Top 100 Children’s Novels (#80-76)
This is going to sound ridiculous, but I want to take a moment to reassure my author readers. Authors, do not hold too much store by this list. This list is not the be all and end all. These books do not represent whether or not you will be remembered in history. If you do not see yourself on the Top 100, do not fret. I worry about your self-esteem. Don’t give it a second thought. Because if you could see some of the books that ended up #101 or #105, you would find yourself in excellent company.
Moving on . . .
Neil Gaiman’s a creative genius with no shortage of ideas or new ways to tell a story – Amy Farrier Another "destined-to-be-classic" book, I love the untidy ending and the irregular family. – Kristen M. (WeBeReading.com)
By some amazing feat, Gaiman manages to make the story of a boy raised by ghosts and pursued by demons completely, emotionally compelling and ultimately uplifting. – Tanya (books4yourkids.com)
It is interesting to note that when it comes to his children’s novels, Gaiman is an either or kinda guy. Either you are a Coraline fan or a Graveyard Book groupie. At no point did any voter on the Top 100 Children’s Novel poll put BOTH books on their lists. And why is this? Maybe because Coraline has the cool musical, movie, and graphic novel. The Graveyard Book has the shiny gold circle.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family."
I rather liked this assessment in the journal Spectator. "At one time there was a fashion for speaking of death as ‘the last taboo’. In recent years this taboo has been thoroughly broken, and a successful film can be made about a boy who sees dead people. Yet the world of the dead continues to fascinate. Gaiman has a particular talent for putting his imaginary worlds just adjacent to the real one; in Neverwhere a yuppie finds another world behind those inexplicable doors in the Underground, and in Stardust Fairyland is just on the other side of a wall. Death too lies beyond a gate, and Neil Gaiman is a wonderful guide."
The book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, beating out The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle, Savvy by Ingrid Law, and After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson. Gaiman then gave a delightful acceptance speech that, amongst other things, revealed a horrific change made to the first line in the Puffin edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. You should have seen the faces of the librarians in the audience when he revealed this. Jaws were dropped, ladies and gentlemen.
Now one chapter of The Graveyard Book was previously published as a short story in the Gaiman anthology M is for Magic, which raised all kinds of questions about the book’s legitimacy as a Newbery winner. So much so that Peter Sieruta was able to do a brilliant spoof called Graveyard Book to be Stripped of Newbery? that had people running for the hills… momentarily.
- Naturally it has its own website.
- Care for some perfume based on the book? You’ve a wide assortment to choose from.
The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (clearly I don’t quote them enough) said of the book, "Although on the surface the story might seem too horrific for younger children, the violence is no worse than typical fairy tale violence (where wolves eat grandmothers), and the fright readers will feel is more entertaining than disturbing. This is a good read for all ages."
Said The Washington Post, "The book’s power lies in Gaiman’s ability to bring to quirky life (pun intended) the graveyard’s many denizens, including a protective vampire and a feisty medieval witch. Like a bite of dark Halloween chocolate, this novel proves rich, bittersweet and very satisfying."
School Library Journal agreed with, "Gaiman has created a rich, surprising, and sometimes disturbing tale of dreams, ghouls, murderers, trickery, and family."
The New York Times (which is to say, Monica Edinger) said, "Neil Gaiman follows in the footsteps of long-ago storytellers, weaving a tale of unforgettable enchantment."
And Kirkus pretty much peppered the book with kisses when it said, "Closer in tone to American Gods than to Coraline, but permeated with Bod’s innocence, this needs to be read by anyone who is or has ever been a child."
And here is the British cover as penned by Chris Riddell. It shows Bod and Silas side-by-side.
This was the signed limited edition.
I hardly lack for videos to include with this book. Indeed I have a great deal more difficulty just culling them down. Just the essential then, eh what? Which is to say, the vids that amuse me the most.
First off, a keen trailer. Missed this one when it first came out. 30,000 people have already seen it though, so clearly I am just late to the game.
Not that everyone was keen on the win. Stephen Colbert demanded his own Newbery.
Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
And if you would prefer to hear the author himself (rather than a bewigged version) read the book, you can see the first chapter spoken here.
As a child growing up in heavily Lutheran Minnesota, this was my window into old New York and the Jewish faith. A wonderful historical novel. – Cathy Berner, Children’s/Young Adult Specialist and Events Coordinator, Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas
The thick scratchy tights. The dusting-for-buttons game. Penny candy. Going to the library. Talking and daydreaming after lights out. I am not on the whole a good rememberer-of-details . . . but I do remember so many scenes from this whole series. – Melissa Depper, Youth Services Librarian, Arapahoe Library District CO
Because the joy that the girls had in choosing what to spend a nickel on outweighs most of the excitement I could imagine then or now. It made me crave a dill pickle from the barrel, for goodness sakes. – Pam W. Coughlan (MotherReader)
Charming without being cloying. One of my favorites. – Jennifer Schultz, Fauquier County Public Library, Warrenton
I don’t even remember how I got the book in the first place. Scholastic Book Fair? Gift from Aunt? Bookstore recommendation? What I do remember is loving this book. I can say that because I remember all the details intricately. The chocolate babies in particular. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a chocolate baby. And the sequence where one kid wouldn’t eat her food so she had to miss out on all the meals? I found that a strangely satisfying sequence. Breaking the spirit of a naughty kid = awesome in my right thinking little head back then.
The publisher’s description reads, "All-of-a-Kind Family, a ‘Yearling Perennial’ book, tells the heart-warming story of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie, five sisters who live with their parents in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. They share adventures that find them searching for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor and visiting with the peddlers in Papa’s shop on rainy days. The five girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises. But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!"
How did it get written? Folks often forget that Taylor wanted to be an actress, and was even a professional dancer in the Martha Graham Company. In the Judaica Book News she said she wasn’t interested in writing for kids until, "my child said to me one day, ‘Mommy, why is it that whenever I read a book about children it is always a Christian child? Why isn’t there a book about a Jewish child?’ Then I remembered that this was the way I used to feel when I was one of the girls. I thought, ‘Somebody ought to write the book–why not me?’ . . . So I sat down and wrote it and felt very good about it." She didn’t publish it though. Nope. Stuck it in a drawer and let it molder for a while. Then her husband heard about a children’s book contest and submitted it without her knowledge. Woah! Big time surprise then when Follett sent her a letter saying they wanted to publish it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Writer Meg Wolitzer cited the book as important in Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book. Says Wolitzer, "What this novel has, most of all, is atmosphere, and this has influenced me deeply as a writer ever since. (Atmosphere! I sometimes remind myself when I’m working. Fill up the thing with atmosphere!) Good children’s books give you an early sense of the multiple textures of the world. They remind you that there is, in fact, no single world – but many of them."
But perhaps my favorite reading of the book was Lizzie Skurnick’s reading of the book in the Fine Lines, Jezebel piece All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn. She makes some brilliant points. "I had forgotten how strictly Taylor hews to the Dickensian model of providing pretty much one event per chapter, preferably something illustratable. What this means is you can successfully call up the entire text by simply listing the chapter titles . . .but, besides Uncle Hyman coming by to eat six-hard boiled eggs and half a loaf of rye spread thickly with butter (uh, DELICIOUS) nothing has ever stuck in my brain quite so much as Mama’s method of getting the girls to do a better job dusting the front room: placing buttons for the girls to find in all the hard-to-find spots. Because I was tortured — TORTURED! — by how once the girls found one button (say, on a table leg) they might leave the rest of the table undusted. (!!!!!!!!)" Oh, go and read the whole thing, for heavens sake. It probably says more insightful things about the book than I could ever fit in here.
- You can find a reader’s guide for the book here.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review said of the book, "Younger girls who like to ask their mothers what it was like when they were eight or nine will enjoy what this mother told her own daughter."
For the first time, I am unhappy to report that there is a cover of this book out there that I could not find a scan of. Worse, I don’t own the edition myself. I just remember that in the mid to late 80s a paperback edition of this book was published with a sepia toned pseudo-photograph of the family on the cover. It was that cover that lured me in and got me to read historical fiction of my own accord. I was looking forward to seeing it again. If any of you happen to have a scan of it, please do not hesitate to send it to me. I’d love to add it to this line-up.
I could have put several books in this tenth place, but this book is the most memorable read aloud book that we ever read in our homeschool. My kids all remember Johnny and his damaged hand and the revolutionaries that he associated with and Cilla and Isannah. – Sherry Early
A classic historical novel. This is the only book on my top ten that I read as a kid, and I have never forgotten it. Forbes pulls us into the lead-up to the Revolutionary War by creating marvelous characters and putting them right in the middle of the real-life action. Now that I think about it, this was probably the book that led to my eventual degrees in history. – Sarah Flowers
Once in a while a new Revolutionary War book will come out (Give Me Liberty, Chains, etc.), and I’ll think that maybe it has a chance of shaking Johnny Tremain from its go-to Revolutionary War status. No go. There’s just something about Johnny.
The plot description from the publisher reads, "Fourteen-year old Johnny Tremain, an apprentice silversmith with a bright future ahead of him, injures his hand in a tragic accident, forcing him to look for other work. In his new job as a horse-boy, riding for the patriotic newspaper, the Boston Observer, and as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty, he encounters John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Dr. Joseph Warren. Soon Johnny is involved in the pivotal events shaping the American Revolution from the Boston Tea Party to the first shots fired at Lexington."
Many do not know that Ms. Forbes was an editor at Houghton Mifflin prior to writing this book. Or, for that matter, that she was a descendant of Sam Adams. After she married she started writing books. One of them was the biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. After doing all that research on silversmithing, it just seemed natural to write something that used that knowledge. Batta bing, batta boom: Johnny Tremain. Afterwards she became the first woman member of the American Antiquarian Society.
Johnny Tremain also won the Newbery Medal in 1944, beating out These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Fog Magic by Julia Sauer, Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes, and Mountain Born by Elizabeth Yates. And why did it win? Well, some argue that it was because of the time period. Elizabeth Rider Montgomery argued in the book The Story Behind Modern Books (published in 1949) that it was all about the war. "Then came December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor. America was at war. The youth of our country would be called on to fight. Boys who had been considered children in peace time would now be men, with a man’s work and a man’s responsibility. And suddenly Esther Forbes saw exactly what she wanted to do in this new book about Revolutionary times: she wanted to show boys in their teens what boys of the same age were up against at the time of the American Revolution, for the success of wars rests heavily on the sense of responsibility and manliness of young men." Indeed, in her Newbery acceptance speech Ms. Forbes said, "In peace times countries are apt to look upon their boys under twenty as mere children and (for better or worse) to treat them as such. When war comes, these boys are suddenly asked to play their part as men."
Anita Silvey in 100 Best Books for Children notes that Forbes was lamentable when it came to grammar and spelling, possibly because of dyslexia, or something close to it. As a result, "Forbes drove two aging proofreaders at the Riverside Press, which printed Johnny Tremain, absolutely crazy with her lack of attention to spelling and punctuation."
And I admit that every time I hear the book, I think back to The Simpsons episode where Bart insists that the real title of the book should be "Johnny Deformed". You have to admit . . . way more kids would read that book willingly if it sported such a title.
- Read some of the book here.
- Or, if you’re feeling a little crazy, why not indulge in some Johnny Tremain Fan Fiction. I wish I could say I was making that up.
- Oh, very well. I’ll tame it down a tad. Enjoy a plain old Reader’s Theater.
- Now could someone please explain to me why Entertainment Weekly reviewed it?
- Considering that J.L. Bell has a blog called Boston 1775, I would direct you to his own Johnny Tremain post
In the article Esther Forbes: Newbery Winner (July-Aug 1944), Horn Book Magazine said of the book, "Out of the past comes the present. In this Newbery Medal book Esther Forbes has brought to boys and girls a living spark from the fires that lighted the liberties they are now called upon to defend." Mind you, back in 1944 Horn Book also gave a gleeful, "Johnny Tremain may well be counted the first classic story of Boston for young people."
Cover artists have had a field day with him too.
Tonight the role of Johnny will be played by Mick Jagger.
If you come to my home you’ll see that I’m a sucker for old movie posters. I’d sooner shoot myself in the foot that put up one by Disney, but I have to admit that this poster is pretty keen.
I have a vague sense that in my school we didn’t watch Johnny Tremain. We just watched the Sons of Liberty song from it. Dunno if that’s true, but that’s what my memory says. With that in mind . . .
Loved the friendship between the two characters and the shifting viewpoint between the two as they solve the puzzle that is the city they live in. Well told yarn.– Monica Ropal
The movie may have tanked, but The City of Ember in book form continues to burn bright in the minds of readers everywhere. I was as surprised as anyone to see it appear on this Top 100 list, but what I like best about these 100 books is the variety. They aren’t all nostalgia titles from when "we" (read: adults)were kids, they’re not all major award winners, and they’re not all brand new series that kids today dig now and will forget tomorrow. Does The City of Ember have legs? Will it remain in the public consciousness fifty years down the road? Only one way to tell. I’ll just do another poll in 2060 and we’ll find out. Deal?
School Library Journal described the plot this way: "More than 200 years after an unspecified holocaust, the residents of Ember have lost all knowledge of anything beyond the area illuminated by the floodlamps on their buildings. The anxiety level is high and rising, for despite relentless recycling, food and other supplies are running low, and the power failures that plunge the town into impenetrable darkness are becoming longer and more frequent. Then Lina, a young foot messenger, discovers a damaged document from the mysterious Builders that hints at a way out. She and Doon, a classmate, piece together enough of the fragmentary directions to find a cave filled with boats near the river that runs beneath Ember, but their rush to announce their discovery almost ends in disaster when the two fall afoul of the corrupt Mayor and his cronies. Lina and Doon escape in a boat, and after a scary journey emerge into an Edenlike wilderness to witness their first sunrise-for Ember, as it turns out, has been built in an immense cavern. Still intent on saving their people, the two find their way back underground at the end, opening the door for sequels."
On her website, Ms. DuPrau had this to say about the writing of the book: "I grew up in the 1950s, when many people were worried that there might be a nuclear war. Some of them were building bomb shelters in their back yards. I think this influenced my idea for Ember—a city built to protect the human race from a terrible threat. But I was also just interested in the idea of a city that had no light other than electricity. What would it be like to live in such darkness, and to know that light and food and supplies were all running out? And not to know about weather or trees or animals (except for a few rats and insects) or any other places? All this grabbed my imagination. And once I’d written The City of Ember, I hoped it would make people think about our world—about the sun and the moon, the forests and the ocean, the wind and the rain—and how precious it all is."
- Get some teaching ideas for the book here.
- There’s also a nice collection of lesson plans and ideas here.
In comparing the book to Herbie Brennan’s Faerie Wars, Elizabeth Devereaux’s New York Times review said, "While a book like ‘Faerie Wars’ diverts young readers from their daily lives, one like ‘The City of Ember‘ encourages them to tackle the most ambitious tasks. Hard work can save the day, it promises. It’s an old-fashioned lesson that is somehow easier to swallow when delivered in a futuristic setting. "
Publishers Weekly said of the book, "Thanks to full-blooded characters every bit as compelling as the plot, Lina and Doon’s search parallels the universal adolescent quest for answers. Readers will sit on the edge of their seats as each new truth comes to light."
Said VOYA, "DuPrau uses the puzzle, suspenseful action, and lots of evil characters to entice readers into the story. They will find the teen characters believable and gutsy. Part mystery, part adventure story, this novel provides science fiction for those who do not like science fiction."
Kirkus gushed with, "Well-paced, this contains a satisfying mystery, a breathtaking escape over rooftops in darkness, a harrowing journey into the unknown and cryptic messages for readers to decipher. The setting is well-realized with the constraints of life in the city intriguingly detailed. The likable protagonists are not only courageous but also believably flawed by human pride, their weaknesses often complementing each other in interesting ways."
And I found the School Library Journal review rather insightful when it said, "DuPrau debuts with a promisingly competent variation on the tried-and-true ‘isolated city’ theme." I had no idea this theme had a name. I’ll be darned. [I have now just noticed that the review was written by my boss, so that’s coincidental].
In terms of covers, they kind of knocked it out of the park with the first one. Generally speaking, it is the only cover for this book. So here, instead of covers, are various posters for the movie.
And, naturally, there was the trailer itself.
This was my first foray into the free verse novel. I had never read one before and didn’t have any idea how a series of poems about dust could form a novel or plot development. I quickly learned otherwise. And I will never, ever, look at dust again. – Sharon, The Head Chick in Charge (Books.ReadingChick.com)
One of the most powerful examples of novel in verse. I am still haunted by its emotion and beauty. – Eliza Brown, Assistant Retail Manager, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
Pregnant with her first daughter, Hesse started reading children’s literature. In a 1999 Publishers Weekly article Karen Hesse: A Poetics of Perfection she said that, "Among the first books she happened upon was Katherine Paterson’s Of Nightingales That Weep: ‘I couldn’t believe that was children’s literature.’ She went on to read everything Paterson wrote; ‘I learned at her knee, whether she knew it or not’."
The plot described by The ALAN Review says, "Billie Jo, the 14 year old narrator, uses free verse poems to describe her life from the winter of 1934 to the winter of 1935. The dust bowl era of rural Oklahoma is aptly described while the story develops. Billie Jo, an only child, is an aspiring pianist, while her father and mother struggle to keep the farm going during the dust bowl and Great Depression. Her father leaves a bucket of kerosene next to the stove and her mother, thinking its water, starts a fire. Billie Jo, in an attempt to be helpful, throws the burning bucket out the door. Her mother is drenched in the burning liquid as she starts back in the door after running to get her husband. Mother and her unborn child both die after much suffering. Billie Jo’s hands are disfigured in the accident. Billie Jo struggles to help her father and herself overcome this tragedy. Finally, after running away, she realizes that she must face her reality."
How did the book get written? According to that same PW article, "When she presented the manuscript for Come On, Rain! to her writers’ group, her friend and colleague Eileen Christelow suggested that Hesse consider just why her character would want rain so badly. Pondering the question, Come On, Rain! was put on hold as Hesse began to think about periods of drought, including the Dust Bowl of the ’30s; before long she had contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society and located microfilm of an obscure newspaper published in that period. Hesse devoted herself to the work that became Out of the Dust."
But even before that happened, Hesse had to find her inspiration. In her Newbery speech for the book she said, "The first traceable roots for Out of the Dust reach back to 1993 when I took a car trip out to Colorado with fellow author Liza Ketchum. When we entered Kansas, something extraordinary happened. I fell in love. I had never been in the interior of the country before. Our first day in Kansas, we experienced a tornado. I watched, awestruck, as the sky turned green as a bruise and the air swelled with explosive energy. The second day in Kansas, we walked in a town so small it didn’t have a name. It grew up beside a railroad track and never fully pulled itself from the earth. The wind never stopped blowing there. It caressed our faces, it whispered in our ears. The grass moved like a corps of dancers. The colors were unlike any I had ever encountered on the east coast or the west. And the sky and land went on to the horizon and beyond."
The book won the 1998 Newbery Medal, beating out Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff, Wringer by Jerry Spinelli, and #92 on this Top 100 poll, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
- Read some of the book here.
- A great selection of activities and (very up-to-date) recommended books of a similar nature are available at Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site.
- Scholastic also provides a discussion guide.
Five Owls said of the book, "More than vivid storytelling, Out of the Dust gives a face to history. Teachers of social studies, geography and science will find here an invitation to examine some of the 20th century’s most devastating events. Likewise, simple vocabulary and short lines of poetry will entice reluctant readers."
Publishers Weekly said in a starred review, "Readers may find their own feelings swaying in beat with the heroine’s shifting moods as she approaches her coming-of-age and a state of self-acceptance."
School Library Journal agreed, saying, "Readers may at first balk at a work of fiction written as poetry, but the language, imagery, and rhythms are so immediate that after only a few pages it will seem natural to have the story related in verse. This book is a wonderful choice for classrooms involved in journal-writing assignments, since the poems often read like diary entries. It could also be performed effectively as readers’ theater. Hesse’s ever-growing skill as a writer willing to take chances with her form shines through superbly in her ability to take historical facts and weave them into the fictional story of a character young people will readily embrace."
And Kirkus said, "The poem/novel ends with only a trace of hope; there are no pat endings, but a glimpse of beauty wrought from brutal reality."
This is one of those cases where there really aren’t that many different versions to a cover. In case you’re curious about it, the photograph is by Walker Evans from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The girl’s name is Lucille Burroughs. The British edition tweaked it a little, but that’s about as different as you get.
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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