I’ve taken probably more than my fair share of children’s literature classes in college (do I know anything about adult literature? My professors don’t seem to think so). One of the questions every professor asks at the beginning of said courses is something along the lines of “how does our conception of children affect the literature we give them?”
We have adults writing books about adults, and that makes sense. The perspective is there. But children don’t get to write books about children, and even when they do, those books are edited, bankrolled, and published by adults. Adults are involved in every part of the process, from conception of idea to physically buying the book and handing it to the child.
And bookstores play into this- when I was in Ireland and I went to the “gifts for children” section, I saw shelves full of beautifully bound, so-called “Classics,” supposedly to put under the Christmas tree. Books like Little Women, Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows. I know I was handed those books as a child, but not because they were good or because my parents thought they could teach me a concrete lesson, but because they were something my parents read when they were kids, and humans are nothing if not nostalgic.
So, eventually, I made a decision that I was going to think carefully and critically about what books I considered “classics” that I want to give to any children that may be in my life when I’m older, blood relations or otherwise, that ask me for things to read. Just because a book has endured since Victorian times doesn’t mean it’s good.
Here are a list of books I’ll be passing on, and why:
Winnie the Pooh (and other A.A. Milne poetry)
I don’t think this one needs much of an explanation. I’m afraid it falls into the trap of nostalgia I just did my best to deconstruct in the intro to this post, but I also refuse to let Winnie the Pooh go. It’s a little boy and the love he has for his stuffed bear, and the love his stuffed bear has for the world and all of the friends who inhabit it.
And, unlike many of the books I remember loving as a kid, I didn’t feel gross upon revisiting it. That’s saying something, it really is.
Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
All of the magic of having a stuffed bear who can walk and talk that I got from Winnie the Pooh is made all the more real by Calvin and Hobbes. But the real reason I want to pass on these comics is because of Watterson’s belief in the capacity of imagination. My favorite panels of Calvin and Hobbes when I was a kid were the ones where Hobbes was just an old stuffed tiger, or the spaceship Spaceman Spiff was flying turned out to just be a household object. I got to bring it all back to life with him.
Calvin and Hobbes taught me how to play alone, and how to never actually be alone. And as much as his relationship with his babysitter isn’t something I want to teach a child to emulate, I would never deprive them of seeing Calvin and his best friend staring up at the stars and yelling “happiness isn’t enough! I demand euphoria!”
Kids are allowed to demand happiness. They also, like Calvin, have the capacity to make it.
Ingo by Helen Dunmore
Enough with the sappy stuff. I don’t know what I expected, deciding to write about Pooh and Hobbes, but Ingo is just a good old fashioned story about a girl with mermaid blood who’s dad disappears into the ocean. It’s an aggressive amount of fun, it taught me the word “benign” so well that I still think of Ingo every time I use it, and the main character’s name is Sapphire. Sapphire! Imagine me, nine years old, growing my hair out as long as I can and practicing my breath holding in the shower so I can enter the world of the Mer, telling everyone to call me Amethyst.
Oh, wait. I don’t have to imagine it. It actually happened. And every weird little girl should go through that phase, because it’s integral to their development. And so, by extension, is Ingo. Thank you and goodnight.
The Penderwicks Series by Jeanne Birdsall
I’m not going to go on and on about this one because I’m saving it for a later post, but this book series? Amazing. My own personal relatable Little Women. I wouldn’t be who I am today without Skye and Jane Penderwick, and that’s genuinely not a lie. They were the foundation of my Common App college essay, which was unadvisable but oddly worked out for me. Give this to your kids! Get them into college!
The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy
Speaking of books about weird girls, The Wild Girls came to me at the perfect time. For a little kid who was sure that my self worth was determined by the stories I told, this book did the impossible task of reaffirming that belief while also deconstructing it. Yes, I was worth something, and yes, I told stories, and those two things could be connected or disconnected at will.
I also moved away from my hometown at about the same time I discovered this book, and that’s when I think it’s good to pass this one on. Not every kid moves around the ages of 8-12, but every kid goes through some sort of transformation that makes them feel like they don’t recognize themself anymore. And that’s where Fox and Newt and Sarah and Joan come in. Paint your face with lipstick. Tell your mom you love her. Give this book to any young people who look like they need it.
Realistic Fantasy Series: Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.
I don’t think that I need to explain this one. For me to have a book series that stretched out, that I could spend three months with, that I could wait at the bookstore to buy the new volume of, not only taught me what it’s like to love a character no matter how they grow, but also that there was a community of people like me.
I don’t necessarily need the children in my life to love Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson, or even The Mother Daughter Book Club books that got me through middle school. I mean, I’m going to push those books hard, but if they don’t like them then they don’t like them. What I am going to do is help them find a series with a following that they do connect to, so they can be part of a community that doesn’t like things in a chill way. Because it’s important to go crazy about things, especially books. And it’s even more important to go crazy with friends. Besides, at this point not getting your Hogwarts letter is a right of passage akin to finding out Santa doesn’t exist. Who am I to deprive a child of that unique, character-building heartbreak?
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
I will hand a copy of this book to every child I care about upon their entry into sixth grade. This is the point in their life where they need to learn about theme, metaphor, and the unique pain of knowing Johnny Cade will never again see another sunset. Sorry, I don’t make the rules, I just enforce ’em.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This is one of the only old books I inherited from my grandmother’s bookshelves that still holds up when I read it today. Eight Cousins? Definitely racist, definitely classist, and probably condones weird relationships between girls and their cousins. The Young Brontës? Fabricated! Emily Brontë was not some nymph who ran wild on the moor, she was a human being who wrote a mediocre book about two horrible people with a doomed love story. But A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains to this day one of the best books I’ve read.
I know that it places its belief in an American dream that doesn’t exist. I know that Francie’s Brooklyn is an idealized version of an America that was deeply discriminatory to anyone who wasn’t a white man. But I also know that it deals with these issues, that its protagonist is a young woman who comes from a lineage of other women who are trying to do the best they can with what they have.
Francie Nolan is smart. Francie Nolan does things that are selfish, and kind, and stupid, because she’s a kid who wants things, and then a teenager who realizes what she really wants is more than she can have. That is a story! That is an old book that is worth giving to a new child.
The Riddlemaster of Hed Trilogy by Patricia McKillip
When I think any of the young women I know are ready for fantasy, I’m going to give them this. There is a wonderful library of world-building fantasy published in the 20th century, starting with Lord of the Rings and continuing on as more and more men hopped on the trend. But the Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy has women in it! And these women have minds and desires and abilities beyond whatever man they happen to be in love with at the time.
And all that, without losing the flavor of a good fantasy novel published in the 1970s. You get the best of both worlds in this one, and shoutout to Patricia McKillip. There was no better starter to the complicated world of fantasy novels for me, a twelve-year-old girl with a basic understanding of the Bechdel Test and a whole lot of rage. And I intend to pass that on.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
After talking about fantasy, I’m now obligated to talk about science fiction. But, thank God, I’ve found a book that embodies both science fiction and so-called classics! I read Frankenstein my sophomore year of high school and I came into it with all of the popular misconceptions of it. And, unluckily, I let this narrative continue even as I read the book. It was stupid. Mary Shelley was a stupid teenager. She didn’t know how to write, it was only published because of her famous husband.
But screw 15-year-old boys! They’re stupid! And I was stupid for listening to them!
Frankenstein is a perfect introduction not only into the rich world of Romantic literature, but also in the understanding that you can appreciate a classic for what it did for literary history and not enjoy reading it. Now, I have since reread Frankenstein and enjoyed it. But even if that hadn’t been the case, to be able to read Frankenstein and know that a teenage girl invented a genre? (A genre that has since been dominated men, but we don’t need to talk about that). Amazing! Important for any teenage girl!
Give them Austen who invented free indirect discourse, a prose technique that she doesn’t get credit for because it’s become so common we don’t even notice it! Give them Dorothy Wordsworth writing about daffodils in a way William could only dream of! And give them Mary Shelley writing about a hot, idiotic asshole of a doctor who loses everything because he’s a bad father! DO IT! GIVE IT TO THEM!
There are always more books that I could and should add to this list.
But for right now, my hands are tired from typing and I have places to be.
Let me know if you want to hear about classics that should get thrown into the vault with Walt Disney’s frozen head and never read to children ever again (*cough* treasure island *cough*), and if you don’t, well, that’s less work for me:)
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed!