Deciding which Children’s Books Are the Most

by | Nov 23, 2018 | IBBYLink Autumn 2018

Perry Nodelman

What makes a children’s book a classic? Once upon a time – almost 40 years ago, in fact – I was arrogant enough to think that I could answer that question, or that at least I could spend a little time with a few other people to figure it out. 

As a relatively young English professor new to the teaching and study of children’s literature, I accepted an invitation to become a member of a committee of the US–based Children’s Literature Association (ChLA) devoted to figuring out which children’s books were the important ones. It was called the ‘canon committee’, and its task was to identify a list – no, the list – of the children’s books that were most important. Or maybe they were the most essential, or most excellent, or most significant, or most enduring, or most true, or most artistic, or most beautiful, or most required as what experts in the field or children themselves ought to have read and to know about. We weren’t exactly sure about what exactly these books were the most at being. We figured we could work that out once we’d identified the books that did whatever the most was the most.

It took a while, but we did eventually produce our list of what we ended up calling ‘touchstones’, referring to Matthew Arnold’s idea about how we can use certain texts considered excellent to compare other texts with in order to identify their value, much as mineralogists use touchstones to determine the quality of gold. Once the list existed, ChLA asked me to edit a three–volume collection of essays, Touchstones: Reflection on the Best in Children’s Literature, in which each of the essays is an attempt to explain what was excellent or important or otherwise most something about one of the listed books.

As I recently reread my introduction to the first volume of this series, the different person I’ve become in the almost four decades since I wrote it became painfully aware of assumptions I had once made about literature and literary study, about literary excellence, and canons and classics, that I no longer take for granted – that I now, in fact, actively disagree with. On the other hand, however, I found much that still makes sense to me – much of it critical of the whole idea of identifying canons or touchstones or classics.

I don’t feel all that guilty about what I once believed about these matters. I can see now that what I blindly assumed in my old introduction was merely my unconscious acceptance of what were then still the mainstream values of my discipline, literary study: what I had been taught and what I was continuing to try to teach my own students. I can now be conscious of what I once took for granted because literary study has changed – especially in terms of ideas about literary excellence. And, I believe, changed for the better.

I once thought I knew what literary excellence was, or at least, knew that it existed and that I could train myself and others to find it. For instance, I identified the quest for a ‘canon’ by children’s literature scholars as

What mattered most then were the texts that the most knowledgeable people recommended and discussed the most often: the ‘canon’.

It’s now startlingly clear to me that there are number of problems with this view. First, I simply took it for granted that there is such a thing as literary excellence; that some texts definitely and absolutely have it and that others don’t, without any consideration of who might be reading them; and that it made some texts more important than others, worthier of closer attention from human beings generally. I also assumed that the right people – i.e. me and my peers in English studies – were simply and absolutely right in our choices – that what we identified as excellence or good taste or significance was in fact excellent and in good taste and significant.

In doing so, I ignored the fact that, in addition to sharing ideas about excellence, most literary educators – and certainly all of the members of the canon committee – also shared matters like our exclusively Caucasian skin colour and our exclusively middle–class status – characteristics that might well have influenced our ideas about excellence. Indeed, I was blind enough to the significance of these matters to claim that the members of the canon committee were ‘a highly diverse group of librarians, educators, and English teachers’. So much for actual diversity. And so much for an awareness that literary excellence and significance shift not only as time passes and cultural values change, but also as different people of different backgrounds and with different histories consider what it is and how it does or does not reflect their own ideas about what matters about themselves and others. 

I’m relieved to say that I was not completely unaware of the possibility of bias in the canon committee’s values. It was doing its work at exactly the same moment in history when feminists were beginning to have some success in drawing attention to the maleness of the canon and its classics and the anti–female bias of what the academic establishment considered to be excellent. While I insisted that my own focus remained on the inherent value of texts without consideration of their relationships with their readers, my introduction also announced that my recent immersion in children’s literature studies and their obsessive focus on how books do and should affect children had begun to teach me a new approach: ‘in the ivory tower of literary study I had hitherto inhabited, one certainly did not judge books by how they affected audiences; in fact, one often judged audiences by the extent to which they were affected by books, so that, for instance, anyone who wasn’t overwhelmed by Shakespeare was simply assumed to be an intransigent dummy’ (p.4).

I proudly declared myself to be becoming less snobby:

Note, however, my ongoing insistence on judging, i.e. on the existence of excellence. I also attempted to deny that a canon was inherently restrictive by asserting that, despite the fact that teachers of literature use ‘canon’ to refer merely to the literature usually studied in English courses, the word has unfortunate implications of restrictiveness, of ‘laying down the law’ (p.7).

I now wonder if the use of ‘canon’ in literary study was ever anything but a matter of law making.

But despite my claim that the list wasn’t restrictive, I did provide a surprisingly long description of its restrictive limitations. I pointed out that ‘the books are mainly American or British, and most were written in the last hundred or so years; our ideas about significance are unfortunately parochial’. I also suggested that there were surprising absences. While the list included children’s versions of significant landmarks of our culture such as the Greek and Norse myths, it made no mention of the Bible, I assume now because the mostly American liberal humanists on the canon committee believed that religions still being practised had no place in the public schools and libraries envisaged as the list’s primary consumers. I also suggested that, in ignoring brilliantly simple picture–book texts by writers like Margaret Wise Brown, the list revealed a prejudice for linguistic complexity – a prejudice that now strikes me as especially odd in relation to choosing excellent books for young and inexperienced readers. Even more mysterious, I pointed out, was how the list completely ignored some of the most popular and influential writers for children ‘for no clear reason (except, perhaps, the committee’s distaste for them)’.

In addition to all that, furthermore, I went on to argue that

In our contemporary world of non–reading tech millionaires whose cultural life consists of playing video games and collecting My Little Pony toys, nothing more reveals the age of these comments than the idea that successful people are ones educated in classic literature and traditionally conformist values; and I did go on to suggest that a lot of the books ‘qualify their message of acceptance with a celebration of childlike freedom and independence – even anarchy’. Bring on the video games.

But my awareness of the conservatism and establishment–confirming values of the books we identify as touchstones certainly suggests an ongoing problem with institutions and the powerful individuals within them that choose to identify classics or any other especially significant texts. In an age when library associations and educators are producing lists of recommended diverse books, for instance, we surely have to keep on asking both whose values those theoretically diverse books represent and to what extent they might be demanding a child reader’s blind acceptance of them.

In other words: we all, children and adults, need to keep on asking questions – being critical readers both of classics and of the lists that name books as classics. After pointing out that the books on the touchstones list tended to be ones already recommended or unconsciously chosen as the subjects of closer critical attention – that, for instance, educators often ‘talked about how children would like Peter Rabbit and what they would learn from it, but few talked about how children would like or learn from Potter’s similar Jeremy Fisher’ – I went on to claim that because the list represented ‘a current consensus’ about what constitutes excellence and importance in children’s literature, its main usefulness might be its ability to allow us to ask questions about that consensus: ‘In revealing what we believe to be significant, the list allows us to explore both the strengths and the weaknesses in our understanding of excellence’.

The idea that the most useful aspect of lists like the ChLA touchstones is the questions they allow us to ask ourselves about our values seems to me now to be the most positive aspect of what I wrote so long ago. What makes a classic? The answer, I now believe, is merely the act of naming a text as such by people and institutions with the kind of power to make it stick, at least for a little while. There is no such thing as a classic beyond the inevitably limited perceptions of whoever declares and insists the existence of them. The really important question then is who benefits from the identification of a classic, or a touchstone, or for that matter, a Man Booker or Carnegie Medal prize winner? Whose power does it sustain, and whose does it diminish? What can the texts we believe to be classics teach us about our ideas about what makes a classic and about the inevitable biases and restrictions inherent in what we believe to be the most? Child readers need to ask these questions as much as adult critics do.

Works cited and bibliography

Nodelman, Perry (ed.) Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, Children’s Literature Association Publications. Vol. 1, 1986. Vol. 2, 1987. Vol. 3, 1989.

Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg, Perry Nodelman is the author of four books about children’s literature – most recently Alternating Narratives in Fiction for Young Readers: Twice upon a Time (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). He was the recipient of the 2015 International Grimm Award for Research in Children’s Literature.