/Science Fiction
Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (and the rest of the Time quartet)
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (and sequels)
Edward Eager, Half Magic
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Ursula K. Le Guin, the Earthsea novels
Julie Andrews, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (and companion books)

The "Real"
Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe
Etty Hillesum, The Diaries of Etty Hillesum
Linotte: The Early Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3 (1914-1920)
Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-kind Family
Farley Mowat, Born Naked
Marguerite Henry, Misty of Chincoteague (and Stormy, Misty’s Foal)

Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy
E. L. Konigsburg. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E.
Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
e.e. cummings, Complete Poems

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