Friday, July 31, 2009

My Daughter's (Current) Favorite Books

Having made a list of favorites (even a list of purported "great" books), it’s impossible not to think about what's missing from the list, or what list of favorites someone else would choose. Since one of the reasons I love reading children's literature is sharing it with my kids, I reviewed my choices with my 10 year old daughter, who goes by "T."

T. has some of the same favorites I do – especially The Golden Compass. There is another series she's been reading lately that has her incredibly excited: Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Her review is below, and it’s noticeable how she comments that the writing made her feel like she was in the book. Descriptive, evocative writing that pulls the reader into the story is part of what makes the best children’s literature so enjoyable to read, for adults as well as children. (And as for our own, no-doubt evolving, list of favorites, look for future discussion soon.)

T.’s Reflection on Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson and the Olympians tells the story of a demi-god and his friends, and is based at a camp for other demi-gods who are learning their fates, along with learning how to fight mystical creatures out of Greek mythology. The recently ended five-book series has adventure along with hardships and comedy. The five books are called The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan's Curse, The Battle of The Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian. There are well done plot twists, plus some amazing character development. Riordan describes everything that happened really well, so that reading it is like putting yourself in the book. I especially liked how at the beginning of the books something would happen, and then later in the series connections would be made to what happened earlier. I love that all the characters had different personalities depending on which Greek gods were their mothers or fathers, and how they had different skills. The chapter titles are hilarious, for instance: Grover Loses his Pants, I Become Supreme Lord of The Bathroom, My Parents Go Commando, Nico Buys Happy Meals For The Dead, and I Put On A Few Extra Million Pounds. They're all funny, but I don't want to spoil it by giving them all away. The series was so good it made you wish there was another book. These action-packed books are great introductions to Greek mythology, and make you want to learn more. If you do want to learn more, you can go to or

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

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Andy Spandy

Andy Spandy Sugardy Candy
French Almond Rock

This familiar skipping rhyme comes from one of our favorite stories of all time: Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep. Written by Eleanor Farjeon and first published in 1936, Elsie Piddock tells the story of a girl who could “skip like never so.” It has all the elements of some wonderful children’s stories---an outrageously talented young heroine, magic, and a successful struggle against unjust authority.

Elsie can already skip longer than anyone else when the faeries gift her with a magical skipping rope, with one handle that tastes like Sugar Candy and another like French Almond Rock. Naturally, Elsie can only use the rope while she is small enough to fit it. She learns the high skip, the sly skip, the long skip, the strong skip, the skip double-double, and---best of all---the skip against trouble. When an evil Lord threatens to enclose the commons, Elsie returns at 109 years old---again small enough to use her faerie rope ---and with her strong skip she sends the Lord deep into the bowels of the earth, defeating his plans to build factories on the peoples’ skipping grounds.

While it's a great story with a captivating rhythm to its language and an endearing heroine, Elsie Piddock offers more, including insightful points about what motivates people to engage in a fight against the odds, and what it takes to win. As the story explains in a discursive aside, when the new Lord comes to the town, “bad as the high rents were to [the people], they did not mind these so much as the loss of their old rights." It seems to the people like the powerful must always win; thus they are willing to give up because they know they will lose: the people "knew in their hearts that they must be beaten in the end, [while] the Lord was sure of his victory."

The plan Elsie devises to save the town commons of course combines magic and clever negotiation, like so many children's stories about victorious underdogs. One of the things we love about Elsie’s plan is not only that she returns to champion children’s rights as a 109 year old woman, but also that she returns to childhood, in this metaphoric sense, to transform the feeling kids often have—that the adults will always win, no matter how unfair it seems. Instead of allowing the townspeople to give in to this feeling, Elsie exploits the cleverness and trickiness that kids often develop in the face of adult authority. In doing so, she shows the book’s child-readers that one can, at least imaginatively, transform the unequal power bargain between kids and adults--one which they fear will never fundamentally change.

You'll have to read the story to find out exactly how Elsie does it, but we love that it's not just Elsie who skips in the celebration that ultimately saves the town commons: everyone who has ever skipped must take a turn.