“Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.” L. Frank Baum. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
These words formed the start of L. Frank Baum’s introduction to his first novel in his Oz series, and he understood children very well. He was a prolific writer, producing 14 Oz books in total, 41 other published novels, 83 short stories and over 200 poems. The Wizard of Oz was adapted for film in 1939, and although the movie changed a number of things (in the book, the shoes of the Wicked Witch of the East were silver not ruby, for example, but Hollywood’s choice became iconic), it remains one of the greatest film classics in history.
I know many adults today who reminisce about how much the flying monkeys terrified them when they watched the movie as children, and there’s so much nostalgia for the entire film, from all the wonderful actors to the vivid sets and the magic of it all. Children’s literature has the power to enchant us, long after we’ve technically outgrown the category, and earlier this year the BBC ran a poll asking 177 experts – authors, critics and others in the publishing industry – from 56 countries to vote on what they considered the 10 greatest children’s books. Their answers were then scored and ranked to produce the Top 100 list. The results may, or may not, depending on your own personal preferences, surprise you.
The top 10 on the list are:
- Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak, 1963)
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)
- Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren, 1945)
- The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)
- The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937)
- Northern Lights (Philip Pullman, 1995)
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis, 1950)
- Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, 1926)
- Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White and Garth Williams, 1952)
- Matilda (Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, 1988)
The BBC has also posted articles with commentary from the various voters about why they made the choices they did.
Personally I’d never read Where the Wild Things Are, for example, until I saw the Top 100 list and took a look. I think it’s cute, and the illustrations are delightful, but I have no idea how I would have reacted if I’d read it in my childhood. I did read Alice in Wonderland, though, and loved it, but that’s the only book on the top 10 list that I was exposed to. I didn’t read The Hobbit until I was a teenager, along with Lord of the Rings, and immediately fell in love with both of them.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books didn’t make the top 10, surprisingly to me at least, as I think they’re wonderful stories. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came in at number 13, so it is pretty high on the list. However, since it was only published in 1997, none of the voters would have actually read it as a child, so they were voting from an adult perspective. The poll certainly had lots of limitations, and even a poll among children about their favourite books would only include a handful of books they’d already been exposed to.
But the point isn’t as much which books made the cut and in what order, as it is the impact that great children’s books continue to have on our lives. These books, from mostly illustrated to mostly words, introduced us to enchantment at an early age, and on top of that, studies have shown that reading books has quite a few other really important benefits – all for a single reason, that they create empathy in readers for the characters. Books are the only format that allow us directly into the minds of the characters, so we understand what they’re feeling and thinking.
In The Wizard of Oz, we’re introduced to Dorothy, a cheerful child living with two hard-working relatives who’ve been so worn down by the dry, cracked plains of Kansas that they’ve become just as tired and grey as the soil. Aunt Em has never known what to make of Dorothy’s laughter, and Uncle Henry never laughs either, always taciturn and stern. But the book goes on to tell us:
“It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.” L. Frank Baum. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
When Dorothy finally arrives in the land of Oz after a wild ride in the cyclone, she can’t believe all the wonderful colours, lush surroundings and sparkling streams of water – such a contrast to the drabness of life at home. But she still dedicates all her efforts to getting back to Kansas, telling the Scarecrow, “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”
Researchers have found that reading is not only a form of escapism but also an exercise in mental agility. Reading a novel improves brain connectivity and empathy, especially around language comprehension and sensation. For children, whose minds are still in the formative stage, reading books then becomes a critical activity to improve their brain’s responsiveness as well as their understanding of others. When we read, we embark on a journey with the heroine/hero, laughing as well as crying along with them.
You can see the entire Top 100 list on the BBC website’s Culture section, as well as the other articles associated with the poll. It’s a fascinating read. The Gruffalo, published in 1999 (long after my childhood), came in at number 57, and I had to look up what the heck Moomins are. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962), a book I did enjoy very much as a youngster, made number 34. I remember reading all of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales (number 12, so still a good ranking even today), but I also got into H.P. Lovecraft and some of the other writers who added to his world of the Elder Gods – quite eerie adult stuff not on the list at all.
The Narnia books didn’t make my reading list until I was well into my teens – I was never aware of them until that point. I read Gone With the Wind though, when I was nine years old; my mom loved the book and the movie, so one day I gave the book a shot. (It was a lengthy read and I much preferred the movie, to be honest.) I fell in love with another large book in my mother’s collection, though: Katherine by Anya Seton, set in England during the War of the Roses. Neither of those were children’s books, but my parents took me to the public library regularly, and I maintained a very eclectic reading list combining children’s literature, young-adult and adult.
Reading so much at an early age gave me a large and precocious vocabulary that impressed all of my English teachers (so, bonus!) and an ingrained knowledge of grammar that has helped me to this day. The things you learn as a child stay with you – let’s give children’s literature the credit it’s due and give children all over the pleasure and inherent education of reading. Check out the list and let me know what your favourite books were as a child.