100 Best Children’s Books: A Roundup

Everyone must have prizes!

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.

Veggie Tales: Mighty Asparagus Spears and Monstrous Turnips


The hero of Jan Le Witt’s The Vegetabull.

Inanimate and oddly shaped edible objects, vegetables star in far fewer stories for children than anything with legs, antennae, feathers or fur.  In honor of the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve dug up a handful of interesting vege-tales, one new, one old and twice retold.  Gratins and buttery purees are not the inevitable ends of a gigantic vegetable, so their stories can be relished by meat-eaters and vegetarians.

“Die Ruebentante” –or Aunty Root–is a story I’ve wanted to feature in a post for a long time.   Its creator, Max Froelich, seems to be unknown except for the work he published in Heim der Jugend: Ein Jahrbuch fuer Kinder und Eltern (1905).  It is a cautionary tale in two frames about a generously proportioned lady turnip of a certain age, who goes for a walk in her slippers on a moonlit night.  In the dark she trips over two potatoes and tumbles down into the mud, unaware that the moon has witnessed the whole ridiculous episode.  The moral? No midnight strolls for root vegetables with spindly legs and tiny feet shod in backless slippers.


Aunty Root’s luxuriant trailing leaves make a nice contrast to the elaborate border of carrot greens. Max Froehlich, “Die Ruebentante,” on page 285 in Heim der Jugend, edited by Adolf Cronbach and H. H. Ewers. (Berlin: Siegfried Cronbach, 1905) Cotsen 12147.

For a vegetable of stupendous girth and length that inspires shock, awe, and veneration, see Vladimir Radunsky’s The Mighty Asparagus (2004), a picture book for three- to eight-year-olds.   As the recipient of a New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award, the judges must not have thought it very likely that parents would have to fend off questions like,  “Why does a giant asparagus make the little king nervous?”   “Why does queen hug the asparagus?” or “Why does the princess want to eat the yucky asparagus?”  On the other hand, all the nudge-nudge, wink, winks will be over the children’s heads, but will help keep the adult reader awake.  Likewise the good-natured liberties taken with the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Perugino, and several other Renaissance artists …   Here is the fold-out plate showing the full grandeur of the asparagus.


The fold-out plate folded (panels 1 and 4). Vladimir Radunsky, The Mighty Asparagus. (New York: Silver Whistle/ Harcourt, 2004) Promised gift.


Panels 2 and 3.


Panel 4.


Panels 5 and 6, in which the musicians sing the ballad of the asparagus.

The Mighty Asparagus is, of course, a fractured version of the venerable folk tale of the turnip and Brian Alderson’s telling illustrated by Fritz Wegner is one of the most enjoyable  of the many versions.  A poor farmer finds himself the proud cultivator of the most prodigious, round, unblemished specimen ever seen in those parts.  Such a “right champion turnip” can only be fit for a king, so once the farmer and his family manage to pull it out of the ground and heave it onto a wagon, off they go to the castle.  The king is so impressed with this “most champion turnip” that he fills the farmer’s cart full of gold.


Page [15] in Brian Alderson, The Tale of the Turnip. Illustrated by Fritz Wegner. (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 1999) Cotsen 53048. Inscribed by the author to Lloyd E. Cotsen.

Now when the rich squire gets wind of his neighbor’s good luck, he is so consumed with jealousy that he must take the finest horse in his stable, who is worth more than a thousand turnips, and present it to the king, confident of receiving an even bigger and better reward.  The squire gets his money’s worth in turnips all right, as the new owner of the right champion vegetable.

With badgers in bright Russian folklorist costumes, Jan Brett gives her picture book of “The Turnip” a new twist.  By eliminating the greedy resentful neighbor, she focuses instead on the communal effort of pulling the turnip out of the frozen field.  The successful conclusion of this Herculean labor is celebrated with singing and dancing.


Cover design for Jan Brett, The Turnip. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015). Cotsen in process 7374091.

Taking a hint from Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, Mother Badger grabs her griddle and gets down to making a mountain of turnip pancakes to warm everyone up.  It seems unlikely that a savory Chinese or Korean turnip pancake was on the menu, so I like to imagine that she whipped up a kind of latkes, made from half grated potato and half grated turnip, which would taste equally good with butter and syrup or sour cream and smoked fish.  If you are still feeling hungry after Thursday’s overindulgence, there are recipes for either kind of turnip pancake on the Internet.

7374091page30The holiday season is officially declared open!