100 Best Children’s Books: New Lists by BBC Culture, Chris Loker, and Leonard Marcus

There is always room for one more list of outstanding children’s books.  A hundred is the usual cut-off for an ambitious survey, large enough to be comprehensive while giving the pundit some wiggle room for individual expression.  Whether prepared by an individual, committee, or poll, accommodation is the name of the game.  The results are bound to make as many people cross as happy.  Scanning one of these lists usually brings the opinionated critic out of the book lover, gorge rising that certain favorites didn’t make the cut and furious that others did.

Given all the questions that have to be addressed, the creation of a list of 100 best/ classic/ essential/ significant books is never a quick and easy exercise.   Who gets to decide which books are classics?   Teachers, librarians and other educational experts?  Readers?  Book buyers or publishers?  Critics and reviewers?   Because their concerns are not identical, all should be allowed to chime in.  Are some, on the other hand, are more equal than others if long discussions ensue to untangle the messy ball of criteria?

To what extent does “best” mean of personal importance to the selector—i.e. childhood favorites?  Is the “best” book one that is read by many over a long period of time and just how long is long enough?  Why weigh readers’ responses if few have survived?  Should the authors be included primarily on  literary merit or should they reflect a cross-section of their society, with outsiders and elites represented?  What about authors like Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl with phenomenal sales records over generations when they expressed values now considered unacceptable?  Should Palmer Cox’s Brownie books, which were popular between 1870 and 1920, be considered or are they more correctly regarded as a far-reaching craze of historical interest?  Beloved series books tend to fall in this gray area and who knows if eventually Harry Potter will too.  How heavily should the number of movies, adaptations, translations, etc. be weighed?  Should non-fiction and information books have a place at the table?

And so on and so forth.  Eventually the arguing has to stop and some kind of consensus reached so the selecting can start.

Chris Z. Loker, an antiquarian bookseller and past board member of the EricCarle Museum of Picture Book Art, brings a thoughtful and disciplined approach to A Shimmer of Joy: One Hundred Children’s Picture Books in America (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 2019), the companion volume to her One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature (New York: Grolier Club, 2014).  A showcase of a private collector’s treasures, at first the book looks as if its primary audience is children’s book collectors.  Shimmer can be browsed or dived into, thanks to the addition of a section of four short essays contextualizing the genre by Catharine Mercier, Joel Silver, and Michael F. Suarez.  There is also  a compendium consisting of a 2011 manifesto proclaiming the picture book’s relevance signed by 22 artists and an omnibus of definitions which were offered between 1699 and 2019. The entries are written in a clear, relaxed style accessible to anyone beguiled by modern picture books.  Stereotypes and cultural appropriation in books published before 1960 are addressed honestly while keeping in sight of those qualities which have held an audience for decades.  Designed by Jerry Kelly, who has many sumptuous museum exhibition catalogues to his credit, Shimmer is among the most handsome 100 best lists on any subject.

Pictured Worlds: Masterpieces of Children’s Book Art by 101 Essential Illustrators from Around the World (Abrams, 2023) is a thoroughly professional job as one would expect of Leonard S. Marcus.  The format suggests the goal was to reach out to the widest possible audience, because it is both a generously illustrated coffee table book and a reference book, each entry featuring an author portrait, brief biography, appreciation, and publication history of one major work. Marcus insists that this is not an “old-fashioned” list of the canon or an artistic pantheon, but instead a roster of those who have engaged children “in the kind of artful blend of instruction and delight that John Locke recommended long ago, and which continues to prove its worth to an ever larger portion of the world’s population.”  Having invoked Locke, Marcus chose not to address the question if the seventeenth-century philosopher would have agreed that the contemporary picture book still embodied his idea of “some easy pleasant book suited to his capacity” that communicated “clear ideas,” when centuries of improved printing technology have dramatically changed the role of illustrations vis-à-vis the words.

Tana Hoban, Shapes and Things (1970).

Christian Epanya, Le taxi-brousse de Papa Diop (2005).

If Marcus really wasn’t interested in the canon making, then perhaps he should have experimented with the format and ditched with the the magic number of 100, provided the publisher would have gone along with it.  He has written extensively elsewhere about the twentieth-century American children books and many of the British ones that constitute nearly two-thirds of the list  The representation of Continental illustrators feels a little thin even when those American artists who were emigrés from Europe between World Wars are counted as out/insiders to both traditions.  Even though the Russians had an outsized impact on modern children’s book illustration, only two make the cut and neither are the 1920s.  The six illustrators from the Far East, two South American, and one African seem to have won places at the table primarily on the basis of the awards won.  Had Marcus branched out and covered another 25-50 artists after 1950 beyond the Anglo-American illustration tradition, Pictured Worlds would have been a less predictable and more adventurous selection.  Taking a look at picture books from the last fifty years would have opened up the field for lively discussion—something as more valuable and eye-opening than predicting which illustrators will make it into the winner’s circle of the future.

Late winter 2023, the staffers of BBC Culture announced that having compiled lists of the 100 greatest films and of television shows, the time had come for the children’s book.

We needed to finally turn our attention to another art form so deeply embedded in all our lives – books. And there is no variety of books more embedded in them than children’s literature…It also felt like just the moment to survey children’s books because of the recent conversation around how they are sorely undervalued compared to adult literature…All in all, then, it felt like the right time to do our bit to both give children’s literature its due and consider what has made and continues to make great children’s writing. And so, in order to do that, we have decided to ask many experts a very simple question: what is the greatest children’s book of all time?

The actual instructions to contributors were somewhat different: submit a list of ten children’s books, ranked from 1 to 10.   Only one volume could be  chosen from a series The Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter. ISBN numbers were also required, for some obscure reason.  Participants were encouraged to think internationally and to write comments clarifying their selections, if they wished.   The methodology of list creation is rarely watertight, so the exercise may turn out to be more entertaining for the compiler than instructive to the reader.  As no criteria were given for weighing one book against another, it was up to the list maker to decide how to play the game.  The cynic might decide to pick the ten most likely to be chosen by fellow contributors in order to score high, which could mean putting oneself inside the skin of the sentimentalist who favors childhood favorites.  The contrarian will try to separate the sentimental canon from works transcending nostalgia on the wings of author’s imagination, style, and impact.

How many respondents dashed off a list?  How many agonized over it?  How many people approached by BBC Culture didn’t bother to respond?  And most importantly of all, how did BBC compile the list of experts?

The results were posted on the BBC Culture website in books section at the end of May.  It revealed that a total of 177 “critics, authors, and publishing figures” from 56 countries made submissions: 133 were women, 44 men, and three unidentified by choice.  The 1050 books nominated were scored and ranked to create the final list.  All the respondents, with their positions, countries of residence, and list of ten books can be studied—which is in many ways, as BBC Culture admitted, more intriguing than the final list of 100, with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in first place and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories in one hundredth.  There are few surprises, the majority being modern classics from the popular canon published in England or America.  Children’s literature still doesn’t have a history, even in the minds of most experts.  Some authors like Roald Dahl might have had a higher profile if they weren’t prolific, giving respondents the opportunity to name different titles.  No one admitted to liking series fiction like Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, Goosebumps, etc.   For those who tried to champion their country’s best children’s books in languages other than English, this was not the venue to bring them to a wider audience–only the international best-selling Western authors like Astrid Lindggren or Tove Jansson made it to the final one hundred.  Even the great traditions in Russian, Chinese, and Japanese barely surfaced.  Works written in the last twenty-five years, however, got special treatment in a separate list.

Making lists of 100 best children’s books has always struck me as a fruitless exercise,  because it is impossible to get it “right,” whatever that means.  We know it doesn’t mean 100 books absolutely everyone will agree on forever and ever.   Lists assembled by tabulating the results of a survey will produce a different cross-section of books than ones compiled by an individual: trying to figure out what those lists tell us about taste and values takes a lot of time to unpack.   Perhaps “getting it right” means the selection represents a balance between old and new, popular and high-brow, familiar and surprising.  Maybe the combination of knowledge, passion, and quirks are what really count because it shows the compiler wasn’t afraid to take risks and make some outrageous or debatable calls.  A bland selection is nowhere as much fun as an opinionated one: the best 100 bests push buttons, challenge convictions, and ask to be revisited for ideas and inspiration.

Mother Goose Goes to India: Culturally Diverse Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes are popularly considered as a type of universal children’s literature. Like folk and fairy tales, they belong to a genre that can be compared across countries and cultures because of their distinctive structures of combined motifs and themes. They are presumed to be timeless because they are anonymous, their origins misty, and meanings  mysterious. Any child, regardless of origin, race, and gender, is welcome in Mother Goose’s realm.

The English-speaking world has inherited one of the most robust corpuses of children’s lore in Western Europe, a merry, ragtag mass of ditties, characters rhymes, lullabies, tongue-twisters, counting out rhymes,  singing games, riddles, mixed up with tags from songs, ballads, plays for adults.  Many are not as ancient as popularly supposed and rarely is there hard evidence that they allude to horrific events like the plague.  Since the publication in 1842 of James Orchard Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes of England, traditional oral children’s lore has become an English genre of poetry in its own right because of all the illustrated anthologies and picture books of rhymes that have been published.

Because collections of English nursery rhymes have dominated the market for so long, and there has been a movement to acquaint children with oral lore from different cultures and languages. A picture book of culturally diverse nursery rhymes caught my eye in Barnes & Noble last week.  Mother Goose Goes to India was compiled by Kabir and Surishtha Sehgal. Surishtha’s parents read them to her growing up in India and in turn she introduced her children. The mother-son team  have given their beloved rhymes an Indian twist by substituting key English words with Hindi ones, glossed below.  Details from Indian folk are incorporated into Wazza Pink’s vividly colorful illustrations to be discovered.

All the warm good humor radiating from the pages can’t quite compensate for the shortcomings of the concept.  No changes were made to “Humpty Dumpty” beyond substituting “raja’s” for “king’s” in the third line, so it was left up to the illustrator to give the rhyme more Indian flavor.   The rajas in the lower left  are so light-skinned that they could be Europeans, when surely they are not.  The other characters are clothed in Indian garments, but no notes explain who is wearing what.  Humpty wears a belt  around his waist as if he were a hard-boiled egg decorated for a holiday meal, as he takes the tumble to the ground.  To his left, Mother Goose in a sleeveless jacket and skirt claps her wings  and to his right a man who might be a dancer in an unusual hat strikes a pose.

One of the most successful transformations in the collection is “Jack Be Nimble:”

Jai be nimble, / Jai be free, / Jai jump over / The mombatee

“Jai,” a boy’s name in Hindi that alliterates with “Jack,” nicely preserves the original’s punchy rhythm.  He vaults over the lit candle in a lavender kurta with a stand-up collar and loose trousers.  The second line has been rewritten so that it rhymes with the Hindi word for candle, “mombattee.”  Chanting the rhyme out loud would probably delight a small child too young for an explanation that probably came from  candle leaping, which was a game and a form of fortunetelling in England for centuries, although the text did not appear in print until 1825.

“This Little Pig Went to Market” is still the best known of all  the toe or finger rhymes, but it seems an odd  choice for this collection.  Here is the Indian version:

This little sooar went to bazaar, ‘ This little sooar stayed home. / This little sooar had roast gosht,/ This little sooar had none. /  And this little sooar cried, “Wee-wee-wee,” / All the way home!

Thinking  about the English piggy gobbling down roast beef may make a reader feel squeamish, but it is even more gross here, given the pig’s status as an unclean animal to Hindus and Muslims.  Presumably people born into those faiths who are no longer unobservant may not feel bound by the taboo, but as an outsider, it feels wrong or even insensitive.

Can the Sehgals’ experiment with Mother Goose be described as culturally diverse?  Are the resulting  illustrated rhymes to be considered subversions of English nursery rhymes, as the Kirkus Review suggested?  The edited versions respect the originals too much to support a such claim, in my opinion. The Sehgals did not set out to turn this imaginary world upside down while trying to create an enjoyable introduction to Indian culture through rhymes very young children can be presumed to be familiar.  Still, “Garam Cross Buns” are neither authentically Indian or English…  Or is that a pedantic quibble, when any child will recognize it as a delectable sweet pastry?

Mother Goose Goes to India could easily be used in a story hour, with a related activity of teaching Hindi words to a multi-generational audience. But unless the facilitator is South Asian or has some real knowledge about modern Indian culture, it is hard to go beyond that.  Without glosses at the back of the book providing some context for the adult reader, the mass of details impress chiefly through the colors and patterning, which says “exotic” (minus the sexual overtones), a way into a culture we are now consider suspect.  If I were reading the book with a child, I would be hard pressed to anticipate questions or pick out things to explain what’s “Indian” about them.  Cobbling short answers of dubious accuracy about the lotus or paisley or the griddle for baking naan obviously does not to justice to the culture which the  Seghals and Pink are offering a portal.  This has always been the dilemma of writing and illustrating introductions to non-Western countries and people simple enough for a little child to grasp. With a nearly impossible task, the best intentions in the world go so only far.  Figuring out ways to do better are elusive indeed…