Top 100 Children’s Novels (#55-51)
The very first book I ever bought with my own money. I had the one with the bubblegum cover. It blew my mind. – Stacy Dillon, Lower School Librarian, LREI – Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School
I still cry every time I get to the end when I read it out loud, just as I did when my teacher read it to my class when I was a kid. – Jim Randolph
It shows us so eloquently that there is far more to any individual than at first meets the eye, that each of us deserves to be loved, and that sometimes our choices have irrevocable consequences. – Faith Brautigam, Director of Youth Services , Gail Borden Public Library District, Elgin, IL
It’s a rare week that I don’t think of Gilly in some context. – Mary Ann Rodman
Sometimes I’ll challenge the kids in the bookgroup I run with a difficult question. "Name me a children’s book where you don’t like the hero right from the start." I tried this on them the other day as we were discussing The Secret Garden and they came up with a couple good suggestions, including this book. "Gilly’s racist!" one of them pointed out. I agreed with them that she was at first.. A racist protagonist in a children’s book takes a particularly skilled writer. One that knows where the story is going. So it is that Katherine Paterson, our current Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, makes an appearance on this Top 100 list at last.
The description from Katherine Paterson’s website reads: "At eleven, Gilly is nobody’s real kid. If only she could find her beautiful mother, Courtney, and live with her instead of in the ugly foster home where she had just been placed! How could she, the great Gilly Hopkins, known throughout the country for her brilliance and unmanageability, be expected to tolerate Maime Trotter, the fat, nearly illiterate widow who is now her guardian? Or for that matter, the freaky seven year old boy and the shrunken blind black man who are also considered part of the bizarre ‘family’? Even cool Ms. Harris. Her teacher, is a shock to her."
There is a sadness in the creation. In American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, Paterson says that her book was "a confession of sin." She refers to the fact that she once took in some Cambodian children, who were placed in her home for only two months. Paterson felt that she had been "regarding two human beings as Kleenex, disposable," so that she decided "to think, what must it be like for those thousands … of children … who find themselves rated disposable?" Her website says the same thing, but in a different way. "I wrote Gilly after I’d been a foster mother for a couple of months and didn’t feel as though I’d been such a great one, so I tried to imagine how it might be to be a foster child. How would I feel if I thought the rest of the world thought of me as disposable?"
Of course, having a complex female protagonist like Gilly has its downside. Unsurprisingly the book was ranked #20 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 1990-2000. Again, I’d love to see a similar list made up for 2000-2010. Gilly challenges have been far and few between in the last ten years, I’d wager.
Said American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction of the book, "The Great Gilly Hopkins is Paterson’s funniest book, but heartbreak is never far beneath the humor. Though the novel’s major thesis may be, in Gilly’s words, that ‘the world is woefully short on frog smoochers,’ its ending is characteristically hopeful."
It won the only 1979 Newbery Honor, beaten in that particular year by Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. And if something had to beat Gilly, I’m glad it was that.
- It was turned into a CBS Afternoon Playhouse special in 1981. No word on how it was. Tyne Daly was in it, though.
In all my years, there are few covers I’ve seen that I loathe quite as much as this next one.
It’s the cutesiness of it all. *shudder* Far better the Spanish.
There are also a couple stage productions of the book out there. Here’s a scene from one of them.
My father and I were driving along, listening to NPR when I learned of Roald Dahl’s death. It was the first time I realized that authors could die, a fact that had never occurred to me and I cried so hard my dad had to pull over on the side of the road. – Katie Fee, Associate Marketing Manager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Walker Books for Young Readers
The plot from the RoaldDahlFans website reads, "When orphan Sophie is snatched from her bed by a Giant, she fears that he’s going to eat her. But although he carries her far away to Giant Country, the Giant has no intention of harming her. As he explains, in his unique way of talking, ‘I is the only nice and jumbly Giant in Giant Country! I is THE BIG FRIENDLY GIANT! I is the BFG.’ The BFG tells Sophie how he mixes up dreams to blow through a trumpet into the rooms of sleeping children. But soon, all the BFG’s powers are put to the test as he and Sophie battle to stop the other Giants from tucking into the children of the world. The RAF and even the Queen become involved in the mission."
I was unaware that Roald Dahl liked to put references from one of his books into another. But according to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, "In the second chapter of Danny, the Champion of the World, Danny’s father tells his son a series of bedtime stories ‘about an enormous fellow called The Big Friendly Giant, or the BFG for short.’ Huh! Who knew?
For this book, editor Stephen Roxburgh apparently (according to Silvey) "spent days drafting his editorial suggestions to Dahl, ten typed, single-spaced pages that commented on inconsistencies, cliches, and matters of taste." Whew! Prior to the publication of this book Roald Dahl tried his hand at the story George’s Marvelous Medicine. Adults were rarely entirely pleased with Dahl’s stories as they came out, but they definitely disliked this one in particular. So BFG was a welcome relief and a much more popular book when it as released.
Actually, there’s a rather fun essay called White Blossoms and Snozzcumbers: Alternative Sentimentalities in the Giants of Oscar Wilde and Roald Dahl in which author Hope Howell Hodgkins seeks to show that, "The space between the nineteenth and the twentieth fin-de-siècles in children’s literature may be measured by the distance from Oscar Wilde’s ‘Selfish Giant’ (1888) to Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant [BFG] (1982)." It’s a fun read. Example: "Wilde’s fairy tales suggest on the surface a decadent weariness, but seem to rely upon moralistic cures and utopian endings: the selfish giant’s everblooming garden or an ineffable Paradise. Dahl, however, writes in and of a ‘fleshguzzling’ postmodern interpretive community, which is hilariously entertaining though alarming in its unspoken implications. Dahl offers no final answers for the century of the gigaton."
The article "Spell-Binding Dahl: Considering Roald Dahl’s Fantasy" by Eileen Donaldson (found in the book Change and Renewal in Children’s Literature) also had a lot of fun with considering the author’s use of dreams. "Dahl uses dreams as magic in this novel . . .Thus, dreams in this novel become the means through which Sophie and the BFG transform their worlds; they literally recombine the elements of different dreams in order to create a new entity and, through it, a new way of living together as a family."
This last one kind of amused me too. In British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers, 1918-1960, the section on Roald Dahl gives this immensely silly book the fully academic once over. Say they, "Dahl uses several devices effectively in this book. Foremost among these is his extensive use of made-up language. He uses invented words in all his books, but not nearly to the extent that they are used in this story, and they are the kind of words that will make his young readers giggle, often because of their naughty or nasty implications . . . But the term that undoubtedly breaks up new readers the most, year after year, is whizzpopper; that is to say, flatus. Whether one approves of such material in children’s books or not, it must be admitted that Dahl handles it with relative decorum." The use of "flatus" in that paragraph just cracks me up. Particularly when it is follow by a sentence that uses the term "relative decorum" with a straight face.
- Chris Riddell tried his own hand at a version of the BFG.
As for the official covers, it’s pretty much Quentin Blake from here on out.
There was a film made of it in 1989. Here’s the opening if you like. I love the music. The poor man’s Danny Elfman.
Mole and Rat! Wise Badger! And Toad! They are such good friends. When parents are at a loss when their young children are reading at a sixth grade reading level, I direct them to my friends in the Wild Wood. – Sharon, The Head Chick in Charge (Reading Chick)
There are lots of "classics" I could add to this list, but I think this one is the one most likely to continue to survive and appeal to children. – Jennifer Wharton, Youth Services Librarian, Matheson Memorial Library
An absolute literary masterpiece that is by turns adventuresome, wise, and artistic. A spellbinding story featuring the best animal characters ever, bar none. – Billy
Toad is the best comic character of all time. – Sherry Early
I once had the great good fortune to speak to author Brian Jacques (author of the Redwall books) in person. He is an imposing man of great personal charm, and he was discussing an audiobook version of The Wind in the Willows that he had participated in. I asked if Pan made the cut. Pan, all too often, gets removed from editions of this book when it is released (example a: The beautiful Inga Moore edition). Jacques described with relish his pride that it was an uncut edition of the book. I was pleased, he was pleased, everybody was altogether pleased.
The plot, as given by Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism reads, "The Wind in the Willows focuses on the adventures of a group of four animal friends that exhibit human behavior: Mole, Badger, Rat, and Toad. Commentators note that the book consists of three narratives placed together: the adventures of Toad, the tale of the friendship of Rat and Mole, and the two lyrical chapters on nature entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All.’ The story begins when Mole abandons the spring cleaning of his underground home to take a walk along the riverbank. He meets Rat, and the two become friends. Mole also becomes friends with Toad, the rich owner of Toad Hall. Toad convinces Rat and Mole to take a trip on his gypsy caravan, but during the ride they are forced off the road by a speeding automobile. Entranced, Toad abandons the caravan to follow the car. Rat and Mole return home. Later, Mole gets lost exploring the area across the river known as the Wild Wood. Rat rescues him, and the two find refuge in the safe and warm home of the Badger. Meanwhile, Toad has become obsessed with automobiles and has crashed several cars. Concerned about his young friend, Badger asks Rat and Mole to help him convince Toad to be more responsible. Their appeal to him fails, and Toad is caught stealing a car and is sentenced to twenty years in jail. Toad escapes jail and has many adventures on his trip home. When he finally arrives back at Toad Hall, he finds it overrun with weasels, stoats, and ferrets from the Wild Wood. With the help of his friends, they are able to run the squatters out of the house and enjoy a celebratory banquet. The story ends with Toad resolving to reform."
The book began, as so many do, as a series of stories told by Kenneth Grahame to his four-year-old and disabled son Alastair. British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I says that, "In a letter to a friend in May 1904, Grahame wrote that he had told ‘Mouse’ (the Grahame’s pet name for their son) ‘stories about moles, giraffes & water-rats’ to quiet the boy after a crying spell . . . By 1907 the giraffe had been replaced by Toad, whose adventures were the subject of letters written by Grahame to his ‘dearest Mouse’ when the boy was on holiday with his governess. Grahame spent much of the summer in London, and the letters continued into the autumn. The completed manuscript was submitted to publishers but was only reluctantly accepted by Methuen after John Lane, the publisher of Grahame’s earlier books, had turned it down."
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism says of the reception to the book, "Critical response to The Wind in the Willows was mixed, but opinion eventually improved as a result of its surprising and enduring popularity with children. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt was disappointed by the novel at first, but when his children urged a second reading, he became a fan of The Wind in the Willows. Many critics praised the stylistic variation, slang-filled dialogue, and the repeated comic devices in the story. Commentators maintained that the foolishness and charismatic appeal of Mr. Toad, whose adventures are broken into short sequences, was effective for small children. Reviewers discussed the satire in the novel, particularly the mock-heroic epic section ‘The Return of Ulysses,’ which satirizes the Greek epic poem The Odyssey. They also commended Grahame’s attention to detail and power of description, and considered the appeal of Grahame’s novel as universal and timeless."
Apparently when it came out Graham said to Teddy Roosevelt (presumably after the President got around to liking the story) that the book contained, "no problems, no sex, no second meaning." To which the rest of the world has since said (and here I’m paraphrasing) "hardy hardy ha ha ha!" Go to any scholarly database and you’ll find articles with names like "Gender Trouble in Arcadia or a World of Multigendered Possibility?: Intersubjectivity and Gender in The Wind in the Willows" or "The Fantastic Sublime in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows" or "Bodies and Pleasures in The Wind in the Willows" or "Exploring ‘The Country of the Mind’: Mental Dimensions of Landscape in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows." I could go on, you know. There are a million such articles out there, but I’ll just touch on the main points.
While it is true that this book was one of the first English novels for kids to use clothed animals as protagonists, it was hardly the first (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and all). Daniel Toronto in the book Novels for Students does make the very good point, though, that "Grahame’s novel is distinct from Carroll’s in that the animals are the protagonists, with well-developed, complex personalities. They are the ones who move the plot along."
Furthermore, Lois R. Kuznets in the biography Kenneth Grahame writes that, "Grahame derives from the [anthropomorphic] tradition a . . . sense of the possibilities of eluding both internal and external censors in using animals rather than humans." So true! I’ve often said that if you want to have adult protagonists in a children’s book, the only way to get away with it is to make them furry woodland creatures. Redwall (see, we’re back to Jacques) knew this, and so did Grahame. That’s probably why they’ve done it a couple times with adult live actors. It really doesn’t matter if they are or not, since it’s the characters we love. Not their pelts, furry or otherwise.
It is a little weird how few ladies make it into the book. I suppose there’s an old boys’ school feel to the novels, but the women in this novel don’t even have names. And of course, there have been arguments that the book is a wish for "the good old days" before industrialization.
As a kid, I was always kind of disturbed by the sizes of the characters. I mean, Toad dresses up like a washerwoman and makes his escape in that outfit at one point. So how big a toad are we talking about here? Toronto’s point is that "The sizes of the animals are not so much inconsistent, but rather, incorrect. No toad in the world is large enough to drive a car. No mole is tall enough to walk with its head ‘beside a horse’s head.’ A badger is vastly larger than a toad. Again, Grahame is drawing on the anthropomorphic tradition. Readers willing to accept talking animals are also willing to accept that they are about the same size as humans, regardless of what kind of animal it is."
I wonder a little if the book has fallen out of favorite amongst readers. Surely it’s significant that it didn’t even crack the Top 50 children’s novels on this list. Still, its presence is still here and it still has things to say to readers big and small.
Two annotated editions of The Wind in the Willows were released in 2009, and all met with very mixed reviews. In the Horn Book Magazine, for example, Deborah Stevenson noted that, "In the end, one has to accept that the books are geared less to the readership’s interests than to the annotator’s and decide whether or not to come along for the ride."
- Awesome. Take a gander at the Classics Illustrated version of this tale.
- Look upon my works ye mighty and despair. Or, y’know. Just despair.
A person could spend their whole life finding and posting covers of this book. I had other things to do tonight, so here’s what I found. In no particular order:
And due to the sheer plethora of videos out there on the topic, I have no preferred cinematic version. Which is fine.
Part of me dies a little every time a mom wrinkles her nose and pulls her kid away from our graphic novel section, assuming out of hand that nothing of value can be gained from what they call “comic books.” I hope this book (and the little Caldecott medallion on its cover) helps more people recognize sequential art as a legitimate literary format. After all, what better way to tell one story of an orphan boy and one of the great silent film pioneers than through a series of evocative, black-and-white images? – Christi Esterle, Youth Librarian, Douglas County Libraries, Parker CO
This book is amazing – the melding of words and illustrations blows me away every time – my reluctant readers grab it because it’s thick, and it has a lot of pictures, and they ACTUALLY READ IT!!! – Erin Hibshman, Librarian, Rheems and Fairview Elementary, Elizabethtown Area School District
Yep, this was on my list for the picture book poll. High on my list. And yep, it’s on my list for the chapter book poll as well. High on my list. This is a book that deserves to be high on EVERY possible list… – Aaron Zenz
A picture book on the Top 100 Children’s Novels list? Well, what would you have of me? The trick to Cabret is that this book fits no single designation. Folks nominated it for the Top 100 Picture Books List (it didn’t make the cut) and for this list as well. Spoiler Alert: It is the only Caldecott Award winning book you will find on this list. Or is that not too surprising after all?
The plot from the publisher reads, "Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life and his most precious secret are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery."
The wordy Roderick McGillis piece "Fantasy as Epanalepsis: ‘An Anticipation of Retrospection’" (found in the Dec. 2008 edition of Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature) made a rather striking point about the book. He says that, "The story may not be a fantasy, but it is surely about fantasy" at one point and "His last name suggests ‘cabaret’, the site of a mixture of performances." in another. Later he points out that, "The ‘invention’ of Hugo Cabret is both the discovery and fashioning of the character and, in turn, the character’s discovery and invention."
Horn Book said of it, "While the bookmaking is spectacular, and the binding secure but generous enough to allow the pictures to flow easily across the gutter, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is foremost good storytelling, with a sincerity and verbal ease reminiscent of Andrew Clements (a frequent Selznick collaborator) and themes of secrets, dreams, and invention that play lightly but resonantly throughout."
Said Library Journal, "Toss in a wild jumble of references and plot lines, a mean old man, a young girl, toys, secrets, and a fabulous train station, and you have the makings of a novel destined to enchant."
The New York Times said, "It is wonderful. Take that overused word literally: ‘Hugo Cabret’ evokes wonder. At more than 500 pages, its proportions seem Potteresque, yet it makes for quick reading because Selznick’s amazing drawings take up most of the book. While they may lack the virtuosity of Chris Van Allsburg’s work or David Wiesner’s, their slight roughness gives them urgency.
If the Wind in the Willows covers were a bit extreme in its cover numbers, Cabret makes up for it. I couldn’t find anything but the very first cover. What I found instead was Brian discussing the book in a couple videos.
Why? Because it’s just the best. book. ever. It takes place in the greatest city in the world (NYC) and is simultaneously cozy and action packed. I love it so much I would marry it, and couldn’t be more pleased with the new Holt covers. Everyone needs an I.S.A.A.C. ! – Jennifer Hubert Swan, Little Red School House, New York, NY
I loved every book by her and read them many times. In fact, I named a daughter after one of the characters! – Lori Erokan
Memorized. These guys really blurred the fiction/nonfiction line for me–I would have recognized any of them on the street. Since I read this it’s turned into historical fiction–I can’t see today’s kids in NYC blithely going off on their own to do something of their choosing. – Laurel Sharp, Liverpool Public Library, Liverpool, NY
Oliver getting sick at the circus. Mrs. Elephant. And Mona being such a priss. The rest of the series is amazing, too. And Then There Were Five…the neighbor boy’s father is a drunk…dies in a fire! So the Melendy’s adopt him. Why not? – Schuyler Hooke
The plot according to American Writers for Children, 1900-1960 reads, "In The Saturdays, Randy, Rush, their older sister Mona, and their younger brother Oliver decide to pool their allowances so that each Saturday during the winter one of them can afford to do something special in New York City; the book follows their escapades, some of which are more successful than others: Mona, to the distress of her parents, spends her share of the money at the beauty parlor; Oliver gets lost at the circus; Rush goes to an opera; and Randy goes to an art museum and meets Mrs. Oliphant, who becomes a fairy godmother of sorts to the children."
According to American Short-Story Writers Since World War II: Fifth Series, "Thimble Summer remained Enright’s most popular children’s book until 1941, when the first of the Melendy family stories, The Saturdays, was published." I would dare say that it remains her best known work to this day (Newbery winner aside). For the interested, there are three other books in the Melendy series. The Four-Story Mistake (1942), Then There Were Five (1944), and Spiderweb For Two (1951).
And the dialogue really is good in this book. I mean really really good. I don’t usually quote large swaths from the books on these lists, but this just had to be noted:
"And for heaven’s sake don’t play Bach," ordered Randy. "It’s so jumpy for today."
Rush slung his leg over the piano stool and sat down. With both hands he began to play slow deep chords that fitted together into a wonderful dark mysterious music.
"Yes, that’s better for today," approved Randy. "What is it, anyway?"
"Bach," said Rush without turning his head. "Just shows how much you know about music."
"Not an awful lot," admitted Randy humbly.
"Not any," said Rush.
He played another bar.
"Not many people your age do, though," he added kindly.
Of her characters, Ms. Enright herself would say, ""Perhaps they are always a little more reasonable and ingenious than live children are apt to be. . . Their conversations are to the point; in the tales about them, as in tales about adults, they cannot be allowed all the ragtag slack of daily life, all the humdrum comings and goings and yawnings and coughings and desultory chatter."
J.D. Stahl in the April 1998 edition of Hollins Critic points out, though, that "Unlike the majority of writers for children during the era of World War II, she did not exclude awareness of the war from her children’s fiction. In The Saturdays, Rush and Randy, two of the memorable Melendy children, stare at the Rorschach-like outlines of a leak on the ceiling of their New York City house. Rush sees a shape like a big fat fish, or a heart, ‘and a thing like a baseball mitt, and a kind of lop-sided Greyhound bus.’ But Randy sees something else: ‘You’ve missed Adolf Hitler,’ she says. ‘See up there? That long fady line is his nose, and those two little chips are his eyes, and that dark place where you threw the plasticine is his mustache.’ The war hangs like a dark shadow on the horizon."
- A touching inscription in one of Ms. Enright’s books by her son was discovered at Collecting Children’s Books.
The New Yorker said of the book that it made, "pleasant reading for children who like stories of family life and don’t wince at the thought of going to an art exhibit or the opera."
I sort of struck out in the book jackets for this one. Ah well.
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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