In Which I Apologize to Roald Dahl….
By Nicholas Kristof
Whew! I was taken aback by the reaction to my Sunday column of the Best Kids’ Books — Ever. I’d never had a column achieve 1,000 comments, and that one has topped 2,350. (Worse, normally I divide comment moderation with my assistant, Natasha Yefimov. But Natasha was away for the weekend, so I spent my July 4 weekend moderating comments!)
First, a couple of abject apologies. As many readers pointed out, Roald Dahl really should have had a place on the list. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a pinnacle of literature, a bit ahead of Proust. And how could I have neglected Beverly Cleary, who actually comes from my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon?! Cleary’s Ramona the Pest series is just delicious, and Henry Huggins is wonderful as well.
Several people have asked for a compilation of the suggestions. Er, great idea! But if I did that, I wouldn’t produce my next couple of columns. Still, here’s a slightly dazed summary of some that came up often:
Phantom Tollbooth and Wrinkle in Time were mentioned over and over again. So were the Narnia Books, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Many readers also mentioned Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, whom I adored as a child. And of course Pippi Longstocking books were cited frequently, and she was my hero as well.
Enid Blyton’s books came up over and over. She was hugely popular in Britain but isn’t so well known in the U.S. I read her Famous Five and Secret Seven books, and so did my kids, but some readers also recommended other books by her that I wasn’t familiar with. The Famous Five books are indeed a great series and are available in the US.
I had recommended Little Lord Fauntleroy, but the book by that author that people recommended far more often was Secret Garden, and to a lesser extent A Little Princess. People just raved over Secret Garden, so much so that I just ordered both it and Little Princess to read to my daughter. At the same time, I ordered Island of the Blue Dolphins, which many people also just couldn’t stop talking about.
Other old favorites that came up were Bambi, Heidi, Caddie Woodlawn and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books: Little House in the Big Woods, and so on. Maybe I’m revealing a guy’s preferences, but frankly the one in that series that I enjoyed most was Farmer Boy, by her husband. I liked Caddie Woodlawn better than most of the Little House series, and Caddie clearly resonated with many other readers as well; many women mentioned Caddie as an unusual strong girl in childhood classics. (UPDATE: Several readers correctly note that “Farmer Boy” was about Wilder’s husband, but she wrote it.)
Others that came up often: Harriet the Spy, Mixed-up Files…, Little Prince, Holes, Westing Game, Sword in the Stone, Black Stallion, Black Beauty, Dr. Dolittle series, Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Tarabithia.
What struck me is how passionate so many readers were about their choices. Clearly, they were profoundly shaped by these books, just as I was by my favorites. Some people in their 80’s talked about books they had read as children, speaking of them as their dearest friends. That’s the relationship that I had with books as a child, and yet I’m not sure that many kids these days have the same glorious relationship with books that we did. I hope I’m wrong, for great children’s books are truly magical.
A number of readers pointed out that New York Times readers are probably the last people who need the advice to get their kids reading — those who need the advice are less likely to get the column. And the kind of books that I and others mentioned (classics white white middle class protagonists, or animals that behave like middle class white families) may not resonate quite as much among poor kids who need to read. Some people mentioned organizations that encourage reading for disadvantaged kids, or suggest ways of getting great books to such children. If you know of such an organization, can you list it below, with a link? I would also suggest Donor’s Choose, which lists many school related projects, including those involving books.
And thanks so much for all of you suggesting great books. At the beginning of this note, I griped about being stuck moderating more than 2,000 comments. Don’t tell my bosses, but it was truly a joy; it brought back so many wonderful memories of my oldest and dearest friends, from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang to Lassie and Encyclopedia Brown.
The original article:
The Best Kids’ Books Ever
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: July 4, 2009
So how will your kids spend this summer? Building sand castles at the beach? Swimming at summer camp? In educating myself this spring about education, I was aghast to learn that American children drop in I.Q. each summer vacation — because they aren’t in school or exercising their brains.
This is less true of middle-class students whose parents drag them off to summer classes or make them read books. But poor kids fall two months behind in reading level each summer break, and that accounts for much of the difference in learning trajectory between rich and poor students.
A mountain of research points to a central lesson: Pry your kids away from the keyboard and the television this summer, and get them reading. Let me help by offering my list of the Best Children’s Books — Ever!
So here they are, in ascending order of difficulty, and I can vouch that these are also great to read aloud.
1. “Charlotte’s Web.” The story of the spider who saves her friend, the pig, is the kindest representation of an arthropod in literary history.
2. The Hardy Boys series. Yes, I hear the snickers. But I devoured them myself and have known so many kids for whom these were the books that got them excited about reading. The first in the series is weak, but “House on the Cliff” is a good opener. (As for Nancy Drew, I yawned over her, but she seems to turn girls into Supreme Court justices. Among her fans as kids were Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.)
3. “Wind in the Willows.” My mother read this 101-year-old English classic to me, and I’m still in love with the characters. Most memorable of all is Toad — rich, vain, childish and prone to wrecking cars.
4. The Freddy the Pig series. Published between 1927 and 1958, these 26 books are funny, beautifully written gems. They concern a talking pig, Freddy, who is lazy, messy and sometimes fearful, yet a loyal friend, a first-rate detective and an impressive poet. These were my very favorite books when I was in elementary school. A good one to start with is “Freddy the Detective” or “Freddy Plays Football.” (Avoid the first and weakest, “Freddy Goes to Florida.”)
5. The Alex Rider series. These are modern British spy thrillers in which things keep exploding in a very satisfying way. Alex amounts to a teenage James Bond for the 21st century.
6. The Harry Potter series. Look, the chance to read these books aloud is by itself a great reason to have kids.
7. “Gentle Ben.” The coming-of-age story of a sickly, introspective Alaskan boy who makes friends with an Alaskan brown bear, to the horror of his tough, domineering father.
8. “Anne of Green Gables.” At a time when young ladies were supposed to be demure and decorative, Anne emerged to become one of the strongest and most memorable girls in literature.
9. “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.” This is a hilarious, poignant and exceptionally well-written memoir of childhood on the Canadian prairies. (Note, if you prefer sweet to funny, try “Rascal” instead.)
10. “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” This classic spawned the Fauntleroy suit and named a duck (Donald Duck’s middle name is Fauntleroy). An American boy from a struggling family turns out to be heir to an irritable and fabulously wealthy old English lord, whom the boy proceeds to tame and civilize.
11. “On to Oregon.” This outdoor saga, written almost 90 years ago, is loosely based on the true story of the Sager family journeying by covered wagon in 1848, in the early days of the Oregon Trail. The parents die on route, and the seven children — the youngest just an infant — continue on their own. They are led by 13-year-old John: spoiled, surly, often mean, yet determined and even heroic in keeping his siblings alive.
12. “The Prince and the Pauper.” Most kids encounter Mark Twain through “Tom Sawyer,” but this work is at least as funny and offers unforgettable images of English history.
13. “Lad, a Dog” is simply the best book ever about a pet, a collie. This is to “Lassie” what Shakespeare is to CliffsNotes. The book was published 90 years ago, and readers are still visiting Lad’s real grave in New Jersey — plus, this is a book so full of SAT words it could put Stanley Kaplan out of business.
You can post your own suggestions for best children’s books on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground. My own kids have the temerity to think they know better than I which books they’ve enjoyed, so I’ve deigned to post their recommendations there. But listening to one’s children is dangerous: I advocate reading to them instead.
And it made me think about what MY favorite books were (and remain) through childhood. Some of them are in fact mentioned above, although many came from readers rather than Kristof himself. But for me personally, the Best Ever would include:
1) The Chronicles of Narnia (yes, all seven of them) - C.S. Lewis
2) The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
3) The Changling - Zilpha Keatley Snyder
4) Old Yeller - Frank Gipson (NOT, NOT, NOT the horrible travesty of a movie perpetuated by Disney) -- and its followup, Savage Sam (which is, in fact, how our Sam got his name)
5) Little House in the Big Woods (and the entire series which follows, including The First Four Years - Laura Ingalls Wilder
6) Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh (the reason I write with my middle initial)
7) Charlotte's Web - E.B. White (and to some extent, White's other books, Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little)
8) A Little Princess - Francis Hodgson Burnett
9) Indian Captive - Lois Lenski (and to some extent, any of the books about Mary Jemison or other famous adopted Indians)
10) Magic Elizabeth - Norma Kassirer
There are, of course, more; I didn't read some classics, like </i>Alice In Wonderland</i>, until college, so they didn't impact my formative years. I could also list some of the Beverly Cleary books (notably Ellen Tebbits) and the Pippi Longstocking series (the main reason I to this DAY adore any furniture with a lot of little drawers in it); and, definitely, without any doubt, A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan. I loved any book which contained those elements of the supernatural -- ghosts, witches, monsters, etc.; I tended to gravitate to such things, which is likely how I eventually ended up in the SF area of the adult section of the library. (There are some children's books I wish I could find again, but appear to be lost forever to time, since I never owned them myself.)
I can see so much of who I was and who I came to be from those books -- where I got certain ideas, mannerisms, why I do what I do and think the way I do. I still use quotes from some of them; many of them formed my basic personality.
Anyway... The room needs a whole lot more work, mostly because we have way more books than boxes, and I still have to winnow out a lot of crap. I've bitten the bullet and gotten rid of some of it, but it's going to take a lot more biting. Why do I have this desperate need to keep every thing I've ever owned?