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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Shooting Off (on) the Canon

eb-white-honor-silverI’m no bookstore employee, so my interest in the Indies Choice Book Awards, voted on exclusively by booksellers, is one of curiosity more than anything else.  These awards, for example, determine the E.B. White Readaloud Award winners as well as which book will be included in the Picture Book Hall of Fame (nominees are all available to view here).  Now when I first saw that the nominees were up and running for 2017 I zipped on over to the site to see who was up for contention.  Let’s see . . . The Inquisitor’s Tale has a chance at the middle grade category of the E.B. White Award, good good.  And on the picture book side I see When Green Becomes Tomatoes. Excellent.  And finally in the Picture Book Hall of Fame there are lots of good books.  Boy, it would be a tricky choice. Freight Train or Millions of Cats? Tar Beach or Tuesday? Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears or . . . . wait . . . Tikki Tikki Tembo?

I was surprised, to say the least.  You may as well nominate The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchet Bishop and If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss at that rate.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  That book is catchy as all get out, and I’ve many a fine memory of reading it as a child.  But to nominate it now in the 21st century knowing now, as an adult, how offensive it is?  Well, I was a bit flabbergasted.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one.  Jacqueline Davies has a long piece on the ABA site that lays out in a systematic way the problems with the title.  Grace Lin offered her own perspective on her blog too.

But like it or not the book is still very much a part of the landscape of books for kids.  For personal reasons of my own I’ve been thinking a lot about this “canon of children’s literature” particularly those books of the picture book variety.  I’ve thought long and hard about what it is that makes a book stick around for decades and decades and decades.  Awards help but they are by no means the only way a book remains memorable.  For reference I looked to my two polls conducted back in 2012.  One concerned the top votes for the 100 Picture Books list and the other the 100 Children’s Novels.  Both lists were almost uniformly white, with a couple exceptions, and I wonder if I conducted the poll today if I’d get better results.  But most of all, I think about those books that persist in the American consciousness.  What makes a picture book part of the canon at all?

So here’s my question for you today, and it’s a simple one.  If you could remove any famous picture book from fame, what would it be? I’m not saying that the book would be unavailable or out-of-print or never exist at all.  It just wouldn’t end up on Summer Reading Lists.  Now play fair with me.  You can’t say The Giving Tree, or Rainbow Fish, or Love You Forever.  Those are books for a different discussion on a different day.  I’m just wondering what books folks aren’t as keen on anymore but that somehow bob up and down in our awareness unexpectedly.  Please note that someone is probably going to mention a book you adore.  Let it go, man.  It’s Spring.  Time for a little housecleaning.


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. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    The first three that sprang to mind, before I got to your “play fair” note, were honestly The Giving Tree, Rainbow Fish, and Love You Forever. But I’ll play fair and remove Babar the Elephant from circulation. Give it a read and you’ll see why.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      That’s the sequel with the . . .uh . . . yeah. I get what you’re saying.

  2. It’s not a SUPER famous title (although the series is) – and I wouldn’t suggest removing the entire collection, but THE BERENSTAIN BEARS AND THE BULLY should absolutely stop being printed, sold, shared, and read. The violent visuals, the lack of parent/educator intervention, and the abrupt ending are beyond repulsive and bordering insanity. I’m rather flabbergasted as to how this ever got published even in the 1970’s.

  3. Sometimes it is uncomfortable to be 71 years old and to look back on my teaching career and remember certain books that my students and I loved. One that I clearly remember is Five Chinese Brothers. Today I think about the hidden perceptions and ideas my students may have absorbed from that story and feel sad. However, I am also very grateful, that as time passed, others began to talk about these books in ways that increased my awareness and understanding.

    • Safranit Molly says:

      Judy, I’m only 41 and I have the same regrets about books I’ve shared and insensitivity I’ve been guilty of in my career. Teaching is such an awesome responsibility. I can only take comfort in knowing that I have approached each year with love and openness. Like you I feel grateful to the voices that have raised my awareness and caused me reconsider my assumptions. We evolve. I hope that my willingness to evolve and to “do better” absolves me of some guilt of the past.

      As far as books I wish would disappear, I agree about Babar! I also have some increasing discomfort about the Skippyjon Jones book. I haven’t weeded them because it feels like censorship. But I never recommend or promote them either.

  4. Liz Mabey says:

    This discussion reminds me of the way Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney reimagined “Little Black Sambo” into “Sam and the Tigers,” an absolute gem than anyone would be proud to love and share. I especially appreciated the notes they each contributed to the update. How long before someone can do the same for “Tikki Tikki Tembo?”

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      This ties in nicely to Judy’s mention of The Five Chinese Brothers. I believe it was Grace Lin who reimagined that story as The Seven Chinese Sisters and a nice book it is too. Tikki Tikki Tembo is probably still under copyright and won’t be available for an official reimagining for quite some time. Still, it’s a cool thought.

  5. Laura Wylie says:

    I’d have to go with Curious George. I can’t stand seeing George get stolen from the jungle by the man in the yellow hat and put on a boat.

  6. theresa Malone says:

    Yes to 5 Chinese Brothers and would add Ping. And agree Babar would get the boot if I had a few votes.

  7. Kathy Smargiassi says:

    I hated Babar when I was a kid but didn’t know why. At least now t hat I’m an adult I know why.

    I would remove “Chicka Chicka, Boom Boom” because the rhythm keeps changing so I can’t read it aloud flowingly.

    I recently re-read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and was floored at the parallels between the Oompa Loompas and slavery. I know, Gene Wilder and all, but really?