Children’s Literature Classics
Why was this site created?
Are you looking for a great book to share with your child, grandchild, class, or library group? Would you like to know more about one of the classics? This site was created for anyone who loves children’s literature, and especially for educators, parents, librarians, students, and grandparents. Its purpose is to guide, inform, enlighten, and above all inspire, by introducing you to the enchanting world of children’s books.
Click on a genre for an examination of its main features, a discussion of representative novels, and a list of recommended books. Although each novel is discussed under a specific genre, children’s stories can cross boundaries.
Why read children’s classics?
Some people mistakenly believe, writes children’s author Jill Paton Walsh, “that something written for children is necessarily inferior, could not be a serious work of art.”1 As award-winning writer, Katherine Paterson, argues, many intelligent, well-meaning people think that “while adult literature may aim to be art, the object of children's books is to whip the little rascals into shape.”2
But great children’s stories are powerful, imaginative, and memorable; they resonate with readers of all ages and have a lasting and profound impact. This site will examine a selection of classic children's novels as distinguished works of art. It will look at what makes these novels notable and why they have such universal appeal.
Joseph Conrad wrote that every word in a good novel should contribute to the work’s overall purpose.3 A great novel for either children or adults is like a symphony; it has many separate elements but they all work together to create a unified effect.
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Why should you care about children’s literature?
If you are in a position of influence with children, be it as parent, teacher, librarian, or grandparent, you can make a definitive impact on their lives by fostering a love of reading. Research has shown a demonstrated relationship between reading, cognitive development, verbal skills, and academic achievement. Children who are read to, not only are more articulate, but also have higher order reasoning skills, a more effective writing style, superior reading comprehension, and more advanced critical-thinking skills.4
Stories teach children how to cope with life’s challenges. They provide a trial run of life’s possibilities. They also transmit the accumulated wisdom and values of our culture. Children learn through models and heroes.
Key themes and concerns in children’s literature
- toys, dolls, play
- pets and animals
- the imagination
Patterns in children’s literature
Children thrive on patterns that provide order and meaning to their lives. As Jon Stott points out, the best children’s authors choose details that are significant and arrange them into meaningful patterns.5 People’s lives are like a series of random events; an effective author shows the connections between events, thereby creating meaning and significance.
Examples of characteristic patterns
- home – away – home
- movement from a protected environment to a new, adverse, or challenging environment
- city – country – city (sometimes reversed)
- real world – fantasy world – real world
- life – death – rebirth
- separation from and reunion with parents (many classic adult novels end with marriage; many children’s stories end with a reunion with parents)
- help others less fortunate and they will help you
- movement from innocence to experience, often
patterned after the biblical Fall
- coming of age, rite of passage
- journey symbolizing development
- seasonal cycle
Changes in children’s literature
Alice in Wonderland (1865) is usually considered the first successful children’s novel. Before the time of its writing, children were viewed as adults-in-training so few works were written specifically for them. Children’s authors for the next hundred years believed that it was their duty to protect the young. Few writers exposed readers to the harsh facts of life.
Since the 1970s, the trend has been towards the depiction of a grittier realism. Children’s writers have introduced topics such as violence, death, divorce, and abandonment into their stories.
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1. Jill Paton Walsh, "Seeing Green," in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, ed. Edward Blishen (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1975), 59.
2. Katherine Paterson, “Newbery Acceptance Speech: Jacob Have I Loved,” in A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (New York: Plume Books, 1995), 134.
3. Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), xxxix.
4. Cathy Collins Block and John N. Mangieri, “Recreational Reading: 20 Years Later,” The Reading Teacher 55, no 3 (2002): 572-573; Bernice E. Cullinan, “Independent Reading and School Achievement,” School Library Media Research 3 (2000); Julie Elliott, “Academic Libraries and Extracurricular Reading Promotion. Reference and User Services Quarterly 46, no. 3 (2007): 41; Jude D. Gallik, “Do They Read for Pleasure? Recreational Reading Habits of College Students,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 42, no. 6 (1994): 486; Stephen D. Krashen, The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research, 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004, 34, 37; Barbara MacAdam, “Sustaining the Culture of the Book: The Role of Enrichment Reading and Critical Thinking in the Undergraduate Curriculum,” Library Trends 44, no. 6 (1995); National Endowment for the Arts. To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. 2007. Retrieved from http://arts.endow.gov/research/ToRead.pdf; Bette Rathe and Lisa Blankenship, “Recreational Reading Collections in Academic Libraries,” Collection Management 30, no. 2 (2005): 82; Keith E. Stanovich and Anne E. Cunningham, “Studying the Consequences of Literacy Within a Literate Society: The Cognitive Correlates of Print Exposure,” Memory and Cognition 20, no. 1 (1992): 51-68.
5. See Jon C. Stott’s “Making Stories Mean; Making Meaning from Stories: The Value of Literature for Children,” for an insightful examination of the value of literature in children’s lives. Children’s Literature in Education 25 (December 1994): 243-53.