Classics in Children’s Literature

Everyone talks about classic children’s books, but what really constitutes a classic? This seems to be something of a moving target and depends on an individual’s viewpoint. Some of the often suggested classics are books such as Charlotte’s Web, the Velveteen Rabbit, the Little House on the Prairie series of books, and other titles that remain popular despite the passage of time. This blog will offer some suggestions about how to identify a classic, and some of the authors who write about classics. What is unlikely to be included is a list of classic children’s books because the answer given by a Generation Xer is quite different than the answer from a Baby Boomer.

In a 1998 article by Betsy Hearne*, she discusses thirty-five books identified as enduring children’s books. The focus of her article is on picture books, but these titles have qualities she believes to be typical of classics: high quality, popular appeal, and the ability to withstand the test of time (notable is that these books are still in print despite their original date of publication). Among the thirty-five she lists, the following will be familiar to many as the type of books we often consider classic.

* The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter
* Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans
* Curious George, by H.A. Rey
* Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown
* The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats
* Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
* Frog and Toad are Friends, by Arnold Lobel
* Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg

Another source for locating “classics” may be William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues in its various versions. It is also possible to find reference to “classic” children’s books in the introduction to various textbooks and general books about children’s literature. In talking to college students, popular authors of classic works include Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), Dr. Seuss (The Cat in the Hat), Shel Silverstein (The Light in the Attic), and folk tales and fairy tales. Classic books are somewhat a matter of individual opinion, but as Hearne suggests, a book that is of high quality that withstands the test of time and remains popular is a likely candidate for a classic!

* Hearne, Betsy. Perennial Picture Books Seeded by Oral Tradition. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries. v. 12, no. 1 (Fall 1998), pp. 26-33.

More Suggestions for Locating Classics

Other sources of information about classic children’s books include the following. You can often locate these journal articles at your local library or by using the interlibrary loan system at your library.

Lamme, L. L. and Lamme, L. A. Lasting impressions: Ten books that shaped this century. Journal of Children’s Literature. v. 26, no. 1, (2000), pp. 60-67.
Discusses ten influential children’s books, with the warning that focusing only on the classics can exclude other meaningful and enjoyable books.

Livingston, N., and Kurkjian, C. Timeless and treasured books. Reading Teacher. v. 57, no. 1, (2003), pp. 96-103.
This article provides an annotated bibliography of classic children’s books published during the last two hundred years.

Tighe, M. A. and Avinger, C. Teaching tomorrow’s classics. ALAN Review. v. 21, no. 3 (1994), pp. 9-13.
Suggests ten young adult books likely to become classics, including S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

Wilson, P. J. and Abrahamson, R. F. What children’s literature classics do children really enjoy? Reading Teacher. v. 41, (1988) pp. 406-411.
This article uses in part the findings of Patricia J. Wilson’s 1985 thesis from the University of Houston which surveyed nearly 800 students in fifth and sixth grade about their favorite classic books.