I live near Washington, DC, and like many people who live in this area, a frequent lament of mine is that I don’t take enough advantage of the wonderful talks, exhibits and concerts that happen here. So, it was with great pleasure that I went to the Library of Congress with two writer friends, Sara Lewis Holmes and Madelyn Rosenberg, to view the exhibit, Books That Shaped America. It was a lovingly-arranged and thoughtfully laid out exhibit of 88 books, ranging from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, to Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, to Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. The exhibit has since closed, but you can view the online exhibit here.
(If you’ve never been to the Library of Congress, you must visit on your next visit to Washington, DC. It is truly a place meant to ennoble the soul, with heavy marble floors and stairs, and grand painted ceilings. If you have no need to do any research yourself, there is a special place just for watching those who are. You will be on the same level of the likes of Shakespeare, Bacon and Beethoven, looking down into what seems like a well of knowledge.)
Many children’s books were on the list, many known and beloved: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web, The Snowy Day, The Cat in the Hat, Goodnight Moon. There were also ones which are perhaps more talked-about than read by children these days: Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick series, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. A few children’s books had been left to history, including A Curious Heiroglyphick Bible and Peter Parley’s Universal History. Of the latter, the exhibit dryly notes, “[Author Samuel] Goodrich believed that fairy tales and fantasy were not useful and possibly dangerous to children. He entertained them instead with engaging tales from history and geography. His low regard for fiction is ironic in that his accounts of other places and cultures were often misleading and stereotypical, if not completely incorrect.”
In his introduction of the exhibit, Librarian of Congress (awesome title, right?) James H. Billington says, “This list is a starting point. It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.” And that is what I’d like to start here, a conversation of the most influential books that have shaped middle-grade books as we know them today. As one person, I am nothing but full of bias, but I believe each of the books I’ve listed below exploded a myth about children’s books and change the way we thought about them. I know there are more. Please contribute to the conversation in the comments!
You can’t talk about that!
Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume: Human sexuality was a hands-off topic for children – at least in any kind of accessible form – but Blume answered the questions that kids really had, all without embarrassment or condescension.
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson: I recently met someone who was interested in writing children’s books and had not heard of Katherine Paterson. I struggled to find the words to describe Paterson’s place in children’s literature; I think I used the word “pillar” and it still felt inadequate. For 1998-2000, Bridge to Terabithia was one of the most frequently challenged books because of its theme of death, but of course, that’s exactly what makes it extraordinary.
That’s too complicated for kids!
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time was famously rejected 26 times, with many editors complaining that the depth and complexity of the scientific and philosophical ideas presented in the book were too daunting for children. The popularity of A Wrinkle in Time proved that such ideas are exactly what kids love. (See also, The Phantom Tollbooth, kids don’t get wordplay.)
Children’s books should talk about how things should be, not how they actually are.
Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh: Fitzhugh was willing to go where few children’s book at that time had been willing to go: the dark underbelly of childhood with ugly feelings, unusual behaviors and positively cruel social dynamics. Harriet is also frequently cited as one of the first really strong and independent female heroines of children’s literature.
Children don’t read super-long books; and oh, adults don’t read children’s books.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling: You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Rowling showed that millions of children would happily read 500+ page books if properly written, and their parents would come along for the ride.