Top 100 Children’s Novels (#35-31)
#35 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(# 4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#8) – 112 points
The book where HP went from entertaining to enthralling. – Alicia Blowers
Choosing a title to represent the series that brought children’s fantasy into the mainstream was hard—do I hedge my bets and go with the first book, assuming other voters will do likewise? Just go with my favorite (Prisoner of Azkaban, for the record)? In the end, I picked the fourth book because it represented an excellent mix of the whimsical adventure of the early books and the darker, more mature themes of the second half of the series. Although long, it doesn’t get bogged down the way parts of Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows do, remaining a page-turner throughout. – Christi Esterle, Youth Librarian, Douglas County Libraries, Parker CO
Yep. Harry again. That makes his third appearance on the list. Will he get all seven on the list? Only time will tell.
The plot according to the publisher reads, "Harry Potter is midway through his training as a wizard and his coming of age. Harry wants to get away from the pernicious Dursleys and go to the International Quidditch Cup. He wants to find out about the mysterious event that’s supposed to take place at Hogwarts this year, an event involving two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn’t happened for a hundred years. He wants to be a normal, fourteen-year-old wizard. But unfortunately for Harry Potter, he’s not normal – even by wizarding standards. And in his case, different can be deadly."
When Goblet of Fire was released, Rowling’s books were acknowledged to be a full-fledged phenomenon. By this point in the proceedings the books had sold a mere 30 million copies in 33 languages. The Washington Post called this book "the biggest publishing event in history." It was also, without a doubt, the longest. HP4 was probably the fantasy title that single-handedly convinced the publishing industry that fantasy novels of 500 or more pages (734 to be precise) could sell and sell well. By now Ms. Rowling had also partnered with Warner Brothers, so the marketing of the books went through the roof. In a way, it all kind of started here.
In a September 2000 Entertainment Weekly interview with Ms. Rowling, she said that in this book she discovered a huge gaping hole in the plot while writing it. The consequence? "I had to pull a character. There you go: ‘the phantom character of ‘Harry Potter.’ She was a Weasley cousin [related to Ron Weasley, Harry’s best friend]. She served the same function that Rita Skeeter [a sleazy investigative journalist] now serves. Rita was always going to be in the book, but I built her up, because I needed a kind of conduit for information outside the school. Originally, this girl fulfilled this purpose." It’s a good interview if you haven’t seen it. I particularly like the part where she says, "American kids have no need to see a token American character."
There was a relatively amusing controversy connected with this book. As you might recall, dead people start emerging out of Harry’s wand in the order in which they were killed. But Harry’s father appears before his mother, rather than the other way around. Salon reported on the problem saying that when a correction was made many wondered if Rowling had even had a hand in it. Scandal! Outrage! Now long since forgotten, I might add. Heck, in 2001 it became the only Harry Potter book that would ever win a Hugo Award. So clearly that committee didn’t care.
Said Horn Book, "The death of the Hogwarts student causes nary a lift of the reader’s eyebrow; the complicated explanation for Voldemort’s infiltration of Hogwarts is fairly preposterous and impossible to work out from the clues given. The characterization, as well, seems to be getting thinner, with Dumbledore in particular reduced to a caricature of geniality. As a transitional book, however, Goblet of Fire does its job–thoroughly if facilely…"
The New York Times said of it, "This time Ms. Rowling offers her clearest proof yet of what should have been wonderfully obvious: what makes the Potter books so popular is the radically simple fact that they’re so good."
School Library Journal said, "So many characters, both new and familiar, are so busily scheming, spying, studying, worrying, fulminating, and suffering from unrequited first love that it is a wonder that Rowling can keep track, much less control, of all the plot lines. She does, though, balancing humor, malevolence, school-day tedium, and shocking revelations with the aplomb of a circus performer."
Said The New Yorker, "the great beauty of the Potter books is their wealth of imagination, their sheer shining fullness."
The Philadelphia Inquirer said, "Rowling has successfully managed to unite three successful elements often found in children’s books: a well-paced, terrific story; the escapades of kids at school; and the battle between good and evil. She’s packaged them into a most satisfying experience–the kind of reading experience that has you charging headlong through the book, oblivious to the outside world."
Booklist posited, "Any inclination towards disbelief on the part readers is swept away by the very brilliance of the writing. The carefully created world of magic becomes more embellished and layered, while the amazing plotting ties up loose ends, even as it sets in motion more entanglements."
And the Times called it "funny, full of delicious parodies and wildly action packed."
Now back way way up, ’cause here come the Potter scans. I think I like the ones that concentrate on the mermaid element the most:
And, of course, the movie.
Millions of Twilight fans will tell you that this was the film that had R-Patz (Robert Pattinson) in it (though he doesn’t really make the trailer). I’d forgotten until I saw this mash-up video.
#34 The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995)(#1)(#1)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4)(# 4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7) (#7)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#10) – 115 points
You laugh, you cry–by far Curtis’s best book, Newbery winners notwithstanding – Ed Spicer
Funny is often underrated, and this book is seriously funny. Combine funny with touching and you’ve got a winner all around. – Melissa Fox (Book Nut)
While plenty of folks may be choosing Bud, Not Buddy or Elijah of Buxton, I’m hanging with Kenny and his family. This book moves between laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking. It also oozes characters with strength who have a whole lot of love for one another, regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in. – Dr. Patricia M. Stohr-Hunt, Chair, Education Department, University of Richmond
Not only does this book have a mightily important year in its title (the March on Washington, Kennedy assassination, the year yours truly entered the world), but the Watsons are one of my favorite families in literature. In fact once upon a time I called into a local NPR show, which was hosting the author, just to say that I would really like the Watsons to move in next door to me, and did he know if they were looking? The radio station had some questions for their screeners after that lapse of judgment, I am sure. This was another read-aloud to my young ones, and as I read it to my then innocent little boys I mentally took parenting notes on how to handle idiotic teenage shenanigans. Of course it also begins with one of the funniest opening scenes of narcissistic comeuppance. While deicing the car in the sub-zero Michigan winter, big brother Byron gets attached to the family vehicle by the lips, when he kisses his irresistible reflection in the side-view mirror. – DaNae (The Librariest)
It was the book that took Christopher Paul Curtis off the assembly line and into libraries. I once read or saw an interview with him where he discussed this title. Essentially he said that while authors aren’t supposed to say which of their books is their "favorite" his will always be The Watsons since it changed his life in one fell swoop. It may surprise some people to see The Watsons coming in a full thirteen spots above Bud Not Buddy on this list, but for most people this is the Curtis book that will always be first in their hearts.
The plot description from the publisher reads, "Enter the hilarious world of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who’s 13 and an ‘official juvenile delinquent.’ When Momma and Dad decide it’s time for a visit to Grandma, Dad comes home with the amazing Ultra-Glide, and the Watsons set out on a trip like no other. They’re heading South. They’re going to Birmingham, Alabama, toward one of the darkest moments in America’s history."
In Funny Business: Conversations With Writers of Comedy by Leonard Marcus we get the true scoop behind this book’s creation. "After reading several of his letters, Kay Sookram, his Canadian girlfriend and future wife, told Curtis firmly that he should be a writer. He had begun to think so too." Fast forward ten years into the future and, "Curtis’s career took off when an unpublished version of The Watsons took first place in a writing contest and he was offered a contract to publish his novel." Nicely done! Wonder what that writing contest was.
In 1996 it won a Newbery Honor, beaten only by The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman. It also won a Coretta Scott King Award that year.
By the way, Mr. Curtis has just the loveliest things to say about teachers as part of the publisher’s Teachers Guide online:
"What a thrill the publication of The Watson’s Go to Birmingham–1963 has been for me! I’ve been asked many times what the highlight of this experience has been and I don’t have to think at all before answering. It occurred on February 15, 1996 at a reception given by the Flint Public Library when, to my complete surprise and delight, I was introduced by my third-grade teacher, Ms. Suzanne Henry. It wasn’t the fact that in her introduction she gave me a gold star and told everyone that I was Room C’s "Good Citizen of the Day" that affected me so–it was the surprise I felt on realizing that she had always been such an important and powerful part of my life. I hadn’t seen Ms. Henry for more than 35 years, and I had spent only nine months of my life with her when I was 7 or 8–yet as she told everyone gathered in the library how proud of me she was, I found myself near tears."
School Library Journal said of it, "Ribald humor, sly sibling digs, and a totally believable child’s view of the world will make this book an instant hit."
Not a gigantic selection of covers, but there are a couple options out there.
#33 James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (1961)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#3)(#4)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10)(#10)(#10)(#10)- 115 points
All Dahl’s books for children are brilliant: dark and funny w/unforgettable characters, but this one is my favorite (Centipede! Sponge and Spiker!) – Amy Farrier
It is the best read aloud ever, I think! I read it aloud to my students when I was a classroom teacher. We read it as a Readers’ Theater book when I taught 4th grade. The dialogue is priceless! No other book helped my students learn the art of reading with expression. I’ve read it to my own children. I try to forget about the abysmal movie which completely took away the charm of the book. – Kim Hall (aka klonghall)
It would be impossible to make a top 10 list like this without including the genius of Roald Dahl. The surreal world he creates in James and the Giant Peach captures the imagination of any reader, immersing them in a world of giant bugs. – Amy (Media Macaroni)
And Roald Dahl makes a third appearance on the Top 100 list (the first being The Witches at #96 and the second The BFG at #54). Is he done? Will there be more books? One more? More than one? None at all? We shall see . . .
The plot synopsis of this book from Amazon reads, "When poor James Henry Trotter loses his parents in a horrible rhinoceros accident, he is forced to live with his two wicked aunts, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. After three years he becomes ‘the saddest and loneliest boy you could find.’ Then one day, a wizened old man in a dark-green suit gives James a bag of magic crystals that promise to reverse his misery forever. When James accidentally spills the crystals on his aunts’ withered peach tree, he sets the adventure in motion. From the old tree a single peach grows, and grows, and grows some more, until finally James climbs inside the giant fruit and rolls away from his despicable aunts to a whole new life. James befriends an assortment of hilarious characters, including Grasshopper, Earthworm, Miss Spider, and Centipede–each with his or her own song to sing. Roald Dahl’s rich imagery and amusing characters ensure that parents will not tire of reading this classic aloud, which they will no doubt be called to do over and over again!"
The book’s creation was pretty standard. Contemporary Popular Authors says of Dahl that he "produced five children with his wife, actress Patricia Neal. As the children grew older, Dahl began writing stories to entertain them at bedtime." Book number one? James and the Giant Peach. This book was, in many ways, Dahl’s first published success as a children’s author. The funny thing is that while the book sold nicely in America, Dahl has a hard time finding, of all things, a British publisher! It wasn’t until 1967 that it came out there too. Funny since we Americans often view British children’s publishing as more accepting of peculiar children’s literature that is out of the norm than our own nation.
As an interesting sidenote is this mention in Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children. "Having created a book she wanted to publish, the artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert decided she would submit her effort to her top five publishers. One of these, Alfred A. Knopf, tentatively accepted the book. But while she was revising it, they offered her Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach to illustrate. Although her first effort never got published, her illustrations for Dahl, and a handful of picture books, helped establish her as one of the finest American artists creating books for children today." Odds are that if you read an early edition of James, Burkert’s pictures are the ones that stick in your mind.
- You may read a script adapted from the book here.
The School Librarian said that it, "lends itself admirably to reading aloud, and its animal characters … are most worthy additions to what one may call the Alice in Wonderland dynasty."
TLS said it was, "robust, entertaining and funny" and its violence "no worse than Alice , Lear and most fairy tales."
The San Francisco Chronicle said it was, "The most original fantasy that has been published in a long time…[it] may well become a classic."
Said the Chicago Sunday Tribune, "This is a stunning book, to be cherished for its story, a superb fantasy."
And finally Kirkus mentioned, "Here is a broad fantasy with all the gruesome imagery of old-fashioned fairy tales and a good measure of their breathtaking delight."
There’s lots of good James art out there. For example, artist Emma Block produced this mixed media commission piece:
Kirkus said of this new Lane Smith illustrated edition, "This newly-illustrated edition of an avowed children’s favorite has all the makings of a classic match-up: Milne had Shepard, Carroll had Tenniel, and now Dahl has Smith…author and illustrator were made for each other, and it’s of little consequence that it took almost 35 years for them to meet."
I rather like this cover for the bound play.
And RoaldDahlFans.com is a great place to find foreign editions of the book as well.
It’s fair to note that the movie has both its detractors and its fans.
#32 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien (1971)
(#1)(#1)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(# 4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6) (#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10)(#10)(# 10) – 119 points
….probably the only book with talking rats that I have enjoyed. – Tina (Tina Says)
One of my all time favourite read-alouds. Sickness, secrets, adventure, ethics, rescue missions, this book has everything. The stakes are always high and yet O’Brien’s novel somehow manages to feel like a safe, comfy read. – Vikki VanSickle (Pipedreaming)
Considering he only wrote 4 children’s books (all of them wonderful), it’s pretty impressive that I seriously considered two of them for my top ten (the other being The Silver Crown). But Mrs. Frisby was such an integral part of my childhood. The mystery of what happened to Jonathan. The slowly unfolding backstory of the Rats. The lee of the stone . . . one of the things that makes this book so amazing (and different from the film) is that, once you get past the idea of talking animals, it is amazingly grounded in real life: animal testing, childhood sickness, death, etc. – Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
Everyone on my street read this book oodles of times. – Madelyn Rosenberg (The Furnace)
I’ll confess something to you. For a long time, as the poll results kept pouring in, I saw this beloved book on very few lists. It depressed me. And at least one reader mistakenly named this book on their Top Ten list as "The Secret of NIMH", which is telling (I counted the vote anyway). But soon enough the votes started pouring in. I thought it might make the Top 100, but I never suspected it would climb as high as #32. Good show!
The plot, according to the publisher, reads, "Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma."
According to Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Anita Silvey says that of the author that, "He wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH while on staff at National Geographic. Since the magazine frowned on their writers developing projects for others, Robert Leslie Conly adopted a pseudonym based on his mother’s name and published this novel covertly." As a kid, I always wondered why the sequels (Racso and the Rats of NIMH, R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, etc.) were written by a Jane Leslie Conly and not Mr. O’Brien. It makes a lot more sense once you know it was a pseudonym. Jane was actually his daughter. Nice when they keep it in the family like that, eh?
In the end, the man didn’t do that many books. Just The Silver Crown, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, A Report From Group 17 and Z is for Zachariah. I’ve read two of those four. Now I’m mighty curious about The Silver Crown (which gets republished every once in a while) and A Report From Group 17 (which I have NEVER heard of!).
On September 29, 1995, the New York Times reported that Dr. John B. Calhoun, "an ecologist who saw in the bleak effects of overpopulation on rats and mice a model for the future of the human race," was the inspiration for this book.
British journalist Lucy Mangan is a fan, as it turns out. In Silvey’s book she says that after reading a section where Nicodemus speculates about a potential rat society, "I read that when I was nine, and it rocked my world. Everything I took for granted only existed because it was built or organized by us, because we were here first. And it could all have been so different. It wasn’t preordained, immutable, or even anything special. Just ours, developed to serve our needs. I was just about catatonic with the shock of this revelation, but at this point Darren Ford started throwing Legos at my head – so my immediate mental crisis was averted. Children should be encouraged to read anything and everything because you never know what they will get out of a book."
I’ve always sort of wondered what the actual NIMH made of the book’s popularity. On a lark, I went to their website and searched for "Mrs. Frisby". No results. Now I wonder how many of their hits on their website per day are silly schmucks like myself.
This is one of those cases where the author was so shy he couldn’t give a speech when his book won the 1972 Newbery (beating out Incident At Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert, The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin, Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles, and The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder). So he sent his editor to do it instead.
In an odd sense of whimsy, there was a strange movie cover for the book released at one point:
One from Spain
And from Australia
*sigh* Here’s the part where I explain about the movie. You may wonder why they changed the title of the book to "The Secret of NIMH" and why they changed Mrs. Frisby’s name to Brisbee. Simple. The movie is by Don Bluth (An American Tail, etc.) and they didn’t want to get sued by the frisbee corporation. True story.
I have difficulty processing this one. At the time I was incensed that they changed so much of the story. Magical amulets? Sinking mud? A DEAD Nicodemus??? But I’ll give Bluth this. That darn film was one of the most evocative, memorable cinematic experiences of my youth. Really wore a groove into my brain, it did. Few children’s films from the 80s outside of Disney could say as much.
You may have heard that a new cinematic adaptation of this book is in the works. Yup. And as the Onion‘s AV Club put it, "Here’s hoping that they leave out the swordfights and enchanted amulets this time."
#31 Half Magic by Edward Eager (1954)
(#1)(#1)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#4)(#4)(# 4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10) – 121 points
This very funny homage to E. Nesbit, is another favorite of mine. The magic coin that grants wishes, but only half the wish. The math that goes into figuring out how to phrase the wishes so as to get the desired result, very fun. – Clarissa Cooke
I came to this book as an adult. Love the humor, love the wit, love how it is all wrapped up with heart at the end. My kids have listened to it two billion times on audio and can recite bits and pieces at inopportune moments. – Linda Urban
The first book that had me going back to the library within days to say: “Is there anything else like this?” This is the book that made me a life-long reader. – Schuyler Hooke
This is one of my own childhood favorites as well. And I’m happy to report that it remains popular to this day. Two years ago or so we had a classroom of kids come into the children’s room. After I did my usual intro and such the kids were allowed to look for books. Suddenly they swarmed like fireants over the child who had said loudly from the fiction section, "Oh, SNAP! Edward Eager!" I am confident that this was the only time in history that those particular words were put in that order. Turned out that their teacher had been reading them Mr. Eager’s works in class. They were new and very receptive fans and I doubt very much that they are alone.
The plot, as American Writers for Children, 1900-1960 puts it is that, "four siblings find a magic talisman that grants their wishes, but only by halves. They engage in a variety of wild and funny adventures as each makes a wish, carefully worded to allow for the feature of half fulfillment. But when Jane wishes inadvertently for a fire, a playhouse burns, and when Martha thoughtlessly wishes the cat could talk, the semiarticulate feline engages in an exasperating flow of half-meaningless words. Cautiously Mark wishes for a desert-island adventure, but the four are almost kidnapped and able to escape only through use of the talisman. Romantic Katharine wishes for a jaunt through medieval times, in which she first rescues Sir Launcelot from a dungeon, then, finding him ungrateful, challenges him to single combat and soundly defeats him. In the end the children decide to pass on their talisman to two small children in another part of town."
One of these days I’m going to hold a Children’s Literature Quiz night and some of the questions will involve guessing famous authors’ real names. For example, we all know Edward Eager, but I doubt that many of us would have necessarily known that his middle name was McMaken. Also, I think that many Eager fans have difficulty separating his words from the art of N.M. Bodecker. The "N.M." stood for "Nils Mogens" by the way. There’s another quiz question for later.
For that matter, I wonder how many folks have just assumed that Eager was British? He wasn’t, y’know. Nope. Born and grew up in Toledo, Ohio he did. He died of lung cancer in 1964 at the age of fifty-three. And with this book, Eager began what he called the "daily magic" series. Strangely enough, that moniker has never really caught on. We just call them the Edward Eager books, don’t we? He wrote seven altogether, and only one (The Well Wishers) was in the first person. And his biggest influence (though he did love his Oz books) was E. Nesbit. You can see it if you read books like The Phoenix and the Carpet or Five Children and It. Both Nesbit and Eager were fans of grumpy magic and grumpy magical creatures.
I was always inordinately pleased with the crossover moments within these books. I loved that the kids in this book would return in Magic By the Lake and then later their children would rescue them in The Time Garden. No other author ever really played with time like Edward Eager.
- You can read some of the book here, if you like.
In a review in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, it says that " Many American children who are not in the least lured by Mrs. Nesbit, or even Alice , will find this the sort of fantasy they do like."
The Times Literary Supplement said of it, ""For his character drawing, no praise can be too high."
Like I say, I usually don’t include homemade videos, but this one . . . well, ya gotta love the originality.
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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