The lovely Ms. Bird at A Fuse #8 Production is undertaking the massive effort of conducting a poll of the best children’s novels of all time. Each person is only allowed to submit his or her top ten (only ten!) and since there are far too many books that I consider The Best, I’ve decided to manipulate the scoring system and choose books that I think might need some extra points.
So: no Charlotte’s Web, no Bridge to Terabithia, no Little House in the Big Woods, and no Alice in Wonderland. But plenty of other titles that I’m sure you’ll agree are rather wonderful.
From least to greatest:
10. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I ask you: in this day and age, where else can you find a book about a girl who performs in a ballet of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by night and is an budding mechanic and aviatrix by day? Nowhere, that’s what. And it’s precisely because of Petrova Fossil that this book has maintained its high levels of awesome over the years.
9. Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster. Long before today’s batch of “novels with cartoons,” the world was blessed with the ficticious illustrated letters of Judy Abbot’s adventures at college, circa 1912. Part of this novel’s lasting charm is its revelation that, in some ways, college students haven’t changed that much over the years. For example: Judy and her friends stay up late in the dorms debating over whether or not it would be possible to swim through a pool filled with lemon-flavored Jell-O. Add pizza and and a Che Guevara poster to that scene, and you see what I mean.
8. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. It’s the Tam Lin legend imagined as a gothic suspense tale set in Elizabethan England, complete with a secret underground cult, a Fairy Queen, and toxic super-freakouts. Oh, and Christopher Heron, one of the most swoon-worthy fictional lads this side of Shakespeare.
7. Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Yes, it has its problematic chapters that have not aged well, but the trials and travails of the Gilbreths, their twelve children, and their glorious, glorious efficiency-expert childrearing methods still makes this one of the funniest children’s books ever written. Oh, and did I mention that I myself am the oldest of five children? It’s nice to have Ernestine to relate to when you discover that your little brother has put peanut butter in your hairbrush again.
6. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Porridge and rope skipping and fountains of roses and a wild boy from the moor who can practically talk to animals! It’s frequently touted as the “most satisfying” children’s book ever written, and you have to respect any novel that takes a traditional gothic setting (waifish orphan in deep dark mansion with mysterious wails) and morphs it into a heartwarming family story. It’s had scads of imitators ever since, and no surprise.
5. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’d like to know how many kids developed a full-fledged love of wordplay from this book. There’s something that makes you feel so smart and clever when reading about jumping to Confusions, literally eating your own words, and sparring wits with the Spelling Bee and Canby. And you gotta love the Watchdog.
4. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. Is it children’s lit. or YA? Folks, it’s a Newbery winner. A Newbery winner in which the heroine kills a dragon by driving her sword into its eye until she’s up to her armpit in brains. ‘Nuff said.
3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Ahh, yes. The book that has warped the way I view museums forevermore. Now when I look at rare antique furniture, I think “would that be a good place to sleep?” and fountains are often eyed as potential sources of income. Bathrooms? Completely and thoroughly judged for their ability to hide me from security staff. Look at what you’ve done, Ms. Konigsburg. Look and despair.
2. The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. Back off, Princess Bride. This here’s probably the original “fractured fairy tale.” The story includes an evil Duke who sports both a glass eye, an eye patch, and a sword cane; man-eating geese; a prince-disguised-as-a-minstrel (or is it the other way ’round?); the magic roses of Princess Saralinda; and the lovable Golux with his “indescribable hat.” Add to that a heaping helping of classic Thurberean asides (“I sent eleven guards to kill the prince.” “But the prince is as strong as ten men.” “So that means there will be one left to finish him off!”) and you can easily see why Neil Gaiman has declared it to be “probably the best book in the world.”
1. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Pretty much the gold standard for historical fiction with a dreamy-eyed, book-loving firebrand of a protagonist whose imagination gets her up to no good. You can’t throw a rock into a library without hitting a host of Anne wannabes. And it’s also possible that you can’t throw a rock into a children’s literature conference without hitting a passel of ladies who ARE Anne Shirley. It’s not just a book, it’s a lifestyle. Plus, I have to respect any character with a compulsive drive to emphasize the silent e at the end of her name. (Did I mention my name was Brooke-with-an-e?)