“Where’s Pa Going with that Axe?”
The Enduring Quality of Children’s Classics
By Anita Silvey
The opening line of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web— “Where’s Pa going with that axe?”—has now been read by adults to eager young listeners for more than 60 years. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day have been picked up with enthusiasm for more than 50 years. For 75 years, parents have shared The Hobbit, and this year Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are turns 50.
These books and others like them (Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables) bring generations together, allowing a parent or grandparent to return to a book that he or she read as a child.
What makes a children’s book a classic? On the surface, a very simple answer: any book that has moved on to the next generation 16 to 20 years from its publication date—if still read and in print—is considered a classic. Consequently, no instant classics exist, as many ads like to claim. Some of our bestselling books of the last 15 years, such as the Harry Potter series, have not been around long enough to be called classics. But although length of time in print defines a classic, certainly the qualities of the book itself are more important in making it possible for a book to become one.
Generally speaking, our classics include fascinating stories and characters. These books have a plot line that keeps children turning the pages to find out what happens. They contain characters that children want to get to know better—often ones that children consider their friends. Because adults buy books for children, our classics must please adults but also appeal to children. Like Charlotte’s Web, our classics are often distinguished by beautiful writing and expressive art. Rather than being mere surface stories, classics tend to have a more serious, but subtle, underlying theme or message that children can comprehend. When I recently asked an 11-year-old girl why she loved The Secret Garden, her favorite book, she said it “showed her that even if you are very sick, you can be healed by people and nature.” Most adult critics have not been so eloquent in summing up the idea behind this book.
But how do parents, caregivers, teachers, and grandparents find the classics that still work with children and the new books good enough to become classics? About three years ago, I set out to compile a list of around 500 children’s books, new and old titles, that had the ability to change’s children’s lives and that both adults and children love. The result, The Children’s Book a Day Almanac, can be found online at here. Every day in cyberspace I post an essay about one of these books, tied to a day of the year. In a sidebar, I also list other titles that can be used for events that happened on that day. The site provides an easy way for people to gain information about the best books to share with children, a day at a time. Now a paperback edition of The Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac is also available, for those who like to search for information on the printed page. The Almanac leads adults to books that they will enjoy—and ones that children have enthusiastically endorsed.
Another great resource for titles, ReadKiddoRead.com contains reviews of new books, many with the qualities that may well make them classics. There are also themed booklists available on the site to help adults find books for kids that focus on particular subjects, holidays, age levels. All of the books at ReadKiddoRead are selected because they are proven kid-pleasers, books that will ignite a passion for reading.
Reading research reveals that sharing a book with a child, 10-20 minutes a day, is the most important thing that can be done to guarantee a child’s later success. In adulthood, people mention not only the books that changed their lives but the people who shared them. If, during this Valentine season, you want to do something of lasting significance, give the children you love books and read those books to them. It is also a way for you to become part of their most cherished memories. Happy reading—whatever your favorite classic happens to be.
Begin with some of these classics:
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (Ages 9 and up)
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White; illustrated by Garth Williams (Read aloud: ages 5 up; Read alone: ages 8 up)
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein (Ages 11 up)
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virgnia Lee Burton (Ages 4-8)
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (Ages 3-6)
The Very Hungry Capterpillar by Eric Carle (Ages 3-6)
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Ages 4-8)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (Ages 9 up)
Anita Silvey writes and speaks about children’s books across the country. She is the creator of The Children's Book-a-Day Almanac and author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book.
For more great books you and your family can read together, visit ReadKiddoRead.com.