100 Best Children’s Books: A Roundup

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Spinning out a history through one hundred objects is probably here to stay for a while longer.  One hundred things sounds like a cornucopia of examples, but the largely arbitrary number sprawls and contracts during the maddening process of finalizing list.  What looks good at the end of one session, stirs up arguments at the next one. Passions run so high that an impartial and judicious selection seems an impossible dream. In the end the principles for selection have to be spelled out succinctly even though they will please almost no one, because everyone will protest gleefully at the omission of a favorite and inclusion of the unthinkable.

Children’s books have been the subject of three such surveys in the last four years.  In 2015 there was 100 Great Children’s Picture Books by Martin Salusbury, graphic designer and professor of illustration at Anglia-Ruskin University.  Roderick Cave, a publishing historian and teacher of rare book librarianship, collaborated with his daughter Sarah Ayad on A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books (2017).  Entering the lists last month was The 100 Best Children’s Books by Brian Alderson, the ultimate jack of all trades who for decades has been engaged with the creation, publication, and interpretation of children’s books. 

Martin Salusbury starts with Peter Newell’s The Slant Book (1910) and finishes with Katherina Manolessou’s Zoom Zoom Zoom (2014), which both happen to be about wayward babies–one in a runaway buggy, the other a little monkey who can’t get to sleep.  As a coda to the chronological list of his one hundred books, he offers a glimpse of what the future may bring. There’s a “Further Reading” section comprising books about reading, visual communication and storytelling, the major journals in the field, and a heap of websites, so it’s not a bad place to start learning more about modern children’s book illustration.

Salusbury’s goal is to provide the picture book’s admirers with “a visual feast” of titles distinguished by good art and design.  The “wow factor” is the major criteria for selection, by which he means a colorful, bold modernist aesthetic that’s more abstract that representational.  He’s eminently qualified for the job, having for years haunted the major global book fairs, served on juries for international awards, and taught aspiring illustrators, at least one of made the cut here.  Many of the people whose work is praised here also had careers in advertising, set design, and fashion, a welcome reminder that illustrators’ artistic practices aren’t necessarily confined to one medium or form.  Of British illustrators, Salusbury is partial to Edward Ardizzone and the best pupils of Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Enid Marx, and Betty Swanick, famous for her London Transport Posters.  While the focus is the Anglo-American tradition, he also acknowledge the excellence of French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Swiss illustrators (the Germans are largely passed by without comment).  Whether or not you share Salusbury’s taste, looking at the well-chosen pictures and reading the genial commentary is entertaining and informative (even if the facts aren’t always right), The conception of Cave and Ayad’s  History of Children’s Books  is also was conceived to accommodate the reader who’s inclined to skip around instead of reading straight through. The curious and confusing omission of a master list of the one hundred titles is quite noticeable because the book includes non-book objects, like a Sumerian silver lyre in the shape of a ship, ephemera like a agent-recruiting advertisement for Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and a papier-mâché and wood logo model for Dean’s Rag Books, but there is no way to know if they are part of the count.

Instead the material is organized topically in chapters with alluring titles such as “Innocence, Experience, and Old-Fashioned Nonsense,” “Fairies and Frighteners: Tempters, Tearaways and Cautionary Tales,” “Advanced Women, Looking Backwards, or “Growing Up Fast: Comics, TV and New Media.”  While the literary works like fairy tales, adventure stories, and animal tales are treated in logical chapters, the rationale for distributing the educational works across the volume. seems more arbitrary. The English-language teaching materials produced in the Empire’s far-flung colonies would have made more of an impact if shown together instead of dispersed, such as Chinua Achebe’s “How the Leopard Got His Claws” (1972), part of an ambitious plan to produce books for Nigerian school children aborted by the Biafran war, or Rabindrinath Tagore’s Bengali primer Sahaj Path (1930).  Works where illustration was critical to the educational scheme, like Jane Johnson’s manuscript nursery library or Karion Istomin’s 1694 illustrated Russian-language primer or Bukvar  seem orphaned in their own sections unrelated to similar materials elsewhere in the volume.

Some chapters are grab bags of ideas whose connection with the designated books may not be especially clear or logical. A reader may be confused by Chapter I, “First Steps: Oral Traditions and Pre-literacy,” which jumps from child-rearing gurus Sir Truby King, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Lady Margaret Mount Cashell, then to authors determined to raise good readers like Mrs. Trimmer, Charlotte Yonge, and Dorothy Butler, next skips to 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey, and concludes with a discussion of battledores, hornbooks, Steichen’s photographically illustrated First Picture Book.  Surprisingly little is said about the children’s illustrated–Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, also illustrated and mentioned in Chapter 3, Mrs Henry Cole’s The Mother’s Primer (1844), and an advertising poster for Dean’s Rag Books. Overall the volume feels less like a history than an exhibition that does not seek to make an argument about the subject and therefore oblige a conscientious viewer to start at the beginning and work systematically through the sequence of cases.  If most of the cases are given a good look, the viewer may take away a sense of the subject’s  many facets, without understanding much about how they are related.

Of the three best books, Alderson’s roams the widest over narrative fiction– fantasy, historical fiction, adventure yarns, family and school novels. The introduction lays out in typically uncompromising terms the project’s aesthetic.  His “team” of 100 is composed of  books that “will sound as well read aloud as they may be read on the printed page (or perhaps even better).” Twain’s Tom Sawyer, yes, but Jeffries’  Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882) is surely something of a stretch… He has not hesitated to include a book not considered an author’s “best” if another “which allows a discussable element of their style” or chosen a “first or early work from which the oeuvre as a whole has blossomed,” William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) being a good example.  The short essays, a good number of which have an illustration from the book, are arranged in strict chronological order.  The essays are in two parts: a plot summary which also puts the book in literary and historical context to begin and a commentary to conclude, both well-larded with Aldersonian barbed quips.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with: “Lewis [i.e. C. S.] got the job done quicker with the White Witch and not so much argy bargy with death-defying wands.

This volume, which demands and repays attentive reading, may turn out to have the longest shelf life.  I was disappointed that the first nine essays about historically important children’s books published before Anderson’s Snow Queen (1846), do not quite measure up to the rest.  It may be true that few adults (much less children) since World War II  have  read  Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765) or Maria Edgeworth’s Parent’s Assistant (1796).  There are certainly excellent reasons why these classics have been abandoned as no longer relevant to modern children’s lives.  Nevertheless they were the best of the best in their own times and Alderson doesn’t try that hard to explain why they might have been read with pleasure for decades.  The essay on Mme d’Aulnoy is a disquisition on the Kunstmaerchen that never gets down to describing any of her enchanting tales like “The White Cat,” “Graciosa and Percinet,” “The Good Little Mouse.”   They have not entirely lost their magic because in the early 1960s I read and reread in The Looking Glass Library edition of Lang’s Red Fairy Book.  I still have the grubby thing,

So how much common ground can there be between three such different lists?  The authors did not arrive independently at anything like a consensus about the canon of children’s books.  Any number of authors, illustrators, and series appeared in two of the three, including John Masefield, James Barrie, Kathleen Hale, Edward Ardizzone, Judith Kerr, Ladybird Books, and Puffin Picture Books but only Beatrix Potter made the cut in all three  It’s probably more interesting in the long run that Salusbury, Cave and Ayad, and Alderson each present a different view of what constitutes excellence in children’s books.  But in the final analysis, these lists of 100 best all dodge the difficult task of writing an interpretive history, something critics seem less and less willing to undertake in times where the interpretive politics of gender, race, and class can seem less like a lens and more like a muzzle.  .So vive la difference and revel in the arbitrary opinions of the passionate experts.

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