Top 100 Children’s Novels (#90-86)
"Arrrrggghhh! A top ten list is impossible to pin down. As the saying goes, it’s like trying to nail Jello to a wall. It’s just so effing subjective." – Grier Jewell
That scream of pain was pretty typical of the emails I got when I conducted this poll. It’s true too. On today’s list you’re going to see two titles that were not the first in their fantasy series. Is this a problem? Is it okay? Judge for yourself. You will see from the number of votes received, however, that even the second or last book in a series might be well-written enough for somebody somewhere to put it on their Top Ten.
#90 Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1985)
(#2)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#9)(#10) – 44 points
Patricia MacLachlan’s prose is so distinctive. There is something spare and poetic about it, so that her stories seem to play out in my mind like snapshots. She deftly creates character and sets mood with just a few lines. Kate DiCamillo’s work reminds me a lot of MacLachlan, and that’s high praise. Sarah Plain and Tall remains my favorite of many excellent MacLachlan books. – Beth Priest (Endless Books)
If this were a book for grown ups it would be 600 pages long – 100 of which would be about the undulation of prairie grass. The exact right detail in the exact right place and a big-heart epic told in under 70 pages. – Linda Urban
In her 100 Books for Reading and Sharing, Anita Silvey tells of how Sarah, Plain and Tall became a book. "Sarah, Plain and Tall began as a journey," she says. MacLachlan and her three kids went to North Dakota to take a gander at the land where her dad had been born (in a sod house, no less). She had heard from her mother that an ancestor had married a mail-order bride. It wasn’t enough to just put that bride into the book Arthur, for the Very First Time either. She needed her own tale. Her own book. A book that is short, sweet, and deeply loved.
The plot from the publisher reads, "Their mother died the day after Caleb was born. Their house on the prairie is quiet now, and Papa doesn’t sing anymore. Then Papa puts an ad in the paper, asking for a wife, and he receives a letter from one Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton, of Maine. Papa, Anna, and Caleb write back. Caleb asks if she sings. Sarah decides to come for a month. She writes Papa: I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall, and Tell them I sing. Anna and Caleb wait and wonder. Will Sarah be nice? Will she like them? Will she stay?"
The book’s unwitting fate is to be the title librarians and teachers hand to students when third graders need to read a Newbery Award winner. This and The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, that is. And in case you’re curious, the year it won it beat Honor books Commodore Perry In the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg and Dogsong by Gary Paulsen. Not a fantasy loving Newbery committee, apparently.
Other books in the same series (oh yes, there were many to follow) included Skylark, (March 1994), Caleb’s Story (October 2001), More Perfect Than the Moon (2004), Grandfather’s Dance (2006).
- You can take a look at the book here.
And the New York Times called it "An exquisite, sometimes painfully touching tale."
I was aware of only two covers for the book, but it seems there have been more than a few. Quite a range too.
P.J. Lynch even did a version of the cover, which I missed at some point (probably because it’s British). It may be the best. There’s no denying that this woman certainly looks both plain and tall. And awesome.
You can read his thoughts on it here and see the full image (before they cropped it for the cover) as well.
In the last few days I’ve seen some pretty awful theatrical adaptations of these books on the list. Just awful stuff, trust me. But this clip from the Sarah, Plain and Tall musical is not only well acted but the music ain’t bad either. They mucked with the plot a tad, but you need some kind of tension in a play and this isn’t a terrible way to do that. Check it.
There aren’t any decent clips online available regarding the Hallmark movie version of this book. A pity, since it’s actually quite good. Christopher Walken gets to play something other than a psychotic creep for once and Glenn Close (who is neither plain nor particularly tall) is excellent. For a good laugh you should instead consider taking a peek at this commercial for the movie sequel, Sarah, Plain and Tall: Winter’s End. You’re fairly convinced by the end of it that Jack Palance is going to murder each and every one of your favorite characters at some point.
I knew I had to include a Ramona book, but which one? Perhaps this one is on my mind since it’s one of my favorite “Christmas books.” Not a Christmas book per se, but since it does begin with Ramona making her Christmas list and ends with the girls’ Nativity pageant, I always recommend it for those looking for Christmas chapter books. Although first published in 1977, the shock and upheaval of Mr. Quimby’s unemployment is still very relevant for today. – Jennifer Schultz, Fauquier County Public Library, Warrenton
I actually had some issues with this one as a kid bc it was so unrelentingly depressing and because of all the Christian stuff at the end freaked me out–a sheltered Jewish kid. But it deserves to be on the list simply for the chapter when Picky Picky eats the jack-o-lantern and Beezus gets angry—Beezus!!!—and Ramona gets so upset and her parents mistake her crying over the destroyed pumpkin and tell her it’s okay, they’ll get a new one. To which Ramona thinks something along the lines of "Don’t grownups know that children worry about things other than pumpkins? Sometimes children worry about grownups?" A line that NEVER fails to make me cry. – Gayle Forman
Considering the state of the current economy, I was particularly pleased to see this book make our Top 100 list. If I were to ask you to name me all the great children’s novels where a parent has lost their job and suffered depression, the answers don’t come as readily to the lips as they might. This is what I love about Beverly Cleary. She took a light and seemingly fluffy series and dared to add some realistic issues to it. Even better is the fact that the dad doesn’t get a job as a high powered lawyer or business manager at the end. He becomes a check-out cashier, and you know what? That is great. Not every contemporary family in children’s literature has to be affluent, for crying out loud. As Gwenda Bond at Shaken & Stirred put it, "This is the one where her father gets laid off from his job; eventually, at the end, he gets a new one as a check-out cashier. I can’t remember the last time I read about a real blue collar family like this, where it was portrayed as okay and a non-issue to not be the Joneses."
The plot description from the publisher reads, "Ramona just wants everyone to be happy. If only her father would smile and joke again, her mother would look less worried, her sister would be cheerful, and Picky-picky would eat his cat food. But Ramona’s father has lost his job, and nobody in the Quimby household is in a very good mood. Ramona tries to cheer up the family as only Ramona can, but her best efforts just make things worse. But when her father admits he wouldn’t trade her for a million dollars, Ramona knows everything is going to work out fine in the end."
This book was included in a fantastic Slate article that took a long hard look at Great kids’ books about financial ruin. Erica Perl puts it best when she says, "The Quimby family is not as poor as the Peppers [Five Little Peppers and How They Grew] were, but there is a consistent theme of scrimping and ‘making do,’ which comes to a head in Ramona and Her Father, when Mr. Quimby loses his job. He sinks into a depression, smokes a lot, and snaps at his kids. Ramona and her older sister, Beezus, respond by trying to get him to quit smoking (which does not go over well). Cleary creates an impressively honest portrait of a family’s struggles, complete with 7-year-old Ramona fretting that her querulous parents will split up. Although Ramona’s parents do not divorce and ultimately reassure her that, as in the Pepper and Ingalls families, there’ll always be plenty of love in the Quimby cupboards, the fact that she views adults with a moderately jaundiced eye adds a contemporary dimension to this book. "
It won a Newbery Honor in 1978, beaten by the Newbery Award winning book of that year: Bridge to Terabithia.
- You can read through some of the book here.
- Here is a Reading Guide with questions for discussion.
- There’s a Teacher’s Guide to the Ramona books available off Ms. Cleary’s website.
Booklist said of it, "Another warm, funny, pithy story about Ramona, now in second grade. Daddy loses his job and there are resultant strains on family finances and relationships, but life goes on. In any household containing Ramona it could hardly do otherwise."
Interesting covers too. Early on dad was prone to wearing plaid. It’s only recently that he’s exchanged that plaid for button up shirts.
I guess it’s a given that someone who named one of her sons Taran would have at least one of Chronicles of Prydain on her list. This series was my first exposure to Fantasy and I found it as an adult. Believe it or not I managed to get through childhood without exposure to Middle Earth or Narnia. I was utterly enchanted with the experience of moving through an epic adventure with a troop of loveable companions. Although I would never suggest reading just one of the 5 books in the series, let alone the final book, I am choosing The High King for the list as it is everything a middle-grade novel should be. There is despair, treachery, daring-do, romance, intrigue, an epic moment of nick-of-time realization all tied up in an enormously satisfying ending. – DaNae (The Librariest)
The last in a series, eh? Many of us have a great deal of affection for Lloyd Alexander’s books, but how well can a person justify putting the last book in a series on this list without listing the other books alongside it? The answer is in the Medal. The High King was awarded the 1969 Newbery Medal, beating out Honor books To Be a Slave by Julius Lester and When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer in the process. And if the Newbery committee felt that this book stood on its own, who are we to argue?
The description of the plot from the publisher reads, "When the Sword of Dyrnwyn, the most powerful weapon in the Kingdom of Prydain, falls into the hands of Arawn-Death-Lord, Taran and Prince Gwydion raise an army to march against Arawn’s terrible cohorts. After a winter expedition filled with danger, Taran’s army arrives at Mount Dragon, Arawn’s stronghold. There, in a thrilling confrontation with Arawn and the evil enchantress Achren, Taran is forced to make the most crucial decision of his life."
Other books in the series include The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965) – which was the winner of the 1966 Newbery Honor, The Castle of Llyr (1966), Taran Wanderer (1967), and The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain (1970).
- You can read much of the book here.
- Download a map of Prydain if you like.
- Here too is a Reading Group Guide.
And talk about a range of covers!
Confession…. this next one was my favorite, but I can’t find a nicer scan than this. It was by artist Jody Lee who, for a time, did a lot of my favorite fantasy covers. Just wait until you see Jody’s Madeleine L’Engles!
You are out of luck if you wish to see any adaptation of this novel (though there is one done in Lego form that’s mildly amusing). Better to look at this video A Visit With Lloyd Alexander instead. If nothing else, it makes me grateful that we live in a post-typewriter world.
Had both my son and daughter transfixed with the beauty of language that showed how to treat others with respect. – Ed Spicer
This is a title that I thought might fall short of the top ten before rereading it this month. Boy was I mistaken. I love everything Konigsburg has written but this book is just so damn perfect. Four or five other Konigsburg titles probably could have made my top ten if I would have reread them as well. – Eric Carpenter
I can say without so much as a drop of hesitation that this is actually my favorite E.L. Konigsburg title. Maybe this is because I didn’t read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid. Dunno. Whatever the case, I’ve always enjoyed this book, so it is with great pleasure that I place it here at #87 on the Top 100 List.
The plot from the publisher reads, "
HOW HAD MRS. OLINSKI CHOSEN her sixth-grade Academic Bowl team? She had a number of answers. But were any of them true? How had she really chosen Noah and Nadia and Ethan and Julian? And why did they make such a good team? It was a surprise to a lot of people when Mrs. Olinski’s team won the sixth-grade Academic Bowl contest at Epiphany Middle School. It was an even bigger surprise when they beat the seventh grade and the eighth grade, too. And when they went on to even greater victories, everyone began to ask: How did it happen? It happened at least partly because Noah had been the best man (quite by accident) at the wedding of Ethan’s grandmother and Nadia’s grandfather. It happened because Nadia discovered that she could not let a lot of baby turtles die. It happened when Ethan could not let Julian face disaster alone. And it happened because Julian valued something important in himself and saw in the other three something he also valued. Mrs. Olinski, returning to teaching after having been injured in an automobile accident, found that her Academic Bowl team became her answer to finding confidence and success. What she did not know, at least at first, was that her team knew more than she did the answer to why they had been chosen. This is a tale about a team, a class, a school, a series of contests and, set in the midst of this, four jewel-like short stories — one for each of the team members — that ask questions and demonstrate surprising answers."
Writing the book with four different stories was the plan from the start. In an interview with Scholastic Ms. Konigsburg says, "I wrote the book that way because that’s the way it came to me. I thought children would enjoy meeting one character, and then two characters, and that they would enjoy seeing parts of the story repeated but in a different way. I thought that they would enjoy having the second character interact with the first character, with each story moving the general story along. And I had hoped that readers would feel very satisfied with themselves when they had it all worked out. And that’s been my experience from the letters I get, that readers feel very satisfied after having read it."
In 1997 the book was awarded the Newbery Medal, beating out a stellar year of A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, and Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White. This wasn’t the first Newbery Award she won, of course. That honor went to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. But when discussing the subsequent win Ms. Konigsburg says, "I think that when I won for The View From Saturday, I had a better understanding of what it meant, after having been so richly rewarded with recognition after the first one.
- Read some of the book here.
- A Book Club Lesson Plan could be useful.
- Hear some of the audiobook here.
The starred Publishers Weekly review called it, "glowing with humor and dusted with magic."
School Library Journal said, "Careful prose is well adapted into a funny, realistic, caring portrait through clear and varied voices. No bells and whistles are needed to bring this winner to life, just a skilled reading. Put this on the shelf and watch it fly."
And Kirkus concurred with, "In wry prose filled with vivid imagery, information, and often oblique clues, Konigsburg takes her team through bonding, drills, and a series of contests as suspenseful as any in sports fiction; the children and Mrs. Olinski’s public triumph mirror inner epiphanies of rare depth and richness. The large cast, looping plot line, and embedded stories with different narrators require careful sorting, but the effort is eminently worthwhile, and Konigsburg kindly provides answers at the end."
At first I was under the distinct impression that there had only ever been one cover for this book. Then I discovered just how wrong I was.
I’m guessing that most, if not all, of the HP books will make the top 100, but I’m also guessing this will be the one left off if they don’t all make it. I’ve read all of the books multiple times, and this is still my favorite, followed closely by GoF. While I love them all, I think the later books lose a little of their charm in all the plot twists and details Rowling has to include, and since I’ve always had a soft spot for Ginny and Hagrid, both of whom star in this one, I’m casting my vote for Chamber of Secrets. – Emily Calkins Charyk
No trouble for me to pick my favourite Harry: finding the platform, riding the crowded train, the endless wait to get to Hogwarts — give me an enchanted car with Ron at the wheel anyday! I also believe this is the best written Harry: the weaving of the story is tight and the character development and plot are sharp. But, it’s my favourite because I fell in love with Ron’s family. I would really like to be a Weasley! – Beth Maddigan, Provincial Children’s Librarian, Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, St. John’s, NL
I was a Potter-resister for a few years, and then I started right before Prisoner of Azkaban. Chamber of Secrets is filled with humour (whomping willow and all those muggle/wizard hybrids that Ron’s dad has) and I like where Harry and his pals are socially in this installment. – Stacy Dillon, Lower School Librarian, LREI – Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School
The plot, as told by Kirkus, reads, "This sequel to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998) brings back the doughty young wizard-in-training to face suspicious adults, hostile classmates, fretful ghosts, rambunctious spells, giant spiders, and even an avatar of Lord Voldemort, the evil sorcerer who killed his parents, while saving the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from a deadly, mysterious menace. Ignoring a most peculiar warning, Harry kicks off his second year at Hogwarts after a dreadful summer with his hateful guardians, the Dursleys, and is instantly cast into a whirlwind of magical pranks and misadventures, culminating in a visit to the hidden cavern where his friend Ron’s little sister Ginny lies, barely alive, in a trap set by his worst enemy. Surrounded by a grand mix of wise and inept faculty, sneering or loyal peers—plus an array of supernatural creatures including Nearly Headless Nick and a huge, serpentine basilisk—Harry steadily rises to every challenge, and though he plays but one match of the gloriously chaotic field game Quidditch, he does get in plenty of magic and a bit of swordplay on his way to becoming a hero again."
I should tell you that this is a very personal book for me. It’s the book that turned me into a children’s librarian in the first place. In fact, if I were to be completely honest with you, I’d have to say that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets changed my life. In 1999 I was living abroad in London as part of my college’s foreign exchange program. While there my mother asked if I might pick up and send to her the newest Harry Potter book since it hadn’t come out in America yet. Baffled, I wandered into the nearest Waterstone’s and asked for, "Something by a Harry Potter." The clerk managed to keep the eye rolling to a minimum and pointed me to the children’s section. There, a large display had been made of the first two Harry Potter books. I bought some and took them home to my flat send, but found myself reading #2 on my own. I was hooked. Deeply hooked, and the minute I could I double backed and read #1 (which is, in my opinion, the best way to read the series). After that I insisted on ordering each subsequent copy directly from England, a practice I never dropped in spite of the lag time between the book being sent and its arrival in my country. HP2 turned out to be the gateway drug to children’s books. After that I devoured The Golden Compass books. Then Holes. And by the time I took a children’s literature course for my MLIS degree I realized all at once that this was where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a children’s librarian. So thank you, Harry. A tip of the hat to you.
Library Journal said of the book, "With a year at Hogwarts School under his belt, Harry expects the new term to go smoothly, but a wizard’s share of surprises and adventures await the likable lad and his friends. Rowling works her magic and leaves readers begging for more."
School Library Journal also reviewed it with, "The novel is marked throughout by the same sly and sophisticated humor found in the first book, along with inventive, new, matter-of-fact uses of magic that will once again have readers longing to emulate Harry and his wizard friends."
Kirkus said, "Readers will be irresistibly drawn into Harry’s world by GrandPre’s comic illustrations and Rowling’s expert combination of broad boarding school farce and high fantasy."
Now here comes the really fun part. All the different covers of this book from around the world:
Thanks to The Leaky Cauldron for all these wonderful scans (and you can see them more clearly on their site, if you’re so inclined).
There may have been a movie of this film too. I’m not sure . . .
And there was the French & Saunders spoof of the second film too. It is VERY British. You aren’t going to get half the Blue Peter references here if you’re American, but it’s almost worth it if you can get to Jeremy Irons saying, "God, I’m gorgeous".
Thanks to Matt for giving me the idea for the 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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