Top 100 Children’s Novels (#100-91)
It wasn’t enough that I said to you, "Tell me the books that changed your life" was it? No, it was worse than that. When I asked you to send me your top ten children’s novels of all time, I also wanted you to organize your adoration. I was saying, "Tell me how much they influenced you. What made the biggest impact? The second biggest?"
In short, rate your love for me.
So as we embark on this massive countdown, I would like to remind all of you that there will be many emotional humps and surprises along the way. There are heroes and villains here. I guarantee the in the course of the countdown you will see one book that makes you boo, and another that makes you cheer, perhaps in the same post. This is a passionate list. There are books included here that I adore and there are definitely books here that I abhor. My job is to never show the difference. So sit back and get ready to complain or cheer in turns. It’s totally within your rights.
#100 The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1967)
(#4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#10) – 39 points
When I was a kid, I loved mysteries. As with anything else you read a lot of, some were forgettable, some were okay, some were great. Only one (The Ghost in the Swing by Janet Patton Smith) creeped me out so much I couldn’t finish it. (Still haven’t.) And only Egypt Game was so perfectly calibrated, at that particular moment in time, to my personal sense of the possible and the impossible, that I still have a sense memory of the mounting tension and then the sheer mental relief at the end. – Melissa Depper, Youth Services Librarian, Arapahoe Library District CO
When I went back to read this a couple year ago, I didn’t imagine for a second that it would live up to my memories – particularly the elements of mystery and mysticism. I was wrong. Though I can think of several other Snyder books that are deserving, this is the one that has stuck with me through the years. – Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
A striking contrast between an imaginary world and the dangers in the real one. – Michele Gawenka
There are eighteen books on the Top 100 list that I have not read. The Egypt Game is the first of these. How I missed the works of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, I’ll never know since she continues to be prolific to this very day (her most recent work William S. and the Great Escape came out in 2009).
Ms. Snyder was a writer from day one, or at the very least a storyteller. Growing up she says of her childhood, "And then there were games. Some were secret, some less so, and most of them grew out of a compulsion to endow everything animal, vegetable and mineral with human characteristics. I suspect that all very young children are naturally given to anthropomorphism, but with me it must have been almost a full-time occupation. Not only animals, but also trees, plants, toys, and many other inanimate objects had personalities, and sometimes complicated life histories. Often these creatures seemed to have been in need of a helping hand. I built leafy shelters for homeless insects, doctored demons, most of whom haunted closets and the dark corners of rooms. Although they really frightened me, I don’t think I would have wanted to be talked out of them. They were my demons and we had a working relationship."
The Egyptian Game was her fourth book and came out in 1967. The Simon & Schuster website describes the plot of the book this way: "The first time Melanie Ross meets April Hall, she’s not sure they have anything in common. One look at April’s upswept hair, false eyelashes, and ragged fox-fur collar is enough to convince Melanie that April won’t have an easy time fitting in with the sixth graders at Wilson School. But April has some surprises in store, like the fact that she enjoys reading and playing imagination games just as much as Melanie does. The two even discover that they both love anything to do with ancient Egypt! In a storage yard behind the A-Z Antiques and Curio Shop, Melanie and April start to play the Egypt Game. Before long, there are six Egyptians instead of two. They meet to wear costumes, hold ceremonies, and work on their secret code. Everyone enjoys the game until strange things begin to happen. Has the Egypt Game gone too far? With a touch of charm and a whole lot of imagination, Zilpha Keatley Snyder transforms an abandoned junkyard into an Egyptian court in this Newbery Honor-winning mystery."
The book won a Newbery Honor in 1968 alongside Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth by E. L. Konigsburg (Atheneum), The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell (Houghton), and The Fearsome Inn by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Scribner). The ultimate winner? A little title by the name of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Says Ms. Snyder of the story, "the beginning seeds of The Egypt Game were sown during my early childhood, as is true of a great many of my books. A fifth grade project on ancient Egypt started me on my "Egyptian period," a school year in which I read, dreamed and played Egyptian. But my dream of Egypt was private and it was my daughter, many years later, who actually played a game very like the one in the story, after I had turned her on to the fascinating game possibilities of a culture that includes pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphic writing and an intriguing array of gods and goddesses. However, the actual setting and all six of the main characters came from my years as a teacher in Berkeley. The neighborhood described in the story, the ethnic mix in the classroom, as well as the murder, were all taken from realities of our years in Berkeley. So, as I tell children who ask me if I ever write "true" stories, all of my stories have bits-and-pieces of truth–true events, true people, true facts, as well as true memories and even true dreams (the real sound-asleep kind). But the fun comes from what goes on in-between and around and over the bits-and-pieces, tying them together and making them into a story. The inbetween substance is woven of imagination and that is what makes fiction fascinating, to write as well as to read."
The sequel The Gypsy Game came out a good thirty years after its predecessor (1997, to be precise) and Horn Book said of it, "while the sequel is less well constructed and more meandering than the first book (and does not stand on its own), it will nevertheless be of interest to fans of the first book." Alas it did not receive any votes on this Top 100 Children’s Novels poll.
- Read portions of the book online here.
- There is, in fact, a Teacher’s Guide out there for you folks interested in such things.
- Look at a complete listing of all books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (with covers!) here.
The starred School Library Journal review of it said, "Only in the hands of a skillful writer would the characters emerge so lifelike that the reader feels that he knows each one. A brief review cannot do justice to the book, which has originality and verve in plot, style, and characterization."
Horn Book gave it a passive, "[ The Egypt Game ] moves with suspense and humor. . ."
From Booklist, "Tailor-made for children who love the thought of rambling mansions, garden mazes, and hidden treasure."
And Kirkus liked it, saying, "An increasingly captivating story, which builds to a risky and daring climax."
The book has also seen its own fair share of different book jackets over the years. Here’s a taste:
And most recently:
#99 The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, illustrated by Brock Cole (1980)
(#2)(#2)(#3)(#5)(#6)(#8) – 40 points
My third grade teacher read this one to the class. Three years later I remember scraping my birthday money together to order the 3 book set from Scholastic. I read these books until the covers came off. Rereading this brought me right back to those childhood days when I would challenge myself to read all three in a weekend (cold central NY winters made such feats a necessity). – Eric Carpenter
Well it’s certainly cold in New York right now, so what better time to crack open a copy of this best known Banks title?
The plot, from The Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books reads, "In a fresh and vivacious fantasy [The Indian in the Cupboard], two English boys have the exciting and disturbing experience of seeing some toys come to life. Patrick had given Omri the little plastic Indian to add to his collection; Omri’s brother had given him an old wall-cupboard; the key that locked the cupboard had belonged to their mother. At first Omri didn’t tell anyone that the cupboard had endowed the Indian with life. Less than three inches high, domineering and articulate, Little Bear was soon provided with a horse and a tepee (eventually with a wife); when Patrick learned the marvelous secret, he insisted Omri bring a tiny cowboy to life for him–and the battle between Little Bear and Boone was on. There are many minor adventures (taking the Indian and the cowboy to school, with dire results) before Omri decides that he cannot play with the lives of human beings, and that these are human beings who have traveled in time, and he sadly puts all of them in the cupboard and turns them back into plastic, presumably releasing the real Little Bear, Bright Stars, Boone, and two wee horses to return to their own times.
Ms. Banks had three sons, Adiel, Gillon, and Omri. So when it came to finding the name of the main character of the book, she did not have to look far. In fact, in the September 2002 edition of Children’s Literature Review Ms. Banks described writing the book in this manner:
"It came from a little bathroom cupboard we had. Omri thought it looked shabby and wanted to throw it away but I told him it was a magic cupboard and told him a story about it instead. Later I wrote it into a book. And a lot of people liked it and it won some prizes and after that we stopped writing for adults for a long time and just wrote for children and young adults. And we travelled to places like India and Africa and Australia and went to visit schools all over the place and had some terrific times! And our kids grew to man’s estate and turned into lovely people it was great to be the mother of, and we wrote and wrote and now we’ve written more than thirty books!"
The sudden shift into the "we" is because she interviewed herself for the piece.
Four sequels were written to this book including The Return of the Indian (1985), The Secret of the Indian (1989), The Mystery of the Cupboard (1992), and The Key to the Indian (1998).
The book is not without controversy, of course. From Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children, edited by Beverly Slapin and Doris Seale, some serious objections are raised:
"The object here was not to draw an authentic Native person, but to create an arresting literary device. Although the little ‘Indian’ is called Iroquois, no attempt has been made, either in text or illustrations, to have him look or behave appropriately. For example, he is dressed as a Plains Indian, and is given a tipi and a horse. This is how he talks: ‘I help… I go… Big hole. I go through… Want fire. Want make dance. Call spirits.’ Et cetera. There are characteristic speech patterns for those who are also Native speakers, but nobody in the history of the world ever spoke this way."
School Library Journal ascribed this in part to "the British authorship," going on to say that, "one doubts that a real Iroquois warrior would behave as Little Bear does."
In spite of this, the book was adapted into a full-length feature film in 1995, directed by Frank Oz. Today it is not remembered all that often (though it is fun to see that actor Steve Coogan makes an appearance as the Medic, and 2009 Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins is in it as well).
- Read some of the book here.
- Scholastic provides a discussion guide to the book for teachers.
The New York Times called it "the best novel of the year."
School Library Journal said, "This is competently constructed fantasy, raised above the average by Omri’s growing conviction that there’s something wrong with manipulating people, whether they’re vivified toys or old friends."
From The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, "This is an adroit mix of realism and fantasy, written with an ingenuously serious acceptance of the miraculous, and quickly building characters and relationships so that the miniature people seem real."
And Horn Book said, "Direct and to the point, the story moves along quickly and absorbingly to its logical denouement. The pages are full of dialogue, the boys oscillate between friendship and bickering, and the Indian and the cowboy are depicted as distinct individualities. … [T]he book captures the intense emotion felt by children in their moments of imaginative play."
Here are some of the covers this book has had over the years:
And the trailer for the film:
#98 Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston (1954)
(#2)(#2)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 40 points
Probably no one else will vote for the little known and quiet gem of a book, but it was a lovely not too scary fantasy with a lot of British charm to it. – Clarissa Cooke
I missed this series somehow when I was a kid but it’s a beautiful connecting of past and present and I love that the grandmother never stopped believing. – Kristen M. from WeBeReading.com
The mix of stories within the plot and the idea that three of the main characters were ghosts…they had actually died of the Plague…is amazing. – Schuyler Hooke
I suppose I should have slapped a Spoiler Alert before that last quote, but I wouldn’t worry about it. You pretty much figure something of a supernatural nature is happening when you read the book.
As Publishers Weekly describes the plot: "Young Toseland (Tolly for short) isn’t sure what to expect when he is sent to spend a holiday with his Great-grandmother Oldknow in her huge castle of a house in England. He arrives in the middle of a flood, and feels as if he is climbing aboard Noah’s Ark, which sets the stage for this unusual adventure. Soon Granny is telling Tolly about Toby and the other children (and animals) who sometimes come to the house, ‘when they want to.’ Listeners and Tolly learn that Toby and his full-of-energy siblings Linnet and Alexander are ghosts; they died during the Great Plague. Magic, mystery and fun will bring listeners along for an entertaining ride, even if they may not always be sure where the ghosts begin and real-life leaves off."
The story behind the book is also of note. According to Janet Crane Barley in Children’s Literature, "Lucy Boston bought, Hemingford Grey, a venerable, time worn manor house near Cambridge, England in 1935. She lovingly restored the house, now thought to be the oldest, continuously inhabited home in England, for her home, and used it as the evocative setting for her books in the ‘Green Knowe Chronicles.’ After 20 years of living there, she began writing her first book, the now classic Children of Green Knowe, set very firmly in and around her wonderful old home."
Should one wish to visit the Manor where Ms. Boston wrote the books, it is possible. Writing for The Human Flower Project, one John Levett says, "It was at the Manor that Lucy Boston wrote her first novel The Children of Green Knowe and found a publisher for it in 1954 when she was in her 60s; five other books set in Green Knowe followed. She died in 1990 at the age of ninety-eight. The Manor is the place to be for a child of any age." He goes on to explain how to get there (it’s in England so good luck, Yanks) and what you will find in the gardens. The website for The Manor is here. And to be precise about it, Ms. Boston was 62 when she wrote this book. This places the author in sharp contrast to book #91 on this list.
In 2009 the book was adapted into a movie called From Time to Time and starred folks like Maggie Smith, Dominic West (could he have gotten any further from his role on The Wire?), and Timothy Spall (not playing a villain, for once). Looks like they took more than one book in the series, though I’m not sure.
- You can read some of the book here if you’re curious.
- Dr. Who fans may be interested in this connection to the book.
Covers for this book have included:
But the best, I think, is probably the latest. No offense to Brett Helquist, of course.
It was turned into a television series around 1986 by the BBC. Here’s a bit from the first episode:
And here’s the trailer for the newer film From Time to Time. Interesting.
#97 The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)(#2)(#2)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#9)(#10) – 41 points
My guilty pleasure? Some people don’t love this book and I just don’t get why. I seen claims that this book was "award bait" or "manipulative" but I just see a great story told in an extremely beautiful way. Andrew Sarris wrote that "cynicism is often more naïve than passion" there is no finer example of passionate storytelling than DiCamillo. – Eric Carpenter
I first read this as an adult, read it aloud to my classes (and cried, yes, I cried). I also read it aloud to my sensitive son, and we both cried. This is a deceptively little book with huge ideas. – Tess Alfonsin, Fifth Grade Reading Teacher, Roosevelt Alexander Elementary
I would like to say that this is the newest book on the Top 100 list, but that (as you will soon see) this is simply not the case.
In Publishers Weekly, Katherine Paterson said of this book, "Even in the galley stage, this is a beautiful book. Ibatoulline’s illustrations are simply wonderful, and the high quality of the design incorporates luxurious paper and spaciously arranged blocks of text. But a story for today about a toy rabbit? Okay, I thought, Kate DiCamillo can make me cry for a motherless child and a mongrel stray. She can wring my heart following the trials of two lonely children and a caged tiger, and bring tears to my eyes for a brave little lovesick mouse, but why should I care what happens to an arrogant, over-dressed china rabbit? But I did care, desperately, and I think I can safely predict you will, too."
There were alternate takes on the book as well.
- Read a selection from the book here if that is where your heart takes you.
- To my surprise I was not able to discover any staged productions of this particular book. You can instead download a bit of reader’s theater or a teacher’s guide if you like.
- You may also borrow an Edward Tulane costume for your next party.
Publishers Weekly said of it, "There is nothing cloying in the telling of this tale, nothing sweeping or epic or self-satisfied on these pages. Kate DiCamillo gives us a fragile and wonderfully human antihero and a meaningful, memorable story with all the markings of a future classic."
The starred review in School Library Journal said, "This achingly beautiful story shows a true master of writing at her very best."
Kirkus also gave it a star saying, "Somewhere between fairy tale and fable, DiCamillo spins the tale of Edward, transformed by the lives he touches. The reader will be transformed too."
And Booklist (with a star) said, "The story soars because of DiCamillo’s lyrical use of language and her understanding of universal yearnings. This will be a pleasure to read aloud."
It’s so new that there aren’t really that many different jackets. There is, however, the British edition:
And this song "Corner Store" was inspired by the book.
#96 The Witches by Roald Dahl (1983)
(#1)(#2)(#4)(#5)(#6)(#8)(#9) – 42 points
It was a struggle to decide between this and Danny the Champion of the World. Plus, if I had been trying to sway the vote towards Dahl, I might have picked James, since I have a feeling more voters will go for him. But in the end I had to go with this, my favorite book of 4th grade (or so). – Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Now here then is a book that I remember very well from my old childhood. It’s strange that when kids ask me for books that are scary (but not too scary) that this doesn’t immediately pop into my brain. It wasn’t just that The Witches had frightening elements to it. It was blissfully distuuuuurbing. What these witches did to innocent little children was by turns grotesque as hypnotic. You want to look away. You just can’t figure out how.
The plot from the publisher reads, "Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. This spine-chilling story will tell you all you need to know about the cunning masqueraders, and bring you face-to-face with a true hero, a wonderful old grandmother who smokes cigars."
In the article Spell-Binding Dahl: Considering Roald Dahl’s Fantasy (found in Change and Renewal in Children’s Literature) Eileen Donaldson draws a fascinating parallel between this book and Dahl’s own life.
"This book seems to be the closest to Dahl’s own life in that he spins much of the anxiety and the growing up of his own younger years into it; the grandmother is very old and when she catches pneumonia, there is the panic of memory tacked onto it. In Boy, Dahl describes his own grandmother’s bout of pneumonia and the echoes in The Witches are remarkable. (Perhaps it is also interesting that this particular character does not have a name of his own; he could just as easily be named Roald.)"
It’s true that the boy in this book is merely . . . the boy. Most Dahl characters not only get names but their names are in the titles of the books. Not this kid.
Speaking of titles, at my last ALA Convention I spoke with a fellow librarian who knew Dahl when he was writing this book. "He wanted to call it The Mouse and the Witches", she said, "and I tried to talk him out of it. We already had The Mouse and the Motorcycle and The Mouse and His Child, after all. He later just named it The Witches." And she shrugged. Maybe she had something to do with that? We may never know.
The Witches came it at #27 on ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The reasons? Witchcraft, of course. No word yet on how it’ll fare on the list of books from 2000-2010. My suspicion, however, is that in the era of Harry Potter bans, The Witches may not seem to be quite as subversive as it once was.
A stage production of The Witches debuted in London back in 2005 to reviews here and here and here.
There’s a very strange pairing of Roald Dahl characters with runway outfits. The one for The Witches is strangely inappropriate for work, though. You have been warned.
Generally speaking, when Quentin Blake does a cover, nobody else has a shot at it.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. This cover was included in a blog post about Guillermo Del Toro’s desire to do a stop animated version of The Witches. No word on where it came from.
Also, illustrator Leighton Johns did this fabulous horror cover of the book that I just can’t help but include as well.
Johns explains how he created the image here. Further sketches inspired by the book are here. Be sure to check out his Skulduggery Pleasant, Tintin, Airman, and Mortal Engines for similar fabulous fare.
Finally, here is a poor quality trailer for the film. Somebody please explain to me why the heck you’d make the surprise ending of the film (which is not in the book) the beginning of a trailer for that same film?
#95 Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1950)
(#2)(#3)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#10)(#10) – 42 points
Like Tommy and Annika, I marveled at Pippi Longstocking and her extraordinary life. I mean, she lives with a horse and a monkey instead of parents! As a kid, reading Pippi is imagining a world without limits. – Amy @ Media Macaroni
The current crop of audacious female elementary school students has NOTHING on Pippi – Jennifer Rothschild
Sweden’s best known children’s book import, I dare say. I like to call her the original child superhero. She can pick up horses and thieves and live on her own with a monkey. Though I don’t know how you’d be able to fit a name like Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking into a comic book balloon. Likewise its Swedish equivalent Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Krusmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump.
The description of the book from the publisher reads, "The beloved story of a spunky young girl and her hilarious escapades. Tommy and his sister Annika have a new neighbor, and her name is Pippi Longstocking. She has crazy red pigtails, no parents to tell her what to do, a horse that lives on her porch, and a pet monkey named Mr. Nilsson. Whether Pippi’s scrubbing her floors, doing arithmetic, or stirring things up at a fancy tea party, her flair for the outrageous always seems to lead to another adventure."
The world of children’s literature owes a debt of gratitude to sick children everywhere. Without them we might not have half the books that grace our shelves today. Certainly we wouldn’t have Pippi Longstocking, had it not been for the fact that Astrid Lindgren’s daughter got sick in 1941 and insisted on stories about Pippi.
As The Christian Science Monitor puts it, "Pippi was a hit in the Lindgren household, but although Mrs. Lindgren told the stories regularly at bedtime, she didn’t even bother writing them down. It wasn’t until a few years later that she finally put them on paper. She had wanted the manuscript to be a gift for Karin’s 10th birthday, but she also sent it to a large publishing company. It was rejected." When it was accepted by a smaller press Ms. Lindgren wrote books for them and then went to work for them as an editor. Wouldn’t it be interesting if that happened today? Step One: Get book contract. Step Two: Sign book contract. Step Three: Work for your own publisher and edit other folks and translate books like Curious George into Swedish.
Ms. Lindgren was actually inspired by a different heroine, however. A Ms. Anne of Green Gables. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?
According to 100 Best Books for Children by Anita Silvey, the most famous attack on Pippi said of it, "Pippi is something unpleasant that scratches the soul." She was the Junie B. Jones of her day, and folks didn’t appreciate her casual disregard for society’s conventions.
At least two books on this Top 100 list have helped inspire their own theme parks. I doubt you would have guessed off the top of your head that one of them was Astrid Lindgren’s World in Vimmerby, Sweden, though.
I don’t like to recommend that one look at Wikipedia for much, but the collection of different Pippi Longstocking names from around the globe is more than a little amusing. You can find it here near the bottom. Nice touch with the pig latin.
Also, be very careful of the translation you receive. Donna Cardon in School Library Journal considered a recent reissue with illustrations by Lauren Child and made this excellent point: "Nunnally updates some of Florence Lamborn’s old-fashioned phrases and makes other terms more politically correct. For example, the original English translation calls Pippi’s father a "Cannibal King," while this one calls him a "King of Natives." In Lamborn’s version, Pippi goes for a "morning promenade"; here, she simply goes for a "morning walk." Nunnally’s language flows naturally and gives a fresh, modern feel to the line drawings, filled with color and pattern, to create a Pippi who is full of personality . . . Libraries should consider archiving (or retiring) older editions of this old favorite, and replacing them with this new offering."
Her covers vary widely.
Lauren Child has two. One is demure:
One is not.
And here, naturally, is Pippi in Khmer.
Artist and former Books of Wonder employee Nicole Johnston created her own Pippi cover, and it may well be my favorite. It just gets everything right. Her pose, the single dark stocking, the monkey, the treasure. Everything. Heck, she’s posing at the "P" itself! Somebody hand that woman a book contract to do ALL the titles on this Top 100 list. Gal’s got talent.
And here’s an image of her I particularly like by Derek Kirk Kim (the fellow who collaborated with Gene Yang on that great graphic novel The Eternal Smile in 2009).
Now Pippi has been turned into everything from movies to television shows to staged productions. I saw the American film as a kid and when my brain is feeling particularly hateful it plays the song you’ll see in this trailer:
Far more fun to watch foreign stage production musicals, say I.
#94 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1930)
(#1)(#1)(#3)(#4)(#7)(#7) – 43 points
This is such a great adventure book. It probably should be introduced as a read aloud book for even the most advanced of middle readers as the vocabulary is often old-fashioned and the sailing terminology could be off putting. But once the children have sailed off on their island adventure (without adult supervision I might add) the fun begins. They meet two sailing sisters from a nearby community and the sailing competitions and exploring commences. What is great about these stories is that they are idyllic, but also perfectly possible. The characters are operating in a very real place (England’s Lake District) and a very real time (between the two World Wars) but what colors the stories even more so is the love of sailing and of the natural world. Living in a rather rural area, I can actually see current day children recreating some of these kinds of adventures. – Christine Sealock Kelly
It makes number one because it influenced [my daughter] strongly for years and really changed the course of her life; I am certain as an adult she will look back and pinpoint this book as her greatest influence. – Sarah Haliwell
“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN” I spent years wondering why I couldn’t find friends who were like the children in these books.- Greg Holch
Maybe some of you are surprised to see the appearance of Arthur Ransome on this list. Honestly the thing I knew him best for was his marriage to Trotsky’s secretary (and the fact he was almost prosecuted for treason, but that’s neither here nor there). Yet he was considered, according to The Guardian, "the 1930s equivalent of JK Rowling." Prolific and fun all at once.
The description from (sorry) Wikipedia reads: "The story follows the Walker children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger), who sail a borrowed dinghy named Swallow, and the Blackett children (Nancy and Peggy), who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers are staying at a farm near a lake during the school holidays and want to camp on an island in the lake; the Blacketts live in a house nearby. The children meet on the island which they call Wild Cat Island, and have a series of adventures, involving sailing, camping, fishing, exploration and piracy."
In these books (Swallows and Amazons was one of twelve altogether) Ransome took his memories of the English Lake District and used those recollections to conjure up, in Silvey’s words, "endless summer vacation." Eventually he would settle in that same Lake District, finding time to grumble at tiny tot and future author Diana Wynne Jones (but that is a story for another day, my children).
Fans of this book are found far and wide. In Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anthony Lewis selected this book as the one that had the greatest impact on his life. Says he, "How I got into Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books I cannot imagine . . . But the books had a charm and fascination that captured me despite my lack of acquaintance with many of the subjects."
- Read some of the book here.
- Boat crazy? Find out what the boats from the books would have looked like.
- Gotta say, though. It’s odd how folks make money off of this book. Would you believe that there’s a Swallows and Amazons River and Jungle Tour Company?
The Guardian said of it, "Mr. Ransome has the same magical power that Lewis Carroll had of being the child in terms of himself. He never talks down; never finds it necessary to be patronising or sentimental. And sentimentality is the most terrible pitfall that besets those who venture into the world of play."
A couple of the covers it has seen over the years (I think it’s in desperate need of a cover revival, myself):
A television program version (1963) and a movie version of the book (1974) did both indeed appear in England. A taste:
Also, if you’ve ever been curious about this Lake District, Channel 4 took a trip there as part of their "The Great Outdoors" program, to see the places Ransome mentioned in the book.
#93 Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)
(#1)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#5)(#7) – 44 points
This was the chapter book that turned me into a reader. – Tina Engelfried
I loved pioneer books (still do), and this is one of the best. So much better (in my opinion) than the Laura Ingalls Wilder ones! It also fulfilled another of my favorite criteria: girls who are the despair of their mothers! – Lori Erokan
It seems unfair to pair two of children’s literature’s most famous redheads in the same post, but though I’d call both Caddie and Pippi "spirited", the similarities pretty much stop right there. Caddie is also the first Newbery winner to appear on this list. While we’ve two Honors featured in this post, only Caddie got the pretty gold on her jacket. She beat Honk, the Moose by Phil Stong, The Good Master by Kate Seredy, Young Walter Scott by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and All Sail Set: A Romance of the Flying Cloud by Armstrong Sperry
Worldcat.org describes the plot in this way: "The adventures of an eleven-year-old tomboy growing up on the Wisconsin frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. At age 11, Caddie Woodlawn is the despair of her mother and the pride of her father: a clock-fixing tomboy running wild in the woods of Wisconsin. In 1864, this is a bit much for her Boston-bred mother to bear, but Caddie and her brothers are happy with the status quo. Written in 1935 about Carol Ryrie Brink’s grandmother’s childhood, the adventures of Caddie and her brothers are still exciting over 60 years later. With each chapter comes another ever-more exciting adventure: a midnight gallop on her horse across a frozen river to warn her American Indian friends of the white men’s plan to attack; a prairie fire approaching the school house; and a letter from England that may change the family’s life forever. This Newbery Medal-winning book bursts at the seams with Caddie’s irrepressible spirit. In spite of her mother’s misgivings, Caddie is a perfect role model for any girl — or boy, for that matter. She’s big-hearted, she’s brave, and she’s mechanically inclined!"
Caddie, in a lot of ways, was the only tomboy in children’s literature I really loved. And it is that tomboyism that is so interesting. In the piece "Laura Ingalls Wilder and Caddie Woodlawn: Daughters of a Border Space" (Lion and the Unicorn, December 1994) Susan Naramore Maher says, "Caddie, opposed to domesticity, is an ‘adventurer.’ With her brothers, she strips nude and crosses the Menomonie River, a geographical boundary between the white settlers and Indian John’s encampment–a border crossing that signifies all the deeper crossings in Caddie‘s life. It is the outdoors Caddie prefers, whether she is hunting with Uncle Edmund; gathering wild grapes, berries, and nuts with Tom and Warren; or plowing fields. Unlike Katie Hyman, ‘a quiet little girl, who didn’t ride horseback and was afraid of boys and cows’ (60), or Cousin Annabelle, ‘reared as a lady … nicely finished’ (179), Caddie is happiest when water laps against her skin, when wind blows through her red hair, the hair that identifies her with the Woodlawns. The ‘dark-haired side of the family’–Mother’s side–expresses ‘all the safe and tidy virtues’ (3). Brink’s critique of various female types in Caddie Woodlawn privileges the tomboy–the hybrid girl–as the appropriate mother of the West."
This book was mentioned in the recent children’s historical novel The Green Glass Sea where the scientifically inclined Dewey finds that she likes the book, if only because of the part where Caddie learns to fix a clock.
Much like The Indian in the Cupboard, Caddie has found herself on the receiving end of criticism for its depiction of Indians in the text. Children’s Literature said of it, "Unfortunately, this otherwise fine novel tries to portray Native Americans in a manner that would seem sympathetic for the times, but by today’s standards would still be considered condescending and rather stereotyped." Debbie Reese, who teaches at UIUC’s American Indian Studies program, offers her own daughter’s impressions of the book, as well as some alternate ways of using it in the classroom. In contrast, the article "Becoming a ‘red-blooded’ American: white tomboyism and American Indian tribalism in Caddie Woodlawn" (Mosaic, December 2008) Michelle Ann Abate argues that because Caddie can cross gender lines she also can cross racial ones as well. This, she says, helps to "solidify her [Caddie’s] identity as an American." I suspect there would be some contention with this idea as well.
As it turns out, there was a sequel. Magical Melons was released in 1939 and then was rereleased more recently under the title Caddie Woodlawn’s Family.
To learn how to best use Caddie Woodlawn as a teacher, the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota has your back. They provide to you:
Note to Teachers: Explains how teachers might use the posted documents.
Caddie Woodlawn: An Overview: An introduction that samples the author’s correspondence with her grandmother on whom the story is based, displays several drafts of the first chapter, and gives a few facts about the book’s post-publication history.
Caddie Woodlawn: Chapter by Chapter Notes: The presentation to accompany the reading of each chapter shows the author’s careful research in staying true to the time and place of the book while using her imagination to create a satisfying story. Additional background information is provided to aid in understanding the historical and geographic setting.
Bibliography: Books on American Indians to help young people develop an awareness of an alternative point of view from the white settlers’ presented in the story and to broaden cultural understanding.
Student Activities: Supplementary activities to enrich and extend the story.
- Read some of the book here.
- Read this discussion guide for teachers.
- Like most of the books on this list, it was adapted to the stage. You can hear selections from the musical version of Caddie Woodlawn here, if you so choose.
- If you would like to know more about the real family behind Caddie Woodlawn, The Dunn County News has that story. You can also visit her historical park here.
There have been many different depictions of Caddie over the years. Notice how the artists depict her arms. On covers where she has her own personality, arms are usually akimbo or crossed. The demure arms in front don’t seem to suit her quite as well.
I love the adventure novel feel of this one, though I wish I could have found a better print of it:
And finally, the most recent and by far the girliest cover of them all (and I include the original 1935 jacket in that statement):
Now I quite enjoyed the Wonderworks production of Caddie Woodlawn back in the day, though even at the time I found her redheaded wig to be a bit . . . well, ludicrous is really the only word for it.
#92 Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)
(#1)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#6)(#7)(#9) – 44 points
I re-read this book at least once a year, and every year I laugh and cry, I fume at the ogres and swoon over Ella’s ballgowns, and all told, I turn into a great big sop. – Katherine Harrison, Editorial Assistant, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
A retelling of Cinderella sounds so trite . . . until you see what Gail Carson Levine did with it.
The plot as told by Horn Book says, "Cursed at birth with the gift of obedience by an irresponsible fairy, Ella [in Ella Enchanted] is powerless to resist the commands of others. Witty and willful, Ella has managed to hide her affliction from the rest of the world, but when her beloved mother dies, she is sent to a finishing school by her merchant father and finds herself at the mercy of the despicable Lady Hattie, who has discovered her secret. Determined to reverse the spell, Ella runs away from school in search of the offending fairy. Along the way she encounters elves, ogres, giants (all imaginatively rendered by Levine), and a company of knights led by Prince Charmont, who clearly finds the plucky heroine completely enchanting. But Ella‘s plan fizzles, and her father sends her to live with her new stepmother and stepsisters–one of whom is Lady Hattie–who consign her to the kitchen as a scullery maid. Expert characterization and original ideas enliven this novelization of ‘Cinderella’."
Not that the path to publication was strewn with rose petals. As Ms. Levine said in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, "I didn’t write professionally at first. It took me nine years to get anything published. At the beginning I mostly wrote picture books, which were rejected by every children’s book publisher in America. The first book of mine to be accepted for publication was Ella Enchanted, and not one but two publishers wanted it. That day, April 17, 1996, was one of the happiest in my life. Nowadays, when I visit schools, I often read my worst rejection letter to the kids. That letter, which made me miserable at the time, no longer has the power to hurt me. Nowadays, it’s now a prized possession, a symbol for never giving up."
The book won a prestigious Newbery Honor. The ultimate winner that year instead? Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
Alas, Ella is a true victim of Hollywood. The Ella Enchanted film managed to create such unholy carnage that even the combined talents of Anne Hathaway and Cary Elwes couldn’t save it. Fortunately, the movie has quickly been forgotten and with each passing year more readers read about Ella’s adventures and forget about the film’s.
Booklist said of it, "As finely designed as a tapestry, Ella‘s story both neatly incorporates elements of the original tale and mightily expands them, not only with the myriad consequences of the curse but also with a heroine so spirited that she wins readers’ hearts."
Horn Book agreed with, "Expert characterization and original ideas enliven this novelization of "Cinderella." Built around the traditional elements of the fairy tale–including the fairy godmother, glass slippers, pumpkin coach, and royal balls–and at times limited by those restraints, the retelling boasts an admirable heroine who discovers her inner strength by combating her greatest weakness."
Said The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, "Levine leaves the familiar motifs intact–wicked stepmother, glass slipper, midnight curfew at the ball–but by establishing an easy, playful friendship between Ella and the prince which blossoms gradually into love, she offers readers with feminist sensibilities the assurance that life with Charmont (the prince you want to bring home to mother) will in fact be happy, ever after."
And School Library Journal agreed with, "[T]his is a rich and creative retelling of a fairy tale. … A thoroughly enchanting novel that deepens and enriches the original tale."
Since it came out in 1997 Levine’s best known novel hasn’t had much of a chance to accrue too many different jackets. I do have to say that I did love the new paperback one they gave it not too long ago. The age of the girl is positively perfect (not to say rare).
And by contrast, in the what-the-heckety-heck column we have . . .
This would be the point where I embed the trailer for the film. It is, however, too awful. I know some of the videos I’ve placed in this post aren’t stellar, but this is actually too terrible to put here. You can go here if you’re desperate to see it. *shudder*
#91 Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar (1978)
(#2)(#2)(#3)(#5)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#10) – 44 points
"Do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe? . . . You can’t have it both ways."
Louis Sachar had to choose: law school or writing for kids. "I wrote my first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School right out of college," he says in Leonard Marcus’s Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. So, essentially, here at #91, we have a book from a newly graduated college student. Not too shabby. Sachar goes on to say, "I was sending it out to publishers around the same time that I was sending out applications to law school. I was accepted to law school, and during my first week at school I heard from a publisher who wanted to publish my book." He chose law school. Passed the bar and everything . . . then went into writing.
The synopsis, in brief, from the publisher reads, "There’d been a terrible mistake. Wayside School was supposed to be built with thirty classrooms one on top of the other…thirty stories tall! (The builder said he was very sorry.) That may be why all kinds of funny things happen at Wayside School…especially on the thirteenth floor. You’ll meet Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher of all, terrible Todd, who always gets sent home early, and John who can read only upside down–along with all the other kids in the crazy mix-up school that came out sideways. But you’ll never guess the truth about Sammy, the new kid…or what’s in store for Wayside School on Halloween!"
Not that it was an immediate hit. A small publisher released the title and then the company (Follett) went out of business. Sideways Stories from Wayside School was out-of-print. These days, however, hundreds of thousands of kids are familiar with the Wayside stories. It’s become a television show and various theatrical productions. There are two sequels and two math inspired collections to complement it.
- You can read the book here.
It’s hard to get away from the original Julie Brinckloe cover, but these folks managed it. The Brits have this one:
And recently illustrator Adam McCauley came up with these:
And as I mentioned before, plenty of staged productions of this have been made. This one’s rather nice, I think.
Big time thanks to Matt for giving me the idea for this poll.
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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