Top 100 Children’s Novels (#45-41)
#45 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
(#1)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(# 5)(#5)(#5)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#9) – 92 points
Astonishing, sweeping adventure, unforgettable characters and images and Milton! – Janice E. Bojda, Head of Children’s Services, Evanston Public Library
Spunky heroine! Religion and church hierarchies, and the conflict between the two! Cleverness! Misbehaving! Cobbling a family together when you’ve lost yours. – Miriam Newman
Another game-changer, for me: this one is comfortable with ambiguity in a way that still feels radical to me in a children’s book. By the end of the series good and evil get sorted out (a little too comfortably for my taste) but in this everything’s still up in the air. Lyra is a work of genius–a worthy successor to Alice. – Libby Gruner
For the first time I need to make a titular decision. Do I stay with the Yankee moniker "The Golden Compass" and list the book that way, or do I reach back to the book’s original British roots and call it "Northern Lights", as was originally intended? Since I didn’t decide to list Pippi Longstocking (#95 on the list) as Boken Om Pippi Langstrump, I’ll continue to name the books here under their Americanized names. I am, after all, a Yankee.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "The action follows 11-year-old protagonist Lyra Belacqua, accompanied by her daemon, from her home at Oxford University to the frozen wastes of the North, on a quest to save kidnapped children from the evil ‘Gobblers,’ who are using them as part of a sinister experiment. Lyra also must rescue her father from the Panserbjorne, a race of talking, armored, mercenary polar bears holding him captive. Joining Lyra are a vagabond troop of gyptians (gypsies), witches, an outcast bear, and a Texan in a hot air balloon."
I may have come to the adult world of children’s literature thanks to Harry Potter, but it was Pullman who pulled me in the rest of the way. Living in Portland, Oregon shortly after graduating college (a lovely town to live in, but not ideal for the penniless post-student) I spent a lot of time in Powell’s Bookstore. One day I read an article in the paper that was accompanied by an image of a large cat boxing with Harry Potter and winning. The gist of the piece was that Harry was all well and good, but if you wanted some serious children’s literature you wanted to get your hands on the His Dark Materials books. That’s how they sold Pullman’s series at the start. Reviewers would contemptuously pooh-pooh the Harry Potter phenomenon in light of Pullman’s sophistication. You weren’t supposed to like them both. Many did. And in the coffee shop portion of Powell’s I devoured all three books and found them gripping, each and every one.
The term "embarrassment of riches" comes to mind when searching for information about this book. Particularly in terms of literary scholarship. So the question becomes less, "what is there to say?" and more "what should I not bother to say?" Let us begin at the very beginning then.
In a conversation with Leonard Marcus (found in the book The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy), Pullman describes the "lonely" process of writing the first two books, his dinner with Tolkien, and whether or not he had a plan in mind for the three books from the start. "Not a plan. But I knew what the story was going to be and where it was going to go and when it was going to end, and roughly how long it was going to be. I didn’t intend to write three books. I intended to write a long story. But it very quickly became evident that it would have to be published as three books because otherwise it would just sit on the shelves. It probably wouldn’t have gotten published. Who would publish a thirteen-hundred-page-long book for children?"
This statement actually helps better put into context this critique by Charles de Lint in the January 1997 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:
"… for all its positive aspects, The Golden Compass falls prey to the same problem besetting too many fantasy novels that have appeared since Tolkien inadvertently invented the fantasy genre in the fifties: There is no closure because the book is only the first part of a trilogy. After four hundred pages, the plot simply peters out and the author expects readers to wait at least two more years to have the whole story in hand. Fantasy and sf are the only genres that charge their readers three times the cover price of a regular book to give them a compete story because. . .well, that’s how Tolkien did it, the irony being that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t written as a trilogy, but arbitrarily broken up into three books by its publisher. There’s nothing wrong with a series, or with continuing a theme from one book to another, but the author should at least play fair with his readers. The Golden Compass doesn’t do so, continuing the unfortunate trend."
Generally speaking, if you write a book in which the church is made up of crazed fanatics, even if it’s in an alternative world you’re going to find yourself at the receiving end of a bit of anger. And he didn’t even kill off God in this one! Yet as of September 2009, The Guardian reported that Philip Pullman was ranked second in the top ten books that people have tried to ban in America.
In the November 2007 issue of Kliatt, Marissa Elliot had a different idea of why folks may object to the books. "For many adults, the idea of introducing their children to an ambiguous world, even in literature, is disconcerting. It is easier to keep life simple, to save the questions for another day. Pullman’s writing has received some criticism and spurred concern from parents because, it is said, of the novel’s religious implications. But perhaps the fear is more basic in nature. Fantasy is generally predictable with a safe, triumphant conclusion and characters easily categorized as ‘villain’ or ‘hero.’ Not so with Pullman. Readers will find good people making horrendous mistakes and bad people making justifiable choices."
You may recall how pleased I was earlier on this list with artist Leighton Johns’ pulp horror cover of The Witches (#96). Well he did one for The Golden Compass as well, and as I see it, it’s pretty swell.
This is also amusing. A luxury item that completely misses the very point of what the golden compass even is.
Publishers Weekly said of it, "As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension. This glittering gem will leave readers of all ages eagerly awaiting the next installment of Lyra’s adventures."
Said Kirkus , "Lyra may suffer from excessive spunk, but she is thorough, intelligent, and charming. The author’s care in recreating Victorian speech affectations never hinders the action; copious amounts of gore will not dissuade the squeamish, for resonating at the story’s center is the twinkling image of a celestial city. This first fantastic installment of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy propels readers along with horror and high adventure, a shattering tale that begins with a promise and delivers an entire universe."
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books thought, "Treachery, tricks, Gypsies, polar bears, witches, and photography all play a part in the ambitious story, and Pullman is particularly inventive in the way he blends not-quite science with not-quite magic. Although the book sometimes seems overly cerebral–Lyra seems more a pawn to the plot than a personality, for example–the faithful (and sometimes nasty, depending on their humans) damons give it some heart."
Booklist said it was, "A totally involving, intricately plotted fantasy that will leave readers clamoring for the sequels."
Horn Book said, "Touching, exciting, and mysterious by turns, this is a splendid work."
And as School Library Journal put it, "There is some fine descriptive writing, filled with the kind of details that encourage suspension of disbelief. The story line moves along at a rapid clip, but flags when it delves into philosophical matters."
The different American covers abound. This first one here will always be my favorite.
And BridgetotheStars.net has a fantastic array of foreign covers for the book as well. These include:
Hungarian (interesting choice)
A film was made of it as well. Perhaps you heard of it. Didn’t do particularly well commercially, I’m afraid, but at least the bear fight was stellar.
A little less well known was the stage play. It played in London and combined the three books into a single (long) show. You can see some of the effects from it here.
#44 Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume (1972)
(#2)(#2)(#2)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#6)(# 6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8) (#9)(#10)(#10) – 92 points
Who doesn’t love poor Peter and his pesky brother Fudge? – Katy Ross
In thinking back about the history of my reading life, the first book I can remember really relating to is Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Here were characters that were in similar situations having similar reactions to those in my young life. Peter has an obnoxious little brother? No way! I have an obnoxious little brother! It’s the kid experience of "it’s funny because it’s true." – Amy (Media Macaroni)
Sibling rivalry at its best – Jennifer Hubert Swan, Little Red School House, New York, NY
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "Living with his little brother, Fudge, makes Peter Hatcher feel like a fourth grade nothing. Whether Fudge is throwing a temper tantrum in a shoe store, smearing smashed potatoes on walls at Hamburger Heaven, or scribbling all over Peter’s homework, he’s never far from trouble. He’s a two-year-old terror who gets away with everything—and Peter’s had enough. When Fudge walks off with Dribble, Peter’s pet turtle, it’s the last straw. Peter has put up with Fudge too long. How can he get his parents to pay attention to him for a change?"
According to American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction, the book came about when, "A house helper who knew that Blume was writing books for children brought her a clipping one day about a boy who swallowed a turtle. ‘Willie Mae,’ to whom the book is dedicated, kept Blume informed of developments, and the story found its way into the enormously popular Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (1972), in which Peter Hatcher’s ‘problem’ is his two-year-old brother, Fudge . . . The original idea was for a picture book called ‘Peter, Fudge and Dribble.’ It was rejected as a picture book by Bradbury, but Ann Durrell, children’s editor of Dutton, suggested the form in which it was finally published." And aren’t we glad she did?
Peter is a child everyman. The straight man to Fudge. Doomed to forever be overshadowed by his little brother (they don’t call this series the Peter Series, after all).
For a new perspective, I enjoyed this review of the book from the excelsior file. Sort of brings up a point I hadn’t considered before:
"Peter has never mentioned wanting a dog, never really wanted anything but to have his brother not mess up his life, and all we see time and again are a pair of loving parents who don’t freak out (which is good) but can’t seem to reign in the terror of tiny town. And for all Peter has to put up with he’s given a puppy for companionship. After all he’s endured throughout the book Peter is essentially told ‘we love you, but we’ve got our hands full with your maniacal brother so here’s a puppy to give your the companionship we can’t give you’."
Twenty-two classrooms at Robert E. Clow Elementary School created cakes based on books. All I can hope is that this one won. There’s something delightfully twisted about it.
And this was a poster created by Michael Orwick for the Oregon Children’s Theatre. What I like about it is that it seems to get down perfectly the sheer devilishness of Fudge and the suffering his older brother has to endure.
Probably has something to do with the fact that Fudge’s face is lit from underneath. The hair horns are a nice touch.
This first jacket was definitely the cover of the book I had growing up.
I’m pretty sure that this is Turkish.
And there’s a good chance that this is from Israel.
Lest you fear that Ramona has all the fun, Fudge got his own television show too. Right about 1995.
#43 Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary (1968)
(#1)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#5)(# 6)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8) (#8)(#9)(#10)(#10) – 94 points
Earliest strong, mischievous female character I can remember – Chris Vollmer, Librarian/ITL/Lit. First Coordinator, Browning School, Milwaukee, WI
In my own childhood, I loved Henry Huggins, his friend Beezus, and the rest, but I think BC found her best voice in the character of Beezus’ little sister, Ramona. Ramona the Pest wasn’t published until I was in high school; but I later read the Ramona series to my kids and fell in love with her spunk and imagination. She is a real little girl who just leaps off the page! Bless BC for knowing and writing about such children. (I almost named my fourth child "Ramona," but I was afraid of how she might turn out!) – Lori Erokan
There is no other character that I identify more with than Ramona. Notice that I didn’t use the past tense of the verb? As a child I fully understood every motivation that Ramona had for the trouble she managed to find herself in, whether it was getting stuck in the mud because it was too irresistible to one sporting new boots, to being fascinated by the fancy girl’s ringlets to the point of covert tugging. Beverly Clearly is an absolute genius when it comes to capturing what it means to be a kid. She completely understands their fears, joys, anxieties, and passions. It took Ramona 50 years to go from being a casual mention as Beezus’s odd little sister in Henry Huggins to reach 4th grade in Ramona’s World. I figure I still have a few years before I need to outgrow my Ramona stage. – DaNae (The Librariest)
“Sit here for the present.” – Sarah Flowers
In Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, she says that "Critics have described Ramona the Pest as a girl’s experiences in meeting the Establishment." Which just makes me think that a book called Ramona Vs. The Man would have made perfect sense. Someday, sad to say, we’ll see someone take Ramona and turn her into a teenager. If they’ve any sense at all, they’ll make her one that wears combat boots.
Amazon described the plot as, "The engaging tale of young Ramona Quimby’s first days in kindergarten, Ramona the Pest takes a pint-sized perspective on the trials and delights of beginning school. Ramona can’t wait to learn all the important things. But she’s disappointed when her teacher can’t fill in missing parts of story lines, such as how Mike Mulligan (of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel) went to the bathroom while digging the basement of the town hall. Nonetheless, Ramona loves her teacher, and loves going to school in spite of the torments–having to wear hand-me-down boots, for example, or having to (sometimes) suppress the urge to pull on another girl’s ‘boing-boing’ curls."
Of course Ramona had appeared for years in Cleary’s other books. Silvey says, "Cleary thought about Ramona the Pest for fifteen years before writing the book. In a New York taxi in 1953, her editor suggested that Cleary develop a story about Ramona, a minor character in the Henry Huggins books. She dismissed this idea and continued to work on other projects. But she found that Ramona, until then making only cameo appearances, began to take on a life of her own. So in 1968, Beverly Cleary picked up a sheet of paper and began with a title, Ramona the Pest. ‘The story of Ramona’s clash with the school system, her eagerness for attention, her stubbornness, her misunderstandings, her fears, her longing to love and be loved, almost seemed to write itself’."
- Read some of the book here.
- Collecting Children’s Books has always exceeded at posting fantastic April Fools posts. The one about Ramona was one of the best.
- Tattoos are cool, sure. Tattoos of Ramona? Extra cool.
- There is also a band by the name of Ramona the Pest.
There’s just something about Ramona that makes people want to sculpt her. I mentioned during the Henry Huggins post (#66) that there was a Beverly Cleary Statue Garden in Portland where he and Ribsy reside. Well, Ramona’s there as well. And boy does she look happy.
This is hardly the only sculpture of Ramona in the world, though. In the nearby Gresham Regional Library in Gresham, Oregon two Ramona busts by artist Lee Hunt reside. The smiling one sports a quote from Ramona the Pest.
Across the country in St. Paul, Minnesota, two different Ramona busts live. The artist? Lee Hunt again! Clearly Hunt decided to hit it big by just doing Ramona busts all the time. The thing is, though one is happy and one is sad again, the happys are very different.
A critic in Young Readers’ Review commented: "As in all her books about the boys and girls of Klickitat Street, Mrs. Cleary invests [Ramona the Pest] with charm, humor, and complete honesty. There are some adults who can remember many incidents from their early childhood; there are few who can remember how they felt about things and why; there are fewer who can communicate these feelings. And fewer still who can retain the humorous aspects. Mrs. Cleary is one of those rare ones. . . . Even boys and girls who dislike stories about children younger than themselves enjoy the incidents in which Ramona makes a pest of herself. . . . Ramona has never been funnier and has never been so sympathetic a character. . . . As usual, this is standard Cleary first-rate entertainment."
And the New York Times said, “Ramona’s adventures ring as true as the recess bell.”
#42 Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(# 4)(#4)(#4)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#9) (#9)(#9) – 96 points
This was one book that spurred my love of reading. I read it so many times when I was a kid that I practically memorized it. (And I still quote passages of it to my children.) I wanted to be Laura. I wanted to enjoy life like Laura. I wanted to write like Laura. I’m glad I had Laura in my life. – Melissa Fox (Book Nut)
Yeah, I was Laura for more Halloweens than I can count. Loved the strength of Pa, the adventure of the wagon ride, that moment when Jack’s green eyes show in the prairie dark and Laura fears he is a wolf. I know people are worried about Ma’s racism and Laura’s wanting a papoose of her own. It startles me again each time I read those bits – but they’ve offered a real opportunity for me to talk about these issues with my kids and I appreciate that. They are books of their time. – Linda Urban
My first understanding that less… an orange and a cornhusk doll for Christmas… can be more. – Michele Gawenka
"The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the sky. The campfire was cozy in the big dark stillness. …"
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "The adventures continue for Laura Ingalls and her family as they leave their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin and set out for Kansas. They travel for many days in their covered wagon until they find the best spot to build their little house on the prairie. Soon they are planting and plowing, hunting wild ducks and turkeys, and gathering grass for their cows. Sometimes pioneer life is hard, but Laura and her folks are always busy and happy in their new little house."
New York Times book critic Eden Ross Lipson mentioned in Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey that the book that affected her the most as a kid was this one. Says Lipson, "This plain account focuses on ordinary lives, but that is why it is so thrilling and engrossing. The family’s ordinary lives are so far from our own, unimaginably remote to today’s children. But the lesson the books taught me, and still teach without comment, is that there is dignity, honor, and pleasure in work well done."
This is the Little House book that perhaps draws the most controversy in the series. In article "Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians" (Great Plains Quarterly, Spring 2000), Fraces W. Kaye says of it, "I cannot honestly read Little House on the Prairie as anything other than apology for the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Great Plains. That her thought was unremarkable, perhaps even progressive, for the time in which she lived and wrote should not exempt her books from sending up red flags for contemporary critics who believe in diversity, multiculturalism, and human rights." Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature also offered up a two part critique of the book (here and here) that is well worth reading.
One racial element that doesn’t get a lot of discussion but is fairly fascinating is the appearance of Dr. Tan in this book. As Alison Wilson in Twentieth-Century American Western Writers: Third Series put it, "A serious health crisis threatens the entire family when they come down with the ‘ague’ (malaria). Fortunately, they are saved by a visit from a neighbor, Mrs. Scott, who brings Dr. Tan, a black physician, who prescribes a bitter powder–probably quinine–for them, then nurses them back to health. They had all been bitten many times by the swarms of mosquitoes that lived near the creek, but they do not connect the insects with their illness; in fact, Mrs. Scott is convinced it has come from eating watermelon!" For some reason Dr. Tan, whose role is quite small in the book, always struck me as the most interesting fellow in the story. Who was this guy? What was his life like? Where did he end up in the end?
Silvey mentions too that "When scholars go back to manuscripts of these books, it is clear that Wilder collaborated with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a ghostwriter by trade, to achieve a finished manuscript. Although we may never know what one wrote and the other changed, these books stand as one of the greatest mother/daughter collaborations of all times." So much so there is an upcoming work of poetry by Jeannie Atkins coming out called Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C.J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters. Keep an eye peeled for that one.
- Read some of the book here.
- It is also very interesting to note that Little House on the Prairie is not listed amongst the other titles by Laura Ingalls Wilder at Little House Books.
And memorable indeed, the television show:
#41 The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1958)
(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#3)(# 3)(#4)(#5)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#8) (#9)(#10) – 103 points
I consider this Juvenile not YA-great historical fiction, hint of romance – Amy Sears, Supervising Librarian, Head of Youth Services, Teaneck Public Library, Teaneck, NJ
This is the first book I can remember where I was interested in the love story. I feared for the future of Kit’s relationship with Nat Eaton as much as I did for her safety. – Kara Dean
School Library Journal described the plot as, "The setting is the Colony of Connecticut in 1687 amid the political and religious conflicts of that day. Sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler unexpectedly arrives at her aunt and uncle’s doorstep and is unprepared for the new world which awaits her. Having been raised by her grandfather in Barbados, she doesn’t understand the conflict between those loyal to the king and those who defend the Connecticut Charter. Unprepared for the religious intolerance and rigidity of the Puritan community, she is constantly astounding her aunt, uncle, and cousins with her dress, behavior, and ideas. She takes comfort in her secret friendship with the widow, Hannah Tupper, who has been expelled from Massachusetts because she is a Quaker and suspected of being a witch. When a deathly sickness strikes the village, first Hannah and then Kit are accused of being witches. Through these conflicts and experiences, Kit comes to know and accept herself. She learns not to make hasty judgments about people, and that there are always two sides to every conflict."
This was Speare’s second children’s novel. Silvey says that with this book, "After spending a year and a half working on the novel, Speare sent it to Mary Silva Cosgrave, the editor who had rescued her first book, Calico Captive, from a pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Cosgrave found the manuscript for The Witch of Blackbird Pond to be the most perfectly crafted she had ever seen. Because Speare had been so thorough in her research and in the way she had pieced the book together, Cosgrave suggested only one minor correction before the book went to press."
It won the Newbery, of course, beating out The Family Under The Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, Along Came A Dog by Meindert Dejong, Chucaro: Wild Pony of the Pampa by Francis Kalnay, and The Perilous Road by William O. Steele. But Silvey reports a shocking piece of news about that committee. "Although the details of the Newbery’s selection process usually remain confidential, the chair of the committee revealed that The Witch of Blackbird Pond won the Newbery Medal unanimously on the first ballot, an extremely rare event." No secrets that year, I see.
Of course Lizzie Skurnick had to have her say about the book over at Fine Lines. A sample:
"What’s wonderful about Witch — and what distinguishes it, I think, from the American Girl novels I like to flog unmercifully because I don’t think novels should have branded stores with cafes that serve things like ‘American Girl Pasta’ — is that the narrative isn’t a flimsy cover for a history lesson, and neither is Kit a stand-in for heroic, spunky girls resisting the powers-that-be everywhere."
And I adore the covers. Particularly the romance novely ones like this:
Other Top 100 Children’s Novels Posts Include
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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