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Top 100 Children’s Novels (#75-71)

4347335080 ed5208c608 m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)#75 Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (2001)
(#1)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#7)(#8)(#10)(#10)(#10) – 51 points

Best free verse novel. Best dog story. Gotta love it! – Brenda Ferber

Brings narrative poetry into the classroom – brings classics – brings life to a journal. And it’s easy to follow and easy to read and you walk away knowing about William Carlos Williams and sadness and grief and everything that life is about. – Heather Meagher

Slim, yellow, and distinctive, Love That Dog is the second verse novel to appear on the Top 100 List. The first book was Out of the Dust at #76, which means that our two verse novels (only verse novels? We’ll see) are almost inseparable.

Publishers Weekly described the plot in this way: "The volume itself builds like a poem. Told exclusively through Jack’s dated entries in a school journal, the book opens with his resistance to writing verse: ‘September 13 / I don’t want to / be cause boys / don’t write poetry. / Girls do.’ Readers sense the gentle persistence of Jack’s teacher, Miss Stretchberry, behind the scenes, from the poems she reads in class and from her coaxing, to which the boy alludes, until he begins to write some poems of his own. One by William Carlos Williams, for instance, inspires Jack’s words: ‘So much depends / upon / a blue car / splattered with mud / speeding down the road.’ A Robert Frost poem sends Jack into a tale his verse) of how he found his dog, Sky. At first, his poems appear to be discrete works. But when a poem by Walter Dean Myers (‘Love That Boy’ from Brown Angels) unleashes the joy Jack felt with his pet, he be comes even more honest in his poetry. Jack’s next work is cathartic: all of his previous verses seemed to be leading up to this piece de resistance, an admission of his profound grief over Sky’s death. He then can move on from his grief to write a poem (‘inspired by Walter Dean Myers’) about his joy at having known and loved his dog."

Where did the book come from?  Well, on her British website Creech says, "Walter Dean Myers’ poem, ‘Love That Boy’, has been hanging on my bulletin board for the past three or four years. It’s at eye level, so I probably glance at it a dozen times a day. I love that poem–there is so much warmth and exuberance in it. (The poem is reprinted at the back of Love That Dog.) One day as I glanced at this poem, I started thinking about the much-loved boy in Myers’ poem. I wondered what that boy might love. Maybe a pet? A dog? Maybe also a teacher? And whoosh–out jumped Jack’s voice."

That’s all well and good, but how did Walter Dean Myers feel about becoming, essentially, the book’s hero?  After all, he became a character in the book all thanks to that poem hanging over Ms. Creech’s desk.  In a September 2001 interview with School Library Journal, Ms. Creech put it this way: "I didn’t want to use a fictional writer. I wanted to show how these real, living writers, … who are writing books today, are affecting kids. So [my editor] said, ‘Let’s just send this to Walter and see what he thinks.’ And I said, ‘Good, because if he has any reservations whatsoever, we have no story and I’m putting it away.’ … So [Joanna] sent it to Walter–I had only met him once–and he read the book. … I think he was very, very shy about being the hero in this book, because he’s–as I’ve since learned–a very shy and humble man. And yet he could easily see why his presence was needed in that book, why aesthetically it was important. He gave his blessing; he said, ‘Fine, go ahead.’ If he hadn’t said that, there would be no book."

Interviewed in the Leonard Marcus collection, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, Marcus asks Ms. Creech at one point "Are there passages in your books that make you laugh just to think of them?"  She answers, "It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but yes, and here are some: when Jack, in Love That Dog, reacts to the poetry of Robert Frost and of William Carlos Williams."  Marcus doesn’t include examples here, but he does pull a quote from Absolutely Normal Chaos (another Creech creation) that I think applies: "Robert Frost doesn’t seem to have a very big vocabulary.  I bet he didn’t do very well in English.  But once you get used to his poems, they’re okay."

Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times said of the book, "Sharon Creech has achieved more than one impressive feat here. Not only has she shown young readers what a poem can do, she’s also shown them what a novel can do. ‘Love That Dog‘ is extremely short. It’s more of a haiku than a sonnet, so not intimidating to slightly shaky readers, and it lacks extended scenes or many characters beyond Jack, his teacher, Sky and a few stray poets. And yet, somehow, it creates a substantial, fully imagined world as convincingly as Creech’s longer, earlier books. According to ‘Love That Dog,’ a poem can be like a story, and a novel can be like a poem, and both of them count.  Thank you, Miss Stretchberry."

  • You can read a chapter of the book here.
  • There was also a sequel out there by the name of Hate That Cat.


Said Publishers Weekly in a starred review, "By exposing Jack and readers to the range of poems that moves Jack (they appear at the back of the book), Creech conveys a life truth: pain and joy exist side by side. For Jack and for readers, the memory of that dog lives on in his poetry. Readers will love that dog, and this book."

School Library Journal was perhaps the most direct in its own starred review when it said, "Creech has created a poignant, funny picture of a child’s encounter with the power of poetry. Readers may have a similar experience because all of the selections mentioned in the story are included at the end. This book is a tiny treasure."

The iconic William Steig cover is the first to come to mind with this book.  Indeed, it has never changed in America.  Overseas is another story.  I find this particular change fascinating.  From Britain:


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It’s not a Thurber dog, but it’s close (though wouldn’t a Thurber dog be perfect?).  Same yellow cover.  Same line drawing.  Different dog, different title font, and a handwritten look to the author’s name.  Veeeery interesting.  And from Spain:


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Awesome, dude.  Awesome.

Silly me, I was unaware that Jenny Brown of Twenty By Jenny and Shelf Awareness (as well as being a hometown Kalamazoo girl, woot woot!) filmed editor Joanna Cotler and Sharon Creech as they discussed this book.  Fabulous!


Almost every book on this countdown will have a video on YouTube by kids doing a report. I don’t tend to post them, but I am putting this one up because I like the fact that the kids seen here are older. I also don’t think they’re faking their interest in the book.


I say that I’m surprised by how old the kids are, but maybe I shouldn’t.  After all, in the May 2002 edition of Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy a Jennifer Anstiss writes that, "Creech has brilliantly crafted a story with the potential to appeal to young adolescents who may relate to Jack’s struggles with issues of identity and validation." There you go.



4346875195 6c2d186810 m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)#74 The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1953)
(#3)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#8)(#8) – 52 points

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Borrowers for Christmas when it first came to this country and I loved it instantly. Still do. It is wholly original with some of the most well-realized characters and setting I have ever encountered between book covers. I wanted to be Arrietty – to be as brave and adventurous as she was, to sleep in her cigar box bed with the angel flying overhead. It wasn’t until college that I discovered there were sequels (from a fellow student who loved them so much she brought them to school with her – she’s still one of my best friends), and I fell in love with their world all over again while lying in bed recovering from my obligatory case of mono at the end of junior year. – Connie Rockman, Children’s Literature Consultant, Program Coordinator, Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature, Stratford, CT

I doubt many will pick this anymore but I stand by this title. The idea that little people could be living in the house and provide kids with the excuse for lost items probably grabbed many kids imagination. – Joan L. Raphael, Youth Collections Librarian, San Diego Public Library

I lost a lot of things and it was nice to have someone to blame. – Tina Engelfried

The book British Children’s Writers, 1914-1960 puts the plot this way: "The novel is about a species of tiny people, identical to human beings, who live beneath the floorboards of old country houses, borrowing food and supplies left lying about by the large occupants of the dwellings; specifically the novel focuses on Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty, the last three Borrowers living in a house reminiscent of that in which Norton spent her childhood. The events of their lives are recounted to a young girl, Kate, by Mrs. May, an aging relative who had learned of them from her brother, who, as a child, had met and interacted with the little people. The narrative begins one spring day as Arrietty, bored, restless, and unhappy, awaits her father’s return from a borrowing expedition in the main house. When she learns that he has been discovered by a boy and that the family must emigrate to ensure their safety, she is overjoyed at the prospect of the freedom such a move could offer. However, the family delays their departure and, several days later, when she accompanies her father on her first borrowing excursion, she too is seen by the boy. The two strike up a friendship, and, in exchange for her teaching him to read, he agrees to take a letter into the fields where she thinks her relatives, the Hendrearys, live. The family, which again delays emigration when the boy, much to Homily’s delight, brings them gifts of dollhouse furniture, is discovered by Mrs. Driver, the housekeeper, who then sets about to exterminate the Borrowers. Only when the boy breaks open a grating that leads from the Clocks’ home to the outdoors is their escape made possible."

I rather like this warning given by Noel Perrin in the book A Child’s Delight.  "I should warn anyone who buys The Borrowers to give or to read to a small human bean that the first chapter is the weakest. You have to read it because it contains essential information and also because it sets things up for the last chapter, but it’s slow going. Don’t be put off. The wonderful story begins with chapter 2."  Every book of this sort (and there are quite a few out there) should contain such a warning.

Between 1943 to 1982, Mary Norton wrote eight novels, and five of those were Borrowers sequels.  Where did these books come from?  Truth be told it was her nearsightedness that informed her writing.  As a child she is quoted in British Children’s Writers as saying, "I think the first idea–or first feeling–of The Borrowers came through my being shortsighted: when others saw the far hills, the distant woods, the soaring pheasant, I, as a child, would turn sideways to the close bank, the tree roots, and the tangled grasses . . . Moss, fern-stalks, sorrel stems, created the mise-en-scène for a jungle drama…. But one invented the characters–small, fearful people picking their way through the miniature undergrowth." 

Much like fellow author Sydney Taylor, Norton was an actress for a time.  But after getting married, during WWII that she had to come up with an income for her family.  Writing would fill that need.  And as with Johnny Tremain (#78), the war was a huge influence.  "It was only just before the 1940 war … that one thought again about the Borrowers. There were human men and women who were being forced to live … the kind of lives a child had once envisaged for a race of mythical creatures."

Some have speculated that the constant moving the Borrowers endure had some basis in the amount of times the Nortons moved.  British Children’s Writers, 1914-1960 speculates that, "In many ways these books, recounting as they do the wanderings and many temporary homes of the Clocks, reflect Norton‘s life after World War II. Although she gave little personal information about the period from 1945 onward, she lived in many different places before her death at Hartland, England, on 29 August 1992. London; Essex; West Cork, Ireland; and Bideford, England, all have been listed as her residences."

The book won a Carnegie Medal back in 1952 and in Marcus Crouch’s "Salute to Children’s Literature and Its Creators," of Readings about Children’s Literature he said it was, "of all the winners of the Carnegie Medal … the one book of unquestioned, timeless genius."  Heck, it was even selected in 2007 by judges of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature as one of the ten most important children’s novels of the past 70 years.

Praise comes thick and heavy with this book.  Critical praise in particular.  You have your pick of interpretations.  You might like to read Jon C. Scott’s piece "Anatomy of a Masterpiece: The Borrowers" as found in the May 1976 edition of Language Arts.  In it he argues that the key to the book comes is what one chooses to see.  "How one responds to and reports what he sees is as important as seeing itself. Actual seeing is not always believing, while believing does not always require actual sight. In fact, in the book only one person, the Boy, both sees and believes. For Pod, Homily, Mrs. Driver, and Campfurl, limited in both sight and insight, the future hopes are limited, while for Arrietty and the Boy, who see, learn, and sympathize, there is much hope. For Kate, who will perpetuate their memories and who has grown to love and understand those whom she has never seen, there is also great hope."  That is one interpretation.

  • Read some of the book here.


Booklist called it a, “Delectable fantasy.”

The Horn Book said it was, "A book that begs to be shared."

And School Library Journal concurred as well with, "The magic and charm of the writing convince children and grown-ups, too, that Borrowers really do exist."

Covers vary quite a bit.


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There was also an announcement recently about a Japanese movie
4346875647 fe47d9a6ce m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)adaptation coming out from Studio Ghibli this summer that will be called Karigurashi no Arrietty or The Borrower Arrietty.  According to Affenheimtheater, "Set in the modern Tokyo neighborhood of Koganei (instead of 1950s England in the original), the borrowers are little people that are secretly living in the houses of the humans and ‘borrow’ the things they need."  Aside from the change in location, the plot as described on the site sounds pretty faithful.

You can see two of the teaser trailers here, as well as a behind the scenes interview with Cecile Corbel, the French girl who sings Arrietty’s Song.

John Goodman normally does wonderful films.  There are, however, exceptions to every rule.  Example A: The 1997 adaptation of this book.


Rather different from the 1973 television version, don’t you think?


Singy little thing, ain’t it?  And that’s not even COUNTING the 1992 BBC/TNT Co-Production.


4346906129 06d293f1c6 m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)
#73
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (1959)
(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3)(#6)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#9)(#10) – 53 points

The clarity of writing and the independence of the protagonist are what she [my daughter] loved from this book and its sequels. – Sarah Haliwell

As a child, Jean announced that she was running away from home, only to return after forty minutes.  Later she’d write about a kid who did a bit better than she did.  Before survival tales were their own middle grade literary genre, Ms. Jean Craighead George knew how to give the kids what they wanted.  What they continue to want, I should say, since it isn’t this high on the list by chance.

Children’s Literature described the plot this way: "Young Sam Gribley lives a comfortable life in New York City. But tired of urban living, he, with his parents’ knowledge, runs away to the Catskills Mountains, determined to live on the site of his great-grandparents’ old homestead. Leaving the city with few possessions, he sets off on the adventure of a lifetime. His initial nights on the mountain prove difficult as he struggles to stay warm and find food. Eventually, Sam adjusts, learns much about himself and becomes a true backwoodsman, eating off the land, making deerskin clothes, hollowing out the base of a large tree to live in and becoming part of the wilderness environment. He steals a baby peregrine falcon from its nest and adopts the bird he names Frightful. They become inseparable as Frightful helps his new ‘parent’ hunt for food."

And why did Jean Craighead George write the doggone thing?  In 2002 on her website she gave this answer: "Let me tell you why I wrote My Side of the Mountain. When I was a kid, my father who was an entomologist and ecologist, took my brothers and me into the wilderness along the Potomac River near Washington, D. C., our home. He taught us the plants and animals, where to find wild asparagus and other edible plants. We made lean-tos to sleep in, fished with our own homemade fish hooks and basswood fiber lines and trained falcons. My brothers were two of the first falconers in the United States and gave me a falcon to train when I was thirteen. It was a glorious childhood.  When I became a writer I wanted to tell about those wonderful days. I wrote eight books before I saw a way to get Sam out in the wilderness without the park rangers or his family coming to get him. He would tell his Dad he was going to go to the family farm in the Catskill Mountains. Then I put myself in Sam’s head and began to write using my own adventures, including eating all those delicious foods."

Strange that she would call those foods "delicious".  Now if you can track it down, the Horn Book article "A Second Look: My Side of the Mountain" by Karen Jameyson (found in the July-August 1989 issue) is worth its weight in gold.  As she says (particularly about the food):

"Is it possible, we may wonder, that such bogus-sounding entrées as frog soup and crow’s eggs–cooked in a leaf, no less–can sound as scrumptious as filet mignon and crêpe suzettes when described by this Julia Child of the wilderness? And, surely, sleeping inside a tree, bathing in an icy spring, and using the bark of the slippery elm for soap scarcely reflects a scene from House Beautiful. But how many readers with an ounce of adventure in their bones have longed to pour Western civilization’s regimented details down the drain and head for a Walden Pond or a Tinker Creek? When Sam explains, in his determined, quietly exuberant way that he has decided to leave his New York City home with a penknife, a ball of cord, an ax, some flint and steel, and forty dollars to go to live on the old Gribley land in the Catskill Mountains, the plan sounds a bit cockamamie. It also sounds mighty appealing. Our hero has fortunately prepared himself so thoroughly that we never doubt that he knows what he’s doing. He has made good use of the New York Public Library and regularly refers to the tips he picked up during his research."

You can see why I like that quote.

In Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cites this book as the one that was the most important to him.  In 1964 he wrote Ms. George a letter asking (he was eleven) where he should look to find an occupied kestrel nest.  This was not some fly-by-night request.  Kennedy was part of a raptor breeding project in school and says, "My years as a falconer informed my own career choice as an environmental lawyer and advocate.  My Side of the Mountain has inspired countless children, as it did me, to take up ecological stewardship in our adult years."

The book was a 1960 Newbery Honor title, beaten by Onion John by Joseph Krumgold.  True story.

  • In case you authors out there wish to feel lazy, here is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen on a writer’s website.  She has sorted her book titles alphabetically, and you can find them by selecting the correct letter at the top of the screen.  Geez o’ marie.


Horn Book said of it at the time, ""Perhaps it will appeal only to a few children. But I believe it will be read year after year, linking together many generations in a chain."

While searching for covers I thought I’d found a cool old one.  I could not have been more wrong.  Truth be told there’s not much variety in the jackets here.  Just a handful to choose from, really.


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Was there a movie adaptation in 1969?  Survey says yes.



4347700640 d48929c67a m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)#72 My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett (1948)
(#2)(#3)(#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#10)(#10) – 53 points

Not enough people know about this fabulously illustrated story for the well-prepared adventurer. - Amy Farrier

The first choice in read-alouds for squirmy, six-year-old boys, certain to convince them that there are books worth sitting still for. – Faith Brautigam, Director of Youth Services , Gail Borden Public Library District, Elgin, IL

Perfectly structured story, perfect mentor text for young writers, perfect chapter book for kids ready to graduate from JBJ and MTH but what ensures My Father’s Dragon a spot on my top ten is the love that oozes out of each page. No matter how many times I read this story, I simply can’t get over how much emotion is imparted with the use of the phrase "my father". Elmer’s adventures on Wild Island are told in such a way that I cannot help but imagine the book as a tribute to a man who must have meant so much to the author. A real testament to the power of parenthood. – Eric Carpenter

Two or three years ago I was tapped along with some other librarians to fill in at a local elementary school and read to a couple classes of kids while their librarian was gone.  The book that I was asked to bring along was My Father’s Dragon, since that was what the kids were in the middle of and they were already deeply engrossed in the story.  I, sad to say, at the time had never read the book.  So I picked up a nice new copy and headed over there.  I’ve rarely seen anything like it.  Class after class of third graders sat there, jaws literally agape, as I read from a book that was a good 60 years old.  Doubt you the power of a great story?  Look no further.  This title has a hold on kids that most folks would kill to achieve.

Bryna J. Fireside in Horn Book described the plot this way: "In the book, nine-year-old Elmer Elevator has learned from an old alley cat, whom he has rescued, that a baby dragon held captive on Wild Island needs to be rescued. The grateful old alley cat is sure that if Elmer rescues the dragon, the dragon will be only too happy to let Elmer fly on his back to anywhere he wishes. So the alley cat helps Elmer plan the rescue.  Elmer makes certain to take a variety of common objects along — comb and brush, six magnifying glasses, chewing gum, some rubber bands, two dozen pink lollipops — and purloins his father‘s knapsack to hold everything. The knapsack becomes a talisman, a cloak of protection for Elmer. And, of course, Elmer packs some food — twenty-five peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and six apples. When all his gear is safely in his father‘s knapsack, Elmer stows away on the boat which will eventually take him to the dangerous Wild Island.  There, Elmer encounters many animals — from a tiny mouse whose Spoonerisms will induce gales of laughter in young readers to two officious wild boars on the alert for an invasion. He also meets lions, tigers, and crocodiles who would love to eat him for lunch."  The story is told as one the narrator heard years ago, Elmer being the "father" mentioned in the title.

As Anita Silvey’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing tell us, new Vassar College graduate Ruth Stiles Gannett wrote the book in two rainy weeks.  Her stepmother was (and here’s where it gets confusing) Ruth Chrisman Gannett, "who had previously illustrated a Caldecott Honor Book and a Newbery Medal winner."  That Newbery winner was Miss Hickory, for the record.  She created illustrations for the book and Ruth Stiles Gannett’s future husband Peter Kahn helped create the maps of Tangerian and Wild Island.  Gannett the younger wrote two sequels to the book then never wrote any children’s books again.  Remarkable.

The book stands up over the years.  In Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, Nick Clark (director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art) says of the book, "The illustrations are absolutely delicious and really take the text into another dimension, graphically extending it.  Books are so important in conveying messages to children.  We may not fully appreciate the impact of a book until we are older, but there are things that we learn from our reading.  From My Father’s Dragon I learned that you have to use your noodle – and that the underdog can triumph in the end."

This was said another way in 1995 when Bryna J. Fireside wrote in the Jan/Feb edition of Horn Book, "The power of My Father‘s Dragon lies in the author’s assurances that while the adults in our lives can set things right some of the time, children will also become strong and clever enough to take care of themselves, and, when the time comes, will rescue their own children. In fact, one day, the child will become as powerful as the father."

It won a Newbery Honor in 1949, beaten by King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry.  I guess this post is a Newbery Honor kind of post today, isn’t it?

  • You may read the book here, if you would like to download it.
  • I experienced my own personal connection to this book last year when the author walked into my library.  Please note the date of the book’s publication.  My post on the moment is here.


The Saturday Review of Literature said, "This is without a doubt the funniest book that we have seen in a month of Sundays."

The New York Herald Tribune called it, "A true work of art."  Later it named it the best children’s book of the year.

Not much in the way of different covers of the years, I must say.  Just some tweaking here and there.

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There was a Japanese version of the book made into a movie called Elmer’s Adventure: My Father’s Dragon.  Unfortunately it is very difficult to locate online.  Instead, let’s just look at a cute kid who has the first chapter completely memorized. 



4346971743 2b8f7af296 m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)#71 A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (1999)
(#1)(#3)(#4)(#5)(#6)(#7)(#7)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#10)(#10) – 53 points

I’m a Snicket girl, loving the play with wit and words in this Series of Unfortunate Events.- Pam W. Coughlan (Mother Reader)

A wicked fun series, and this is where it all began. – Lenore (Presenting Lenore)

"You never love a book the way you love a book when you’re ten." – Daniel Handler (Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy)

For a while, it didn’t look like this book was going to make it onto the poll.  In the first half a month it wasn’t getting the right amount of love.  I was curious to see if it would pull through in the end and, as it happens, it did.  This pleased me since I have a special love of it.  Snicket is probably the only children’s author I went to see speak as a young post-college adult, prior to enrolling in library school.  By that point I was reading children’s literature on my own, without any real direction in my life.  I read the first few Snicket books in Powell’s on a lark and loved them, so after the publication of #4 I went and saw Mr. Snicket speak.  He was wonderful, and the crowd was reasonable if not excessive.  Later, when he would command entire buildings like the Union Square Barnes & Noble, I missed the early days of Snicketmania.  Ah, nostalgic me.

Library Journal described the plot in this manner: "This series chronicles the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children: Violet, 14; Klaus, 12; and the infant, Sunny. In Bad Beginning, their parents and possessions perish in a fire, and the orphans must use their talents to survive as their lives move from one disastrous event to another. Surrounded by dim-witted though well-meaning adults, the Baudelaires find themselves in the care of their evil relative, Count Olaf, a disreputable actor whose main concern is getting his hands on the children’s fortune. When Olaf holds Sunny hostage to force Violet to marry him, it takes all of the siblings’ resourcefulness to outwit him. Violet’s inventive genius, Klaus’s forte for research, and Sunny’s gift for biting the bad guys at opportune moments save the day."

In Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy (edited by Leonard Marcus) an interview was conducted with Daniel Handler, the face behind the Snicket.  The son of a man who escaped the Holocaust, Handler’s career as a children’s author began when his editor suggested (after reading an adult manuscript) that he write for kids.  The editor was Susan Rich, a woman we will now refer to as "Resident Genius" because I doubt that many editors would have seen the possibilities in Handler’s wordplay.  The ideas?  Not a problem.  "That’s what always happens to me: I have a clear idea for a story right away, and then as I’m writing it I find that it has more twists and corners than I knew."  He told his editor it would be a thirteen book series.  She told him he’d be lucky if he could publish four.

The charm of the series is well defined by Sandra Howard in the August 25, 2001 edition of Spectator. "As a child I had an invented other child that I used to enjoy pretending to be; she had a permanently wretched time, always cruelly treated, slaving away. I’m sure Lemony Snicket‘s constant exhortations to expect only the direst events to occur will have a happily morbid appeal and I found myself impatient to know how the orphans were going to get out of one scrape to be ready for the next. The tales are straightforward, no foe-defying magic, just companionable sharing of a disastrous state of affairs."

It’s probably not too surprising that the first book Handler bought with his own money was Edward Gorey’s The Blue Aspic.  He was in first or second grade at the time.  His other influences were explained to Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2001.  "Oh, I really loved the books by Edward Gorey. I really loved the books of Roald Dahl, and I just adored the books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who is not as well-known, but is just a terrific writer. She wrote ‘The Egypt Game’ and ‘The Headless Cupid’ and a bunch of really interesting books where children are forced to negotiate difficult but non-supernatural circumstances more or less all by themselves, and those were the sort of stories that appealed to me."  What with The Egypt Game appearing as #100 on our list, I thought that was a nice touch.

One of the charms of the series is the use of copious literary references.  In that same interview with Terry Gross, Handler said, "Well, they’re cared for by Mr. Poe. At one point, they fall into the household of Jerome and Esme Squalor, who are named after J.D. Salinger’s story of ‘For Esme With Love and Squalor.’ They attend Prufrock Preparatory School after the poem by T.S. Eliot. Yeah, they’re pretty much surrounded by the world of books."

You would expect that, with the state of the nation as it is, that the book would be banned.  Doesn’t seem to happen all that often.  In a May 29, 2000 issue of Publishers Weekly a rare instance was noted. "Obviously, the author’s knack for combining the dark with the droll has hit a nerve just about everywhere–except Decatur, Ga. There, a school canceled Handler’s scheduled visit because teachers objected to Count Olaf’s utterance of the word ‘damn’ in The Reptile Room. ‘Out of all the uses of this word in children’s literature, this has to be the mildest,’ commented a bewildered Handler. ‘And its use was precipitated by a long discussion of how one should never say this word, since only a villain would do so vile a thing! This is exactly the lily-liveredness of children’s books that I can’t stand. So now I can say, whatever happens in my literary career, they can’t take away from me the fact that my books have been banned in Georgia’."

  • The books are notorious amongst librarians for something far more insidious than the word "damn".  I think a lot of us can attest that after two reads the hardcover edition’s spine fades to almost nothing.  Doggone spines.  This series is the cheaply bound Manga of children’s hardcover fiction.  Beautiful binding.  Crummy longevity.


Booklist said of the book, "The droll humor, reminiscent of Edwin Gorey’s, will be lost on some children; others may not enjoy the old-fashioned storytelling style that frequently addresses the reader directly and includes many definitions of terms. But plenty of children will laugh at the over-the-top satire; hiss at the creepy, nefarious villains; and root for the intelligent, courageous, unfortunate Baudelaire orphans."

School Library Journal was slightly more optimistic when it wrote, "While the misfortunes hover on the edge of being ridiculous, Snicket‘s energetic blend of humor, dramatic irony, and literary flair makes it all perfectly believable. The writing, peppered with fairly sophisticated vocabulary and phrases, may seem daunting, but the inclusion of Snicket‘s perceptive definitions of difficult words makes these books challenging to older readers and excellent for reading aloud."

Said Publishers Weekly, "The author uses formal, Latinate language and intrusive commentary to hilarious effect, even for readers unfamiliar with the literary conventions he parodies. The peril in which he places the Baudelaires may be frightening (Count Olaf actually follows through on his threats of violence on several occasions), but the author paints the satire with such broad strokes that most readers will view it from a safe distance. Luckily for fans, the woes of the Baudelaires are far from over."

More covers exist for this first book than I had remembered.


4346971837 e16813b91b m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)


4346971799 0131159a12 m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)


And I had almost forgotten all about this fabulous series of the covers created to look like they were made in the 1960s.


4346971897 e1f1439889 m Top 100 Childrens Novels (#75 71)



Now I bloody blooming bleeping enjoyed the friggin’ movie of this, and I don’t care who knows it.  Does Jim Carrey chew the scenery?  Of course, Jim Carrey chews the scenery!  Do I care?  I do not care.  This was, in spite of this trailer I’m about to show you, a rather enjoyable little film.


We now know that Mr. Handler himself was hired to write eight drafts of the screenplay and then was fired. "But I have a policy that I can’t say anything nasty about a movie that bought me a house.” I say he should at least enjoy the credit sequence.


And while this video was made in conjunction with the last book in the series, it still applies to book #1.  And it’s remarkably, shockingly well done.  The song’s lyrics, however, are by Mr. Stephen Merritt and not Mr. Handler.  Or Mr. Snicket for that matter.


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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Lenore says:

    Yay! So glad Lemony Snicket made it on the list.

    I love those 60s covers too.

  2. Connie says:

    Daniel Handler’s quote about how you “never love a book the way you love a book when you’re ten” is so, so true. I suspect the placement of many of the books on this list has a lot to do with the age of the poster. That is certainly true of my enduring love for The Borrowers (and none of those other covers hold a candle to Beth and Joe Krush’s, do they?).

    Keep ‘em coming, Betsy – this is so much fun!

  3. Chrisin NY says:

    Yep- 10 was the magic age- although the big impact years could be stretched from 9-12 overall. Hurray for My Side of the Mountain. Another favorite book that translated from on generation to another in our family.

  4. rockinlibrarian says:

    I know MY number one vote first earned that position in my life when I was ten!

    Yesterday there weren’t any books on the list that made me exclaim with joy, and I was afraid today would offer a lack of exclaiming as well (though I really need to read My Father’s Dragon), then I got down to The Bad Beginning and said “Oh! never expected that would make it on here! Hooray!”

  5. Shelf-employed says:

    Every day I’m having a “Oh, why didn’t I pick that one?” moment. I didn’t pick any of these, but My Side of the Mountain and My Father’s Dragon are favorites of mine. In response to the earlier comment, some favorites may not have as much to do with the age of the poster as with the “connections” of the poster. I read My Father’s Dragon (1948)because a younger colleague suggested it to me. She, in turn, loved it because it was read to her by her father.

  6. Briar says:

    Oh, I am SO glad to see Love That Dog, which I should have picked. Just reading you writing about it makes me tear up. I love that Myers poem and I love her book. Deep, weepy love. But I was being a stickler for my own rules and choosing one book per author and decided to go with another…. Anyway, LOVING this whole fun thing.

  7. Laurie Halse Anderson says:

    The Borrowers made me into an author. So glad to see them on the list. I love Arrietty!

  8. DaNae says:

    I guess it is my job to thank Matt today for the idea. Thanks Matt, or inspiring your gifted wife and feeding my OCD.

    Is there something about verse novels that makes the premiere cover the standard?

  9. matthew says:

    I really wanted to put A Series of Unfortunate Events on my list, but it’s so hard to say which one is the best. As a whole, the series is up there with the Harry Potter Series, but it’s difficult to pick one or two out of the thirteen. So I didn’t put any of them on my list. Perhaps, I should have.

  10. Amy S says:

    Yeah for the Borrowers, wasn’t on my list but I loved it so much as a kid.
    My Side of the Mountain was one of the few books my sister not a big reader loved. My Father’s Dragon I somehow missed as a child, must not have been in my local library, but as a librarian it is often one of my go to recommendations for read alouds and young fantasy.

  11. Jess says:

    LOVE That Dog. Love it. These posts are sure wreaking havoc on my to-read list.

  12. JMyersbook says:

    And let’s never underestimate the power of the illustrator when it comes to helping kids fall in love with a particular book. Beth and Joe Krush rule! As a kid, after loving all of the Borrower books and Elizabeth Enright’s Gone-Away Lake books, I became such a Krush fan that just seeing their artwork on the cover of a book was enough to make me give that book a try.

  13. Melissa (Book Nut) says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one having “why didn’t I pick *that* one?” moments! So many good books.

  14. Eric says:

    somewhere out there on the interweb there’s a video of Creech, Myers and someone i’m forgetting doing a staged reading of Love that Dog. Can’t find it now but it’s worth hunting down.

    Fingers, toes, and everything else crossed hoping that this cover art wont be Steig’s only appearance in the top 100.

  15. Grier says:

    This is turning into a mixture of pleasant surprises, head scratching and torture. I check each day, wondering…will any of *my* books make the final cut? I won’t start losing sleep until we hit the top 20. Forget about quality literature, my competitive monster just wants to see my favorites represent. Of course (ahem) it’s all about the children.

  16. Amanda (A Patchwork of Books) says:

    I CANNOT believe I left Lemony Snicket off my own list. Kicking myself! I knew it would happen at least once with this list, hopefully it doesn’t happen again…

  17. Sondy says:

    Yes, it is worrisome to have none of my choices showing up yet. My #3 is not well-known, but for the rest, I’m hoping that just means they are high up there — They are too wonderful to be left out!

    That said, I’m so glad Betsy’s listing the top 100 — It’s so much nicer to include 100 books than only ten! Even the ones I don’t like, (Snicket!) I know people who loved them (my sons). Aren’t Children’s Books wonderful?

    And I have to say that MY FATHER’S DRAGON is a fabulous first chapter book to read aloud to very young children. It was perfect for that with both my boys, though I only became acquainted with it then, and hadn’t known it as a child myself.

  18. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    What age, Sondy? I just became acquainted with this as an adult as well.

  19. Tamara says:

    It was a big day in fourth grade–a Valentine’s Day party AND #75-71–where several of our favorite titles appeared! I wish you could have heard the screaming when my twenty-six 9 & 10-year-olds saw Love That Dog at the top of the screen! (I project your webpage with an LCD projector.) Then My Father’s Dragon AND The Bad Beginning!

    Of course, there have been days when none of “our” titles have appeared. On those days I read snippets of your descriptions of unfamiliar books as students furiously copy down choice titles in the “Books I want to read” section of their reader’s notebooks.

    Your list is introducing many amazing classics to a whole new generation of readers. Thank you!

  20. Stephany Hughes says:

    I found this list from the link on Jen Robinson’s blog. Thank you so much for going to all this work. I was not expecting such a feast for the eyes when I came over to your site. I loved looking at all the different covers. I lost count of how many times I smiled as I went through the list.

  21. Fuse #8 says:

    Wow! Tamara I am humbled. I’m so glad the kids are seeing some of “their” books. I predict they’ll be seeing even more as the list keeps coming out.

    This is yet another reason why I’ll be posting it only on weekdays, by the way.

  22. Genevieve says:

    So very happy to see Love That Dog! I somehow didn’t think of it, or it would’ve been a struggle as to whether it went on my list and what it would’ve displaced. And my son was quite happy to see it.

    Tamara, I love so much that you are going through the poll with your students. How I would’ve loved to have been in your class.

    My Boaz’s Ruth, depends on what age your child gets hungry for longer books. I think I read this to my son around four, maybe five. It was a perfect choice: not too long but much meatier than a picture book, gentle and not frightening but not dull. I think we read it a little before we started the Edward Eager books.

  23. Billy says:

    I love Sharon Creech, and I know I read “Love That Dog”, but somehow I don’t remember anything about it. I sure hope that “Walk Two Moons” shows up because that is her masterpiece. It’s a heartbreaker. “Absolutely Normal Chaos” is absolutely hilarious.

    I guess I never read “My Side of the Mountain” brcause I always hated “Julie of the Wolves” and never gave the author another chance. But many people over the years have told me it is wonderful, so I suppose I’ll put it on my to-be-read list. Oh, and I liked “Onion John”.

    “My Father’s Dragon” is such a sweet book. I’m glad that “King of the Wind” won the Newbery that year, though, its one of the better horse/exotic adventure books out there.

  24. RM1(SS) (ret) says:

    Two books here that I’d never heard of – Love That Dog and My Father’s Dragon. I’ve read The Borrowers and most of its sequels several times each, though.

    Wondering if The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf (perhaps the earliest book I remember reading), will make the list….

  25. Fuse #8 says:

    No, but only because it’s not a chapter book. Ferdinand came in at #11 on the Top 100 Picture Books Poll.

  26. Sara Saxton says:

    Being a Snicket fan I am sure you are aware of this, but Daniel Handler plays the accordion on occasion for Stephen Merritt’s band, The Magnetic Fields. Such charming collaborators! My favorite bit of Snicket trivia to pull out for folks.

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