Thursday, November 12, 2009

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up

1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare, is the latest in the "1001" series that also includes books on "Albums You Must Hear," "Books You Must Read," "Foods You Must Taste," and others. I've really been enjoying it. The 960 page brick of a book is divided first by age categories (0-3, 3+, 5+, 8+, and 12+), and chronologically by publication date within those categories. There is a short essay for each of the books featured. Many feature sample artwork or covers, and some include suggestions for further reading.

One of the great joys/frustrations of books like these is the inevitable fact that some of your favorites are not featured. I'll leave the debate over omissions to others, though, and say that, generally speaking, Eccleshare and her contributors have done a fine job of selecting a wide range of great children's books from around the globe. Some of the people who I've discussed the book with seem frustrated by the fact that some of the selections seem deliberately obscure, but I actually enjoy this aspect of the book. I think it's fair to say that Eccleshare, children's book editor at The Guardian, is perhaps more interested in sketching a history of children's book publishing than she is in providing a useful reading list that must be got through. I don't know that your child really needs to read a collection of Traditional Chinese Folktales dating from the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.), or Charles and Mary Lamb's 1807 adaptation of Tales from Shakespeare, but it was interesting to learn that the former "is considered the earliest children's book on record," or that the latter "was written mainly for girls because boys tended to have access to the original plays at an earlier age. Boys are asked to explain the difficult passages and select suitable sections from the originals for their sisters to read." As someone interested in children's books and their history, I found these sorts of insights fascinating.

The best feature of the book, though, has got to be the terrific artwork on display. Wherever possible, Eccleshare has attempted to locate artwork featured on the covers of the original editions of the books, even as they appeared prior to English language translation in the cases of works from other countries. There is great pleasure to be had in flipping through this book and marveling at the gorgeous, vintage children's book art on display, and noticing how the aesthetics of children's books has changed over the years.

Lest my enthusiasm for the historical insights provided by the book make it seem useless as a practical reading guide, rest assured that, though I believe the book's aims to be more than that, Peter Rabbit, Max and his Wild Things, the Hungry Caterpillar, Harry Potter, the Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad, are all here. If you're looking for great recommendations for you own children or students, they're here. The book can certainly be used as a useful resource for parents, teachers, students, librarians, and booksellers, and those readers will also be rewarded with a glimpse into a history of children's literature that is richer and deeper than they may have imagined.

For those interested in a more focused attempt at building a cannon of great children's books, I highly recommend Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children. Less interested in providing a history of children's publishing or showcasing artwork (only a few black and white spot illustrations appear in the book), I have nevertheless found it to be a valuable resource.


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