Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ten Best

Betsy at Fuse8 is at it again. Last year she did a poll on the Top 100 Picture Books of all time--and I didn't participate, because--well, I didn't have a good reason. (Other than the whole not blogging thing, about which perhaps more another day.) Tomorrow is the deadline for her new poll, the Top 100 Chapter Books of all time--and this time I'm in. I just sent her my list, and since I don't expect all these books to make her top ten (though I'd be surprised if most of them don't turn up somewhere in the top 100) I thought I'd share my list here as well. It's a little idiosyncratic, as such things should be, and I'm sure it would look different if I did it tomorrow. I didn't go back and look at other lists I've seen over the years; I just went with what came to mind first. So here's my list:

1. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
This one changes the landscape for chapter books in mid-century. It's a perfect read-aloud, but also a great book for a relatively new reader to take on. It's got humor and pathos, and the best retelling of the Easter story I've ever read in secular form. I can't read the end without crying, even after all these years.

2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Another game-changer. Raises great questions about what it means to be a child and why we would want to think of children as different from adults, I think. Plus it's hilarious and deeply weird.

3. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
I know all the reasons not to like this--the shift in focus from Mary to Colin, the reassertion of the patriarchy at the end, the well-intentioned but nonetheless problematic depiction of India--but it's still one of those books I return to year after year. If, as Perry Nodelman says, children's books are all about teaching kids how to be kids, this one is the quintessential children's book. And yet its depiction of "appropriate childhood" is so appealing to me, even now, that I keep coming back to it.

4. The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, Christopher Paul Curtis
One of the funniest books I've ever read, but also a great reworking of a historical shame. (And apparently a book I've never written about. Sigh.)

5. The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
Another game-changer, for me: this one is comfortable with ambiguity in a way that still feels radical to me in a children's book. By the end of the series good and evil get sorted out (a little too comfortably for my taste) but in this everything's still up in the air. Lyra is a work of genius--a worthy successor to Alice.

6. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Is it possible to be a bookish girl and not love this one?

7. Skellig, David Almond
My list skews towards "classics," I think, but this one is a modern classic. Just the right blend of fantasy/realism. A brilliant reworking of The Secret Garden, in some ways.

8. The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett
Because who doesn't love little blue men?

9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling
OK, another game-changer in that it made fantasy cool again (and funny). I know Diana Wynne Jones was already writing funny fantasy, but I think the opening chapters of this novel really are brilliant. Roald Dahl meets Dickens meets Cinderella, or something.

10. The Painted Garden (also published as Movie Shoes), Noel Streatfeild
I loved this book when I was a kid because it was such a terrific reworking of The Secret Garden. I still think it's brilliantly intertextual and really smart about what it means to try to inhabit a book. I used to want to be "discovered" as the next, next Mary Lennox.

You've got about 25 hours left to play. Go ahead, you know you want to!

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