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Top 100 Children’s Novels (#12)

#12 The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien (1938)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4) (#4)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#6)(#7)(#7) (#7)(#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#10) (#10) – 207 points

I didn’t read The Hobbit until high school, but it’s a book I wish I had been introduced to at a younger age. Ten seems just about the perfect age to make the acquaintance of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and to enjoy the gorgeous poetic prose that meanders like a river through Tolkien’s minutely crafted Middle-earth. While Lord of the Rings is by far more profound and epic, it’s also a more difficult read. The Hobbit is the place to start, both to acclimate to Tolkien’s musical writing and to get the invaluable background needed to enjoy LOTR later. – Beth Priest (Endless Books)

I loved The Hobbit so much as a child that I couldn’t get through The Lord of the Rings, because I was angry that Bilbo wasn’t the main character. – Rachael Vilmar

I discovered The Hobbit on a shelf of books at the library when I was in junior high, and I picked it out and read for myself without anyone’s recommendation or guidance. I was a Tolkien fan before I knew that Tolkien was cool, then un-cool, then cool again. In other words, I’ve remained faithful to my hobbits for almost 40 years. And I’m feeling old when I say that. – Sherry Early

Probably my favorite book kid or adult, reading it has remained a pleasure throughout the years – and there are quite a few years for me. – Pam W. Coughlan (Mother Reader)

I grew up with Tolkien in the house, thanks to my father. Like many of my favorite books, I don’t remember the first time I read it. Moments of the story simply exist in my mind, as if they had always happened: Bilbo trying to clean up after a hoard of dwarves in his home, sneaking around Smog’s cave, telling riddles to Gollum to save his life. Bilbo’s tale is simply a great adventure. – Sharon Thackston

And you were afraid it wouldn’t show up on this list.  Silly readers.  Note that a whopping thirty-three people all agreed that it was one of the best novels for children of all time.  It stands up.

The synopsis from Amazon reads, "‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’ The hobbit-hole in question belongs to one Bilbo Baggins, an upstanding member of a ‘little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves.’ He is, like most of his kind, well off, well fed, and best pleased when sitting by his own fire with a pipe, a glass of good beer, and a meal to look forward to. Certainly this particular hobbit is the last person one would expect to see set off on a hazardous journey; indeed, when Gandalf the Grey stops by one morning, ‘looking for someone to share in an adventure,’ Baggins fervently wishes the wizard elsewhere. No such luck, however; soon 13 fortune-seeking dwarves have arrived on the hobbit’s doorstep in search of a burglar, and before he can even grab his hat or an umbrella, Bilbo Baggins is swept out his door and into a dangerous adventure. The dwarves’ goal is to return to their ancestral home in the Lonely Mountains and reclaim a stolen fortune from the dragon Smaug. Along the way, they and their reluctant companion meet giant spiders, hostile elves, ravening wolves–and, most perilous of all, a subterranean creature named Gollum from whom Bilbo wins a magical ring in a riddling contest."

In Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children I discovered a veritable treasure trove of information about this book.  And while I’d love to just lift the whole passage hook line and sinker, I will endeavor to hit only the highlights.

Where did the book come from?  Well, like many fine books on this list, Mr. Tolkien had a tendency to tell his kids stories about Bilbo.  He’d already written about Middle-earth in The Silmarillion so it wasn’t hard to continue in that world.  Once a publisher showed interest, Tolkien was asked to illustrate the book himself, so he did, creating two maps and the runes.  "Tolkien had even hoped that some of the lettering on the map would be printed using ‘invisible ink.’ However, the publishers found this idea too expensive, and, eventually, the map – with all the letters completely visible – appeared a the front endpaper."

The craziest thing is that Tolkien went back and changed The Hobbit years later when he was finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy that would follow.  Chapter Five or "Riddles in the Dark" (the Gollum chapter) got a few changes.  Good luck finding the earlier edition then!

Now part of the reason that Allen & Unwin decided to publish the book in the first place was because Mr. Unwin gave the manuscript to his son Rayner Unwin to read.  In a 1987 edition of Reading Time in the article "The Hobbit 50th Anniversary", the younger Unwin recalls this experience.  "On 30 October 1936 I had just supplemented my pocket money by reading and reporting on the manuscript of a book called The Hobbit. My father believed that children were the best judges of children’s books and one shilling was his standard fee. I liked this particular book, and although my report was not a model of perceptiveness (I conceded, with the superiority of a 10 year old, that the book ‘should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9’) it was good enough to ensure publication, and the reader’s fee was probably the best investment my father ever made."

  • Wish you could live in a hobbit house of your very own?  Well now you can.  No fooling.

It’s fun to read reviews from when the book was first published, particularly because of how they view Gollum.  He is referred to as a "lake monster" one moment and an "absurdly comic monster" the next.  Little did they know.

It seems a bit unfair that the Times (London) review of this book was written by C.S. Lewis.  It’s not as if he and Tolkien weren’t buds, after all.  Though anonymous at the time, it has later been attributed to him.  So Lewis then said of the book, "The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology. On the edge of a valley one of Professor Tolkien’s characters can pause and say: ‘It smells like elves.’ It may be years before we produce another author with such a nose for an elf. The Professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity which is worth oceans of glib ‘originality’  . . . For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown-ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funniest to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic."  Well predicted, Mr. C.

Said The New Statesman and Nation, "Professor Tolkien is saturated in Nordic mythology: so saturated that he does not rehash this mythology and serve it up at second-hand, rather he contributes to it at first hand: and thus his wholly original story of adventure among goblins, elves and dragons, instead of being a tour-de-force, a separate creation of his own, gives rather the impression of a well-informed glimpse into the life of a wide other-world; a world wholly real, and with a quite matter-of-fact, supernatural natural-history of its own. It is a triumph that the genus Hobbit, which he himself has invented, rings just as real as the time-hallowed genera of Goblin, Troll, and Elf."

The Junior Bookshelf said of it at the time, "The Hobbit is a strange book. It has in it the makings of a very good story, or perhaps a book of short stories for children, but it is marred, in my opinion, by some reflection of the author’s attitude to the world. A sort of ‘Aunt Sally’ spirit replaces the benevolence which is notable in the most loved books for children. Instead of natural obstacles in the path of achievement, the journey of the Hobbit and his companions is interrupted by obstructions which somehow give the effect of deliberately intentional setbacks and not of natural developments . . . While making these criticisms, I must also say that there is a strong sense of reality in the writing and real distinction, and that those people who like it, will like it very much indeed. They will enjoy the involved plot and the rather frightening scenes and the ogre-ish atmosphere of much of the story."

The New York Times said, "Boys and girls from 8 years on have already given The Hobbit an enthusiastic welcome, but this is a book with no age limits. All those, young or old, who love a fine adventurous tale, beautifully told, will take The Hobbit to their hearts.

Looking at one of the covers, I never really realized the extent to which Artemis Fowl stole the idea of mysterious runes/words along the edges of paper in a book.

And while these cannot possibly be all the foreign covers out there, it does make for a nice sampling.




(If I’ve learned nothing else in the course of today’s post, it’s that the Russians love The Hobbit.  Or at the very least, they like to repackage it regularly.)


(If it looks a little Moomin to you, that’s because this edition was illustrated by Tove Jansson.  You can see the interior illustrations of her edition here.)

There will be a new filmed version of The Hobbit out in theaters someday.  This much we know.  And now I rise and lay claim to the already existing cinematic version of The Hobbit.  Damnable thing, but I loved this movie as a kid.  Rankin-Bass and all and still I can sing you some of the songs.  Their Gollum was GREAT.  No question.  Just the right level of creepy.  And the voices?  John Huston as Gandalf and Hans Conried (I have a Hans Conried fetish, so this is a plus for me).  And yeah, the Wood Elves were bizarre and the plot shortened, but I still love that friggin’ movie.  I’m not going to watch it again anytime soon, but as a kid I used love it so. It’s just so . . . so . . . so 70s!

And for your nightmares . . .

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. 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 EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. David Ziegler says

    Hooray! Gotta love that Gandalf and Bilbo, and still feel sorry for the Gollum. Not quite in the top ten, but close enough! A classic I’ve always enjoyed with a wonderfully developed world. And a prequel that set up a wonderful trilogy that translated into a great series of movies.

    I have a solid list of 11 that could be the final entries and yet, to quote Han Solo: “I have a bad feeling about this.” I feel like surprises are lurking, and can’t wait to see what they are!

  2. Monica Edinger says

    Didn’t vote for it, but so glad to see The Hobbit make the top 20. People lump it in with LOTR and then think it is not a children’s book, but it SO is. Used to read it aloud to my 4th grade class (last time was when the LOTR movies came out), but haven’t lately. “Riddles in the Dark” has got to be one of the best chapters in any children’s book to read aloud.

  3. Ed Spicer says

    I am betting I have a pretty solid top sevxxx, er, six now. At least until number eleven appears.

  4. YAY for the Hobbit…I love this books so much more than LOTR. Starting to worry Anne of Green Gables is going to get shut out.

  5. Mr. Grumpy says

    Ahhhhhh my Hobbit!!!!!
    I don’t hold out any hope for my Tom Sawyer or my Treasure Island, but with one out of three–at least now Mr. Grumpy will finally get a good night’s sleep.

    For all other male lurkers out there–in a show of solidarity–feel free to chime in with your approval.

  6. Christopher Harris says

    You know it is a great book when you are not looking for the title itself, but rather for the editions that you treasure to show up in the post.

    But wait….Where is The Annotated Hobbit cover? That was my first introduction to the idea of marginalia and the conversation that takes place between the author and a reader (as evidenced and explained by the annotator).

    Nice write up for a wonderful story.

  7. Well, there goes my Top 10. I’m thrilled that it made it to the top 15 though.

  8. My Boaz's Ruth says

    The Hobbit is NOT a guy book. It’s an everyone book. We read the Hobbit in 8th grade and I LOVED it. Not so fond of the Lord of the Rings (I prefer the movies) but the Hobbit is really fun and would have been on my top ten list if I hadn’t forgotten it. I even know what I would have kicked off and rearranged to make room for it.

  9. Gotta re-read this one, in addition to all the new reading this poll has added to my list!

  10. Genevieve says

    Hooray hooray for The Hobbit! I knew it had to be here – so glad to see it so high.
    I was one of those kids who read LOTR over and over again, and slogged through The Silmarillion for the gorgeous and sad stories of the gods and near-gods, and played games where I cried “A Elbereth Gilthoniel!” to ward off the enemy, and such. We read The Hobbit in a special reading group in 5th grade, and had a terrific time – someone planned a party where we all had to arrive at the door at specific times, to mimic the Unexpected Party where Gandalf cleverly has Bilbo accept a huge group of dwarves into his home by insinuating them in one by one. And we ate seedcake! (poppyseed, though I read later that British seedcake usually had caraway seeds, which I can’t stand, so I’m glad we weren’t authentic.)

    Tolkien created such a complete and rounded and layered world. I love that he created the language first and then a world to go with it. I love that this gentle and funny back-story led into the much darker and deeper LOTR, but the seeds of it are all here.

    I love when he links this fantastic world with ours with humor, taking us out the story for a minute: ““Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

  11. I’m in awe of your cover-finding abilities! Seriously! But I can’t believe you don’t have the cover of my copy — I thought it was THE cover.

    Seriously, I’m so glad this showed up this high on the list. One of my all time favorites — along with LOTR.

  12. I take it all back about the cover — it’s at the top. (blushes in shame).

  13. Genevieve says

    Betsy, you’re not the only one who watched the movie . . . though I remember the LOTR movie(s) better, with the cheesy “Frodo, of the Nine Fingers, and the Ring of Dooooom,” and “Where there’s a whip , there’s a way.”
    With the fabulously bizarre lyrics:

    Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.
    Where there’s a whip, there’s a way.
    We don’t wanna go to war today,
    But the lord of the lash says nay, nay, nay! [I always thought this was hey hey hey, as if the Orc was Fat Albert]
    We’re gonna march all day, all day, all day,
    Cause where there’s a whip, there’s a way.

  14. Rachael V. says

    I too love the 70’s movie. While I’m cleaning up the kitchen, I often break into a spontaneous, “Chip the glasses, crack the plates, that’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!”

  15. My brother is very fond of singing “Where there’s a whip there’s a way”. For some reason, of all the Rankin & Bass hobbit songs, that one’s the catchiest.

    Thought about including the annotated cover. Couldn’t figure out if it should count since it wasn’t The Hobbit proper. So it got left off, alas.

  16. The best things about hobbits: meal times every other minute.

    Monica – I’m going to take your advice and read that chapter to my second graders next week for April Fool’s fun.

    Now if only 11 can be the book I need it to be, I am set for my predictions.
    Sara, don’t be silly Anne will be in the top 3.

    Now it’s elevensees and time for cake.

  17. Oh, I did and do so love The Hobbit. As a kid, I liked it much better than LOtR, which makes sense, since it was a children’s book and LOtR wasn’t. A lot of the books on my Top Ten list, I read much later in life. But I read The Hobbit in 4th grade and remember arriving at school and having to stop right when Bilbo was at Smaug’s lair. I’ve read it many, many more times, and it never fails to delight.

    DaNae is right. Anne will be at least #3. She was my #1, and I think there are a lot more of us kindred spirits who voted the same way.

  18. Brian Floca says

    Now here’s the first book where I felt that I’d fallen into another world, more wonderful and interesting than my own. Between middle school and Middle Earth, there was no contest. Glad to see it here. And I love those Tolkien drawings — no razzle-dazzle, and such a part of the world he created. The green cloth cover is my favorite. So many covers are made out of fear of not being interesting or busy enough. This one trusts you. Look, it says, there’s so much in here, we can’t show it all to you, and we’re not going to cheapen this book by trying. There are mountains and a dragon, all right? Isn’t that enough? Just start reading.

  19. Carl in Charlotte says

    I say, “Hooray for the Hobbit” along with everyone else. And thatnks for that Leonard Nimoy video. It’s so…so..60’s! I had that album as a young teen and thought LN was a cool singer. Little did I know. Think I still have that album somewhere. Have pulled it out at parties. Not good for the eardrums but good for the bellylaughs.

  20. OK, OK already! I’ll reread this darn book. I hated it the last 3 or 4 times I tried it but maybe it’ll be different this time. I hated it at 13, 17 and early 30s. I’m pleased that it didn’t make the top ten at least. I’ve always loved fantasy but this one just never appealed!

  21. Can you get Brian Floca to comment on every post?

  22. Julie Jurgens says

    At a recent conference, I was allowed to hold a “First edition, 2nd impression” of The Hobbit that survived, in a warehouse, the bombing of London. It was amazing. It’s located at NIU, if you’re interested in doing the same (because they will allow you to touch it!)

  23. Joan, don’t feel bad. I hated the Hobbit too and can’t even bear to try LOTR. But I’m also the only children’s librarian on earth that didn’t like Harry Potter, so maybe I am the weird one. I read Sorcerer’s Stone and felt no urge to read the rest of the series.

  24. DaNae, if I could I’d make Brian Floca my very special co-blogger. Something tells me he wouldn’t want to quit his day job, though.

  25. Oh, I may have lost track, but there are three of my books that haven’t been mentioned yet. One surely fell off the bottom. The other two must be coming!

  26. Mandaladreamer says

    I was also unimpressed by the first Harry Potter, so you are not alone. And I only read The Hobbit once all the way through (as a kid). I’ve read the beginning many many times though just because I loved the description of Bilbo and his house. Reading this today made me want to try it again, but I have to have a copy with Tolkein’s illustrations, not this awful Michael Hague that I’m holding in my hand…

  27. Oh hooray! I am so absolutely delighted to see the Hobbit here (though it means more rearranging on my top ten). Today happens to be my bday, and I was really hoping that a book I particularly loved would show up in honor of the day. The Hobbit fits the bit spectacularly!

  28. Dear God, did I forget to vote for this?! Noooooooooooooooooo! (In my mind’s ear… is that a real phrase?… I heard Gollum’s scream of anguish at his lost ring when I wrote that.)

  29. Brooke Shirts says

    Very happy to see this book — and the clip from the movie! Now I’ve a hankering to re-watch it, along with The Return of the King, The Last Unicorn, and maybe even The Flight of Dragons. Characters drawn with as many skin wrinkles as possible RULE.

    I agree with the other comments: “Where There’s a Whip” has to be the goofiest pseudo-disco fantasy film song ever made.

  30. Isn’t that Sean Connery narrating the very beginning of The Hobbit movie? Wow.

  31. rockinlibrarian says

    Aw, drat not getting to comment until the end of the day, I feel left out of the conversation…

    Anyway, I am one of those people Monica mentioned, who went and lumped this in with LOTR as not-a-children’s-book and so never expected it to be here, even while other people kept predicting it. I myself actually didn’t read it until 8th grade and I at first just stared blankly at my enthusiastically-recommending mother, thinking, Seriously, I’m supposed to be interested in a book about a fussy middle-aged man (albeit a very short man with hairy feet)? A few pages later, and I forgot that I thought I wasn’t supposed to be interested, distracted as I was by, well, being interested.

    Plus, it’s the gateway drug to LOTR, and my son is named Sam, which is not a coincidence. So, important book. My second very happy surprise of the top twenty!

  32. GraceAnne says

    I always require my YA lit students to read The Hobbit, and over half of them usually hate it. It always astonishes me. I remind them that fantasy for young people as we read it now would not exist without The Hobbit, but most of them do not care. It’s very strange. This book is so beloved to me, and stands behind so much of what I teach. I am quite happy to see it here.

  33. Donalyn Miller says

    The first chapter of The Book Whisperer is titled, “There and Back Again”– a nod to this book and my love for it.

    I am concerned that my “short list” for the next eleven spots has twenty titles on it. Time to make some hard choices!

  34. David Ziegler says

    I responded so early, and semi-grogily, that I missed seeing the Leonard Nimoy clip. Bless you Betsy for including it – what a blast from the past!

  35. Constance says

    I didn’t think of this but it would probably be in my top 25, and it certainly was very influential re family catchphrases. My mother read the Hobbit to me when I was in 2nd grade so in 3rd I marched into the library to check out the Fellowship of the Ring…and scared myself silly. I also thought Merry was a girl hobbit because I had recently read a Carolyn Haywood with a Merry heroine. Still, I love them all, especially the constant meals in the Hobbit!

    Is it too late to submit my guesses for the top ten or is the deadline Monday?

  36. RM1(SS) (ret) says

    Richard Boone as Smaug….

    When I was 11, or thereabouts, I had a book which included the first chapter of The Hobbit; a couple years later my sister bought the recently issued Ballantine editions, and I read my way straight through Hobbit and LotR. Loved them!!

    That last cover for Khobbit (by Dzhon R R Tolkin) looks mighty familiar – is that a Hildebrandt painting?


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