This book is for people who care about honest-to-goodness children and who want to instill in them a love of reading. It is for adults who understand that reading is the key to the future--indeed, to the preservation of civilization--but who also read for their own entertainment and hope their children will, too.
In other words, as I said a dozen years ago when the first New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children
was finished, "This book is for the converted."
That much hasn't changed, but a great deal else has.
The youngsters I knew best back then are nearly all grown now, and within the breadth of their memories, the childhood experience changed as surely as it did when the radio and then television first entered the home. I wrote that edition on the first computer in our house, a large contraption that occupied the space of honor in the living room, just the way those other newfangled machines had in earlier times.
The new world--for children as well as adults--is filled with batteries and magical electronics, with computers, cell phones, beepers, interactive activities and games, and elaborate merchandise tie-ins. It is also a world in which many American children lead far more restricted lives than their parents did. They move about less freely; they have less unstructured time; they are bombarded by commercial entertainment.
One of the pleasures of being a parent--grand, god, surrogate, or just Mom and Dad--is helping to choose books. They are wonderful gifts. They cost more or less the same as old-fashioned (i.e. nonelectronic) toys, last much longer, and give boundless satisfaction. But the worlds of publishing and book buying and borrowing have also changed. Giant international conglomerates have swallowed up and eliminated many smaller imprints, though brave, independent publishers do still exist. (Indeed, there seem to be new ones each season.) For a time, there were hundreds of independent "children's only" bookstores in the United States. Now the chains so dominate that few of those specialty shops survive. The Internet offers endless goodies, only a click away. Libraries, hit hard by budget cutbacks during the early '90s, are regaining acquisition budgets, although as a nation we are not training or supporting enough librarians.
And then there is Harry Potter. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the surprising success of J. K. Rowling's series of adventure fantasy novels about that orphan wizard. It has brought hundreds of thousands of adults--directly, not just vicariously--back to the pleasures of children's books. Curious about the phenomenon, they find themselves rediscovering the delight of a galloping adventure. Without sex or violence!
Part of the sheer delight of the Potter phenomenon is that the focus was solely on the books, at least during the reign of the first four. Each reader or listener imagined it all. Each had an intense personal vision, for example, of what a game of quidditch, that sky-high broomstick game they play at the Hogwarts School, looked and sounded like. Chris Van Allsburg said in his 1982 Caldecott Medal speech that children give a book "life" by understanding it, that they can "possess a book in a way they can never possess a video game, a TV show, or a Darth Vader doll." He was, is, right. As an insightful eleven-year-old told The New York Times
: "You know how they make books and movies for TV? I've read the books, and my mom would get the video. I've noticed that every single time the book is better than the video." It is a variation on the mantra I taught my own children: the book is always better than the movie. Of course, as Katherine Paterson, the Newbery Medal winner, has pointed out, "If we prescribe books as medicine, our children have a perfect right to refuse the nasty-tasting spoon."
Use this guide to choose books for birthdays, for holidays, for spring, for school, for Saturday, for laughter, for tears, for finding out what happened next, or for thinking about what if. . . . Try to find titles that children can embrace now, that they can seize and not shove away for some deferred gratification they're supposed to "grow into," like a big sister's cast-off winter coat. As Beverly Cleary, the author of the beloved Ramona
series, once recalled: "When I was a child, a relative gave me Ivanhoe
to grow into. I was so disappointed that I still have not grown into it."
To help you fend off such disappointments and find books that will intrigue and delight the kids you know, this is a selective guide to 1,001 books published in the United States. Almost all are from the twentieth century. It is a mixture of classic, standard, and solid new titles. There are lots of books for lap-listening babies and toddlers, books to read aloud with preschoolers, books for beginning readers to read to themselves, books for middle-school children to devour or dabble in as they begin to sort out their lives, and a few books for teenagers as they struggle into maturity. Some are noble veterans and some are just fun; others may be helpful directly or indirectly as they address real issues children face.
You may be surprised to learn that there are truths and tricks to choosing and that you have an active, crucial role in the process. As the sign in Manhattan's Gotham Book Store says, "So many books, so little time."
If we met, say, on a street corner, and you asked me to help you find a book for your child (just the way people really do ask, incidentally), like a teacher or librarian or a clerk in a good bookstore, I would quickly turn the questions back to you: How old a child? A boy or a girl? Where does he or she live? Siblings? Intact family? Special interests? A book to read aloud, or a book for a child to read to herself? I would go on asking questions until I could make an educated guess of an appropriate recommendation.
In the same way, I have organized the guide with its dozens of special indexes so that you can tailor your choices to a child's particular tastes and interests, or to your own tastes. Remember that the same title may appear in many indexes--easily half a dozen--because the ways we see and understand books change as we ourselves grow.
Karla Kuskin, the artist and poet, said about a picture of a large number of sleeping animals in one of her books: "Over there on the right, one cat with one eye open . . . looking at a mouse. A two-and-a-half or three-year-old will spot that cat immediately; a six-year-old will take longer; a twelve-year-old may miss it." And, she added, "At thirty-seven, you hardly have a chance." Similarly, the themes and subthemes of many stories or novels are not obvious on first reading to either adults or children; rather, they are suggested by haunting phrases, images, and ideas, all of them more powerful precisely because they are subtle.
As you browse through the listings and the indexes, or as illustrations catch your eye, I hope you find many books you already know or even just vaguely remember. If you are a baby boomer and came of age after World War II, you will discover nearly 170 titles published before 1966. I have a theory that it takes between fifteen and twenty years for a book to become a classic--the living, or rather growing-up, time between when you first read a book as a child and when you first read a book to a child. Some of the more recent titles I have included will have that lasting power, but only a few. If they reach that magic realm, they develop a special immortality, the kind that every day allows a seven-year-old, somewhere, to first meet Fern Arable and the baby pig she calls Wilbur.
This edition includes more recent books about real people--biographies and autobiographies and therefore history--and more books about science. There are more titles from the '90s that deal with minorities, both broadly and specifically defined, reflecting an enthusiasm for diversity that should not be denigrated as "political correctness." Indeed, there is a generous tradition in American children's books of inclusivity, a totally praiseworthy tradition.
For the purpose of this guide, I have included only a few young-adult titles. Teenagers have many independent paths for finding their own books; young children are much more dependent on adult assistance. I have not included books published for adults that are now considered children's titles and found on standard reading lists. It is sometimes a very fine judgment, and today it is often a marketing or business decision whether a book is published for adults or children. Catcher in the Rye
and To Kill a Mockingbird
, though originally adult titles, have become identified as school books. (Indeed, the only adults who read them today, it seems, are parents.) I have also confined the guide to titles issued by children's trade book publishers because I wanted these selections to be accessible to ordinary readers, to people who regularly browse in ordinary bookstores and libraries. The great help of the Internet here is in finding out-of-print books.
Excerpted from The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children by Eden Ross Lipson, Children's Book Editor of the New York Times. Copyright © 2000 by Eden Ross Lipson. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.