Top 100 Children’s Novels (#40-36)
#40 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#7)(#8)(#10)(#10) – 107 points
A book that features one of the most memorable stories, with one of the most memorable casts of characters in children’s literature. The storytelling is pure genius, with timeless themes, detailed steeing, and fantstic whimsy. What can you say about a book that played a large part in the development of the whole field of "kid’s books"? It’s an icon. – Billy
I really, really wanted to be Dorothy. Though I loved some of the stories and characters later in the series better, this is the book that started it all. Baum really knew how to write for children and also push the boundaries — to let children know that is was okay to not be safe all of the time as long as you had a way to get back. – Kristen M. (We Be Reading)
This is the book (and series) that consumed my childhood, and still claims a significant portion of my adulthood. As a child, "Oz" represented everything that was magical in the world, everything hopeful, everything with promise. After all, all you need in life is a few good friends, a quest, and good directions. – Sharon Thackston
"Let me speak plainly. Baum is the Lewis Carroll and the Hans Christian Andersen of the United States. To have been so late in recognizing this now obvious fact is one of the major scandals of American letters." – Martin Gardner
Oz is too overwhelming for a single post. Indeed, there are whole websites, blogs, and societies out there solely dedicated to its existence. With that in mind, here is a quick overview of the title and its impact on America at this point.
L. Frank Baum did not come to write the books of Oz until he was well into his middle age. In American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, Michael Patrick Hearn writes that, "On 15 May 1900, Baum’s forty-fourth birthday, his most enduring work, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , was printed. The new book, a full-length fairy tale, again illustrated by Denslow, matched the great success of Father Goose, His Book . The immediate novelty of the book was its pictures; even today the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an impressive piece of bookmaking. Again responsible for the cost of the plates, Baum and Denslow insured the inclusion of twenty-four color plates and countless textual decorations in an alternating color scheme, making it one of the most elaborately embellished children’s books in American publishing history."
According to Selma Lanes in Through the Looking Glass, "Despite The Wizard‘s immediate success, Baum gave no thought to sequels. He was ready to move on to other tales." So much for that plan. His fans insisted and four years later out came The Marvelous Land of Oz. This does explain why the first book is such a perfect little book, though. With no intentions of continuing the story, it is self-contained. Later there would come sequel after sequel. And when a book had a lot of sequels, it was technically a series. Fun Fact: Guess what libraries of the early 20th century loathed? That’s right. Series.
To be blunt, libraries weren’t always pleased with the books. Most notably, my very own children’s room. As Lanes tells it, "By 1930, the Children’s Room of the New York Public Library had removed the entire Oz series from its shelves, and other library and school systems followed suit." It is true. Look in our reference section today and you will find few Oz first editions. Fortunately we carry the books on our shelves now. And do they go out? Oh yes they do. Boys in particular love Oz, thereby trumping the old line that boys won’t read stories about girls. The heck they won’t!
Men are some of the biggest fans too. In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. William C. DeVries offers a short but deeply felt note on the book. “In the book, the Wizard of Oz talks to the Tin Woodman about whether or not he really wants a heart. The Wizard believes that having a heart is not a good thing: ‘It makes most people unhappy.’ But the Tin Woodman says, ‘For my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me a heart.’ In my work, I have thought about those lines many, many times.”
I had a lot of fun looking over the various critical essays on this otherwise simple little story. Articles with names like "From Vanity Fair to Emerald City: Baum’s Debt to Bunyan" or " ‘Aunt Em: Hate You! Hate Kansas! Taking the Dog. Dorothy’: Conscious and Unconscious Desire in The Wizard of Oz" or even " ‘There lived in the Land of Oz two queerly made men’: Queer Utopianism and Antisocial Eroticism in L. Frank Baum’s Oz Series." Heavens!
In Novels for Students, Jennifer Bussey has a particularly enjoyable critical essay of the book in which she pretty much summarizes all the discussions of the title. "Over the years, L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been interpreted from virtually every angle. Feminists, populists, Marxists, historians, economists, political scientists, and Freudians and other psychologists have all interpreted the characters and events of the novel in terms of their particular points of view. The book has been looked at as a commentary on American life and as a statement about New World ways replacing Old World ways. Presidential scholars have considered the possibility that the Wizard of Oz represents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, or a combination of the three. Still other scholars interpret the novel as a fable about substitutions: Dorothy lives with substitute parents; she returns to a substitute farmhouse; a common man has substituted the identity of the Wizard for his own; and the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion are all made happy with substitute charms."
For me, I’ve always loved the Wizard of Oz gold standard conspiracy theories. You’ve heard of these, yes? I actually first read about this theory in my high school history textbook. Out of a vague sense of devil’s advocatism, I once asked Oz scholar Michael Patrick Hearn his opinion on the topic and he regaled me with the ridiculousness of it all. So I suppose it isn’t true, but it’s still fun to consider.
I have mentioned that there are two books on this Top 100 list that have been turned into amusement parks. This book almost became a third. In his lifetime, Baum would purchase Pedloe Island off the California coast in the hopes of turning it into a "real-life land of Oz." He was pre-Disney, this guy.
The New York Times said of it the book at the time that it was "ingenuously woven out of commonplace material" and that "It will be strange indeed if there be a normal child who will not enjoy the story."
- Read the book here.
Here’s a small sample of some of the jackets for this book out there.
I love the original covers beneath the book jacket:
Growing up, my favorite Wizard of Oz version was the one illustrated by Michael Hague. I will maintain to this day that he did the best Oz endpapers of any version of this story done to this date.
The videos you find regarding Oz are fascintating. Really, the best thing I could find was the frighteningly low-budget and poorly shot 1971 Turkish Wizard of Oz. How cheap is it? Well when the best you can do Great and Terrible Oz-wise is a skull sitting on a table, you may wish to consider springing for a cardboard head or something. I did agree with the YouTube commentator who said that the Tin Man’s axe looked like something that could do serious bodily harm, though.
There was also this series of selections from the 1910 version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I’ll spare you the various crazed television animated television shows. There was the Japanese anime version (though the French intro is undoubtedly the best), the American 80s one, and an odd little 60s series called Tales of the Wizard of Oz. Tales actually comes off looking the best of the lot. There’s also this, which sort of defies explanation.
High-budget commercials have apparently taken great advantage of the movie version over the years. There was this oddly Tinman-free Minolta commercial in the 80s and, more recently, this Fed Ex bit o’ weirdness.
No, when it all comes down to it, maybe the best thing I found was this simply charming Shirley Bassey rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
#39 When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009)
(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 107 points
A perfectly assembled puzzle of a story that allows the big picture to unfold naturally. – Amy Farrier
She’s just trying to figure out *everything*, from time travel to adult relationships to kid relationships to class, status, and dentists. And that’s just awesome. – Miriam Newman
So glad this this poll wasn’t done a year ago when this title would have missed out. I cannot get over how much I love this book! First read was sitting on the floor in the bookstore b/c I didn’t want to waste anytime driving home before starting. Read it six or seven times since that wonderful July 13 day (they got it a day early) and not only have I not found a single flaw, I think its gotten better with each read. – Eric Carpenter
I am enamored with this book because of its recent-ness, and really only time will tell how I feel about its impact on The Canon. But I want to give it a chance at classicdom. – Gayle Forman
There is no way of knowing if When You Reach Me would be this high on the list if it hadn’t just won itself a shiny gold Newbery Medal. When I redo this poll in ten years, there is a fairly good chance that the book will either disappear entirelly from this list, or crawl even higher in the estimation of folks as more and more people read it. Whatever the case, little debate surrounds the fact that it was one of the best written titles of 2010, and charms most readers whether they be children or adults.
The summary from my original review reads, "It’s the late 70s and the unthinkable has occurred. While walking home, Miranda’s best friend Sal is punched in the stomach for no good reason. After that, he refuses to hang out with Miranda anymore. Forced to make other friends, Miranda befriends the class yukster and a girl who has also recently broken up with her best friend too. But strange things are afoot in the midst of all this. Miranda has started receiving tiny notes with mysterious messages. They say things like ‘I am coming to save your friend’s life and my own’ and ‘You will want proof. 3 p.m. today: Colin’s knapsack.’ Miranda doesn’t know who is writing these things or where they are coming from but it is infinitely clear that the notes know things that no one could know. Small personal things that seem to know what she’s thinking. Now Miranda’s helping her mom study for the $20,000 Pyramid show all the while being driven closer and closer to the moment when it all comes together. When you eliminate the possible all that remains, no matter how extraordinary, is the impossible."
Originally titled You Are Here (which may explain the image on the cover a bit better), author Rebecca Stead had only previously written the science fiction middle grade novel First Light, before penning this newest book. In May of 2009 I, being no fool, interviewed Rebecca right quick so as to talk to her about the book. I asked her where the ideas for the book came from. She answered, "The ‘big idea’ behind the book was sparked by a newspaper article about a man who walked up to a policeman and said that he had no idea who he was or why he was there. All he could remember was that his wife, Penny, and their two daughters had been in a terrible accident and needed help. But the police could find no evidence of any kind of accident. They circulated his photo around the country and eventually he was claimed by Penny, who did exist, who was in perfect health, but who was his fiancée, not his wife. No kids, no accident. I thought to myself, what if he knows something we don’t? That’s the kind of thing that gives me chills."
When I asked her if the continuity in the book caused havoc, she had a fascinating answer:
"My editor, Wendy Lamb, and I were trying to find new readers for every draft of the book because, having read a couple of drafts, and, of course, knowing the ending, we felt as if we couldn’t accurately measure its impact anymore.
And so these questions were trickling in: How could Miranda have known X? But if that’s what happened, then wouldn’t Z logically follow? Why did Q? What happened to F?
And one day I just lost my sense of the book’s internal logic. I had this sudden horrible certainty that the whole thing could never stand up. I remember being in my bedroom and experiencing a wave of nausea. And I called my dad, who is the person who introduced me to science fiction when I was a kid, and watched lots of Star Trek with me, and who has this great way of enjoying speculative fiction and taking it very seriously at the same time.
I asked him to meet me. In an hour, if possible. I hadn’t told him anything at all about the book yet, so we sat in a restaurant and ordered breakfast and I laid out the whole story, all the pieces. And when I got to the end he was making this very weird scrunched-up face. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘Nothing’s wrong. I’m trying not to cry.’
When he said that, I thought, okay, I have to make this story hold together somehow. So we just sat there and talked until I had a handle on it again. And when I got that back, I knew immediately which parts of the book didn’t fit, and how to answer all the questions I’d gotten from our readers. And continuity was never a problem after that."
Clearly. After all, the book won itself a pretty little Newbery Medal in 2010, beating out Honor books Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (#81 on our list), and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick.
In the New York Times, Monica Edinger called it a "smart and mesmerizing book."
A starred review in Kirkus said, "[W]hen all the sidewalk characters from Miranda’s Manhattan world converge amid mind-blowing revelations and cunning details, teen readers will circle back to the beginning and say,’Wow … cool.’"
A starred review in Booklist said, "[T]he mental gymnastics required of readers are invigorating; and the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest."
A starred review, in The Horn Book Magazine said, "Closing revelations are startling and satisfying but quietly made, their reverberations giving plenty of impetus for the reader to go back to the beginning and catch what was missed."
A starred review in School Library Journal said, "This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers."
And a starred review in Publishers Weekly said, "It’s easy to imagine readers studying Miranda’s story as many times as she’s read L’Engle’s, and spending hours pondering the provocative questions it raises."
The original American cover was created by artist Sophie Blackall. On her blog, Ms. Blackall showed some alternate ideas she played with when creating this jacket. Here are two of her sketches:
Here’s a little Q&A with Rebecca about the book.
#38 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (2003)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9) – 109 points
Can I choose just one? I think my favorites were #3 and #5. If you have to only choose one, then put my vote on #5. I can still remember, though, reading the first one for the first time around 1999. I couldn’t go to bed until I finished it. It was the wee hours of the morning, and I was shocked by the ending. I loved the book, but had no idea it would change the landscape of Children’s Literature forever. – Kim Hall (aka klonghall)
Close on the heels of the Golden Compass debate about the YA-ness of certain series comes a book that could easily tip either way. Should the later Harry Potter novels be considered teen? I know that in my library system they’re all cataloged in the children’s sections (as well as the teen). Should it even be here? Even be allowed? Seventeen people voted "yes". And seventeen people are hard to argue with. So it is that Harry Potter makes a second appearance on this Top 100 list (the first being Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at #86).
As Kliatt described the plot, "In this fifth volume [ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ] in the justly acclaimed fantasy saga, wizard-in-training Harry is now 15, with all the sullen anger and adolescent agonizing that time in life can entail. Of course, Harry has good reason to be furious, as he sees it. The tale begins with Harry miserably at home with his awful aunt, uncle, and cousin. Then ghastly, ghostly dementors attack him, and while he manages to bravely defend himself he is promptly whisked off to safety, though the wizards and witches who protect him–the Order of the Phoenix –frustratingly won’t give him any details about what’s going on. Harry ‘s mortal enemy, Voldemort, is back, and trying to take over Harry ‘s mind as one step in his plan to take over the whole magical universe. The government’s Ministry of Magic doesn’t believe that Voldemort has returned, though, and Harry is widely mocked. He longs for Hogwarts School, but life there is no better, as a horrid, fascistic new professor of the Dark Arts slowly gains control of the school. Harry ends up leading his own secret class in the Dark Arts, which comes in handy when Voldemort and his minions attack."
I think we all know the book pretty well. Let’s just skip on past the criticism and look at the pretty pretty covers from around the world then!
Finland (note the upside down Snape)
Sweden (my favorite)
There may have been a movie as well.
#37 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (1976)
(#1)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9) – 109 points
Harsh realities, strong values, memorable characters. – Janice E. Bojda, Head of Children’s Services, Evanston Public Library
Simply the best fiction book I know of about racism and how it impacts people. – Nicole Roohi, Goldenview Middle School Librarian, Anchorage, AK
Roll Of Thunder wasn’t a cozy escapist book to reread many times, BUT it was a pivotal novel that briefly turned my brain inside out in fourth grade. I read all the sequels, of course. Cassie and her family haunt me to this day. – Farida Dowler
As with all my polls, there is often a shocking derth of authors of color. However, there was never any doubt in my mind that Mildred Taylor’s classic novel would make the list somewhere. I was pleased as punch to see it crest the Top 50 to rest at #37. This is certainly one of the best novels in the whole of children’s literature, as many a child and adult can attest.
The synopsis from B&N reads, "Set in a small town in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this powerful, moving novel deals with issues of prejudice, courage, and self-respect. It is the story of one family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. It is also the story of Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to her family. The racial tension and harrowing events experienced by young Cassie, her family, and her neighbors cause Cassie to grow up and discover the reality of her environment."
In 100 Best Books for Children Anita Silvey tells of Taylor’s saga in this way: "Mildred Taylor had unsuccessfully tried to reconstruct her family history, and then she heard about a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Booksl After attempting to write a piece using the voice of her father, she shifted the storytelling to a young girl, Cassie Logan, four days before the contest deadline. That shift and the resulting book, Song of the Trees, won the contest for Taylor. On the way home from the award ceremony, Taylor heard from her father and uncle the story of a black boy who had broken into a store and how he was saved from lynching. Taylor began to tell that saga, one that she thought might make an adult book. It turned out to be a book many children’s literature critics consider the most important historical novel in the latter half of the twentieth century."
Much of the book is based in reality. In fact, to keep her land, the land discussed so often in her books, Ms. Taylor eventually "sold the typewriter on which she had written Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."
Silvey says too that "the novel has become the most popular children’s book written by a black writer, selling close to 3 million copies in paperback."
In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, author Ann Martin credits this book as the one that meant the most to her. She says, “I was exposed to, and distinctly remember, many classic picture books. But the most moving children’s book I’ve ever read was one I encountered as an adult, Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I read it for the first time around 1980, and then I was struck by the story itself, by its messages. Rereading it twenty-five years later, I was able to look at it with a writer’s eye, and I was struck anew.”
In the Slate article Great Kids’ Books About Financial Ruin, a passage is dedicated to this particular book. In it, Slate argues that, "it wasn’t until the recession of the late 1970s that there was a strong resurgence in stories about economic woes," and, "The book’s message to kids of the ’70s was: If you think the Great Depression was just about a bunch of old white men losing their shirts in the stock market, think again."
It won the 1977 Newbery Medal, beating out Abel’s Island by William Steig and A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond.
Big covers, little covers, lots of covers abound for this particular title.
This is my favorite cover. It may be my favorite Jerry Pinkney book jacket of a children’s novel too.
And there was a 1978 TV movie filmed of this book. Morgan Freeman played Uncle Hammer in it. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any clips of it online. Give it time. It’ll show up one of these days.
#36 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 111 points
Girls everywhere have Judy Blume to thank for answering some of life’s burning questions. – Amy (Media Macaroni)
Groundbreaking in its candor about God, religion, and puberty. And think of all the authors Judy Blume has inspired. She changed the children’s lit landscape forever. – Brenda Ferber
My youth minister gave this too me when I turned 12. I’m sure she wanted me to really explore the religious questions raised. I was more obsessed with the puberty aspect. It was my first Blume and I have since read every book she’s written. My senior year English project was an author study of Judy Blume. I reread Margaret and man, she was annoying, because Blume captured that angst so perfectly. Today, I can’t tell you how often a parent (even in my super conservative community!) will come up to me and ask if we have this book in because ‘it’s time.’ And when I give them a copy, we’ll both start crying in the middle grade fiction stacks. That’s the power of this book. – Jennifer Rothschild
After all of these years, I still remember her birthday. (March 8) – Madelyn Rosenberg
In her June/July 1999 American Libraries article "Places I Never Meant to Be: A Personal View", Ms. Blume says of writing this story, "I wrote Are You There God ? It’s Me, Margaret right out of my own experiences and feelings when I was in 6th grade. Controversy wasn’t on my mind. I wanted only to write what I knew to be true. I wanted to write the best, the most honest books I could, the kinds of books I would have liked to read when I was younger. If someone had told me then I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I’d have laughed."
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "No one ever told Margaret Simon that eleven-going-on- twelve would be such a hard age. When her family moves to New Jersey, she has to adjust to life in the suburbs, a different school, and a whole new group of friends. Margaret knows she needs someone to talk to about growing up-and it’s not long before she’s found a solution. ‘Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I can’t wait until two o’clock God. That’s when our dance starts. Do you think I’ll get Philip Leroy for a partner? It’s not so much that I like him as a person God, but as a boy he’s very handsome. And I’d love to dance with him… just once or twice. Thank you God.’ "
This was Ms. Blume’s third book (#1 was The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo and #2 Iggie’s House), but her first big seller. It was a relative hit when it first came out, but according to Twentieth Century Young Adult Writers, "it was only when the book appeared in paperback in 1974 that the hundreds of letters became thousands, all of them from readers who saw themselves and their lives reflected perfectly in Margaret’s story."
It was probably also the earliest Blume title that has been routinely challenged and banned. American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction says that, "Attempts at censoring the book have continued throughout its lifetime; the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom reports that it has been charged with ‘denigrating religion and parental authority’ and being ‘sexually offensive and amoral’." Ms. Blume says of her first experiences with banning, ". . . one night the phone rang and a woman asked if I was the one who had written that book. When I replied that I was, she called me a communist and hung up. I never did figure out if she equated communism with breast development or religion."
And talk about divisive reviews!
Said Publishers Weekly, "With sensitivity and humor, Judy Blume has captured the joys, fears, and uncertainty that surround a young girl approaching adolescence."
But Book Window didn’t like it one bit, saying that the descriptions of Margaret’s period were "excessive, almost obsessive … when the author rhapsodizes about the wearing of a sanitary napkin, the effect is banal in the extreme … Suddenly a sensitive, amusing novel has been reduced to the level of some of advertising blurb in the ‘confidential’ section of a teenage magazine."
Education Digest loved its "exploration of previously untouched aspects of childhood and adolescent experience."
Whereas The Times Literary Supplement said that, "Margaret’s private talks with God are insufferably self-conscious and arch."
The New Statesman finally conceded that it was, "admittedly gripping stuff no doubt for those wrestling with–or curious about future–bodily changes…."
And who could forget comedian Will Arnett’s stirring reading of one particular passage?
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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