When I first saw that BBC Culture were running a poll to choose the 100 Greatest Children’s Books, my first reaction was trepidation. I feared it would be a politically correct fiesta. No Roald Dahl, no JK Rowling.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Matilda (1988) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) all made the top Twenty.
Better still, so did many classics: Alice in Wonderland (2nd), The Little Prince (4th), The Hobbit (5th), Winnie-the-Pooh (8th), Charlotte’s Web (9th). What is extraordinary is how British (sic) and old-fashioned the Top 20 is. It’s an interesting mix of 19th century classics (five written between 1827-80) and mid-20th century (ten written between 1937-73).
The only surprise is how few are from the past 35 years: just four published since my oldest child was born in 1987. Only fourteen books published this century made it into the top 100.
Someone said, “Considered together they reveal how storytelling for children is evolving in exciting ways.” Actually, it doesn’t. What it might reveal is how old the judges are. Or, perhaps, when you have such a geographical mix of judges, some felt they should choose a few English classics they knew from when they were young amidst the titles they chose from their own country.
And why are there so many British titles? Is it because, from Alice and Treasure Island to King Rollo and the Ahlbergs, the British write the best children’s stories for all ages? Perhaps. More likely, it helps if nearly fifty judges are British. The countries with the next largest number of judges included quite a few Anglophone nations: the US (16), Canada (6), Ireland and Australia (4 each). It’s all very well having a French judge choose Tintin and Asterix books, but there were only two French judges and three Germans, two Russian and one Chinese. Inevitably, there was only one Israeli judge. This was the BBC after all. On the other hand, there were only two Palestinian judges.
The mix of female and male authors and characters could have been worse. Seven women authors (Astrid Lindgren, LM Montgomery, JK Rowling, Susan Cooper, Louisa May Alcott, Johanna Spyri, Margaret Wise Brown). I would have chosen Joan Aiken and Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain, and my daughters might have chosen Jacqueline Wilson and Judith Kerr, but it’s a pretty good list. As for the female characters: Alice, Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Anne of Green Gables, the March sisters from Little Women, Heidi (and what about Hermione from JK Rowling’s books and Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web?) were evidently popular choices among the judges.
The obvious surprise is how white the selection is. Shaun Tan, the son of a Malaysian-Chinese father and an Irish-Australian mother, is the only author of mixed parentage in the top 20. Otherwise, much of this list could have been compiled in the 1950s. As for the characters, there are more witches, wizards and hobbits in the top Twenty than there are black or Asian characters.
Also surprising is how few classics there are from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost no one voted for Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe or Huckleberry Finn. Treasure Island got one vote, Kidnapped two. The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and Frances Hodgson Burnett are just too Edwardian, it seems.
More curious, perhaps, is the consensus among the judges that the real golden age was the mid-20th century, the heyday of CS Lewis, Tolkien, Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte’s Web and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (the overall winner). I found this curious. Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s, I thought it was a pretty grim period for children’s books, at any rate compared to Long John Silver, The Three Musketeers, Jekyll and Hyde, and, when I was younger, the gentler pastoral world of Ratty and Mole and Winnie the Pooh and Piglet.
By comparison, my family and I loved the late 20th century golden age of Meg and Mog (1972), Each Peach Pear Plum (1978) and The Jolly Postman (1986), David McKee’s books about King Rollo and Elmer, the deeply moving Michael Rosen book, Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss (2002) and John Burningham’s Granpa (1984). Then when they were older: Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker books (1991-2019), David Almond’s Skellig (1998), Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006), Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) and, of course, JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, which changed everything.
Two final personal regrets. First, where are the poets? No Edward Lear or Michael Rosen, no Ahlbergs or Dr. Seuss, no Gargling with Jelly or Sandra Boynton (Moo, Baa, La La La).
And, second, what about the vanished and doubtless very incorrect world of Dr. Dolittle, Babar the Elephant, Biggles and Jennings? All gone. As remote as Tutankhamun. Gone, along with all the pirates, knights and musketeers.
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