And So On, And So On

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Every month, my public library puts out a list of the most popular authors – those whose books have circulated the most. After reading blackcountrylibrarian’s post on the topic, I looked into our most popular children’s writers – and promptly found they were all writers of series books.

Top 5 Children’s Novelists:

  • Geronimo Stilton (series said to be written by the mouse character)
  • Daisy Meadows (author of Rainbow Magic)
  • Mary Pope Osborne (author of Magic Tree House)
  • Jeff Kinney (author of Wimpy Kid)
  • Rick Riordan (author of Percy Jackson)

When I was a children’s librarian, the public library tolerated series books, believing they would serve as a bridge to better quality books. A kid might get hooked on Goosebumps or The Babysitters Club, and go on to read something worthwhile! And reading a series builds children’s confidence and enjoyment in reading.

As a voracious reader, I spent my childhood reading series books as well as stand-alone books and I enjoyed the mix.

I know now that my childhood (1960s and 1970s) was at the tail-end of the post-war era, before the explosion of children’s and teen publishing. The books that were promoted to me by parents, teachers and librarians were mostly written between 1900 and 1960, before I was born. It was assumed that every new generation would benefit from the classics, which taught lessons about how to live. At a minimum, they were entertaining and inoffensive.

Before I went on to teen and adult fiction, I read through scores of children’s series. This is not a recommended list, as you’ll see afterwards!

(in order by year, first publication date noted)

The first Miss Pickerell book

The first Miss Pickerell book

Sci-Fi and Fantasy

  • The Fairy Books (Blue Fairy Book, Red Fairy Book, etc.) – Andrew Lang (1889)
  • Oz books – L. Frank Baum (1900)
  • Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers (1934)
  • Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren (1945)
  • My Father’s Dragon – Ruth Gannett (1948)
  • Narnia – C.S. Lewis (1950)
  • The Borrowers – Mary Norton (1952)
  • Miss Pickerell – Ellen MacGregor (1951)
  • Mushroom Planet – Eleanor Cameron (1954)
  • Mrs. Pepperpot – Alf Proysen (1956)
  • Danny Dunn – Jay Williams (1956)
  • The Moomins – Tove Jansson (1965)

Sleuthing

  • Hardy Boys  – Franklin W. Dixon (1927)
  • Nancy Drew – Carolyn Keene (1930)
  • Trixie Belden – Julie Tatham / Kathryn Kinney (1948)
  • Encyclopedia Brown – Donald J. Sobol (1963)
A Bear Called Paddington

A Bear Called Paddington

Animal Adventures

  • Dr. Dolittle – Hugh Lofting (1920)
  • Winnie the Pooh (maybe too few to be called a series) – A.A. Milne (1924)
  • Paddington Bear – Michael Bond (1958)
  • Cricket in Times Square – George Selden (1960)
All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind Family

Family Life

  • Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (1868)
  • Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
  • The Twins (The Dutch Twins, Swiss Twins, French Twins, etc.) – Lucy Fitch Perkins (1911)
  • Little House – Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)
  • The Shoes books (Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, Theatre Shoes, etc.) – Noel Streatfeild (1936)
  • All-of-a-Kind Family – Sydney Taylor (1951)
  • Beezus and Ramona – Beverly Cleary (1955)
  • The Great Brain – John D. Fitzgerald (1967)

So what were my life lessons from all of these books?

Reading is fun. Meeting the same characters each volume of a series is like meeting an old friend. You want to read about the same kids in different situations. What would they get up to next?

Growing up is to be avoided. The adults in the books were one-dimensional, benign, incompetent or absent. Mostly loving, but still. They really just served as the “home base” for the kids’ adventures. I understand that adding a well-rounded adult character to a formulaic children’s book just wouldn’t work! But no one would ever want to become one of the parents (or housekeepers) in those books.

A very mature Anne

A very mature Anne

Girls become wives and mothers. No matter how feisty the heroine, they settled down into domestic life. Sometimes kicking and screaming, but they had to accept their lot. I was so disappointed to read the sequels to Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and The Little House in the Big Woods only to find that the lead characters just became…women. I wasn’t averse to becoming a spouse or a parent myself – I just didn’t want Anne or Jo or Laura to. What boy book would ever have the hero grow up, go to work and become a dad? (Well, OK, Adrian Mole!)

Foreigners are not like us. They talk funny (Sai Fong in Cricket), or need to get their Blackness bleached away (Bumpo in Dr. Dolittle). No less for people of colour in our own countries: “savages” attack you instead of willingly giving up their territory (Little House on the Prairie); and people of African descent bow down to you (Pippi Longstocking). As a child, I did all my reading independently and never had anyone to discuss these things with. I hardly knew anyone of a different skin colour or nationality, and it didn’t serve me well to have these series books focus on negative differences and humiliating behaviour.

Finally, a positive life lesson. Like every child sleuth and child scientist in training, I learned to look for evidence, stop and think, draw conclusions, and formulate answers to big questions. No matter how chaotic your life is, or what influence you may or may not have, you can observe your surroundings and know the truth. Thank you to Trixie and Danny and all my other smart and sensible book friends for that!

Warriors by Erin Hunter

Warriors by Erin Hunter

Postscript:

I was fortunate to have two grand opportunities to revisit children’s books. When I became a children’s librarian, I re-read hundreds of books (including revised editions) and read hundreds of new ones, updating my knowledge of the whole children’s publishing field. Then, when my own child was born, I had the chance to introduce all the books I loved as a child. And did I? Not much. By then I was aware of so many new and wonderful books that most of the old gems seemed irrelevant. Link enjoyed some older stand-alone titles, such as The Search for Delicious and The Phantom Tollbooth, and newer fantasy series like Warriors (clans of cats!) and Guardians of Ga’hoole (evil owl kidnappers!) How could Joe and Frank Hardy or Ramona Quimby compete?

I do strongly believe that kids should read anything that keeps them interested in reading. Parents, grandparents, teachers and others should certainly share their favourites. In fact, all children’s books, especially older titles, are best shared because then you can explain why the characters behaved as they did, and how the world has changed. But keep an open mind about new books…if you haven’t met Greg Heffley or Molly Moon, maybe you and your kids will love them!

What were your childhood favourites? Did you (or will you) share them with your children, grandchildren, or students?

41 comments

  1. I definitely would also have included Pippi Longstocking and Beverly Cleary’s books on my list, too. One of my absolute favorites, though, is From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. So good! I’ll be buying this one for my niece in another couple of years!

  2. “From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” – this was one of my favourites too! Plus Pippi Longstocking, The Bobbsey Twins, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Haunted Cove…oh so many. I was a permanent fixture at our local public library when I was a child. I still love children’s/teen’s books and have read some of the Warriors series, the Otori trilogy, Mr. Tiger goes Wild (love the illustrations)…

  3. I loved the Famous Five and Secret Seven series of books, and longed for the adventures they all had. I spent most of my childhood outside (we lived on sort of a farm) and so I’m glad to have read anything as my parents were not book readers. As a teenagar I spent a lot of time catching up with the Classics.

    I didn’t have any notions about what to let my children read – I took them to the library and let them choose.

    • Enid Blyton books were available when I was young, but they weren’t popular in our area, except among British parents who already knew them. Instead I read all the E. Nesbit books – loved them! (Treasure Seekers, Five Children and It, Railway Children)

  4. EcoCatLady

    For a person who doesn’t read much as an adult, I actually enjoyed it as a kid. It was so much more fun before it became a “should”. But anyhow, there was series of books about witches by Ruth Chew that I utterly LOVED. I also, of course, loved the Little House books, the Narnia books and the Great Brain series – partly because my best friend was Mormon, and I always felt an affinity for the non-Mormon kid surrounded by the believers.

    CatMan, on the other hand, was busy reading things like The Boy’s First Book of Radio and Electronics! :-)

  5. Some of my childhood classics were the same as yours, some different. The lessons, however, were the same. Didn’t stop me enjoying the reading.

    I too got to read children and young adult fiction later in life as a teacher librarian. My later lesson was that some of the politically incorrect earlier fiction was more enjoyable as it was narrative driven rather than thematic driven. And there are the bleak genres of post-apocalypse and of unloved and abused children and of drug use, which are the stuff of nightmares. Z for Zacharia gave me nightmares, as did The Chrysalids. What about Go Ask bloody Alice? No wonder I kept retreating to the Little House series.

    • Since most of the books I discovered were written so long ago, I guess I expected the views to be antiquated, so it didn’t stop my enjoyment of the stories either. I do remember the slew of teen “problem novels” and the really bleak children’s ones like Where the Lilies Bloom. I am happy that the authenticity of Go Ask Alice has long since been discredited, but it was definitely the stuff of nightmares. Probably scared some of us even further away from drugs, though :)

      • Never read Where the Lillies Bloom but quick Google suggests it is much like Sonja Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs in being about a poor and marginalised family I read it as a teacher librarian and it gave me nightmares. (Hartnett is an Australian author. Sleeping Dogs also had extreme domestic violence.)

        I’m another Enid Blyton fan. Dreamed of camping trips on bikes with lashings of ginger ale, just like the Famous Five. Way past the “appropriate” age, I read the Magic Faraway Tree and sequels. And loved sharing them with my sons. They loved the Faraway books. What’s not to love about an imaginary world on top of a tall tree – even if sometimes the world was scary and you weren’t sure if the children would get down in time. That was also nightmarish! In a fantasy world way, not a nihilistic or end-of-the-world way.

      • I hadn’t heard of The Faraway Tree series.

        I think Australia has the ultimate teen dystopian author, John Marsden. To be honest, I haven’t read his books because I was afraid to!

  6. I loved Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, but my absolute favourite was Enid Blyton. Her Famous Five and Secret Seven books have left me with a love of picnics, Cornish caves and cosy mysteries! My children didn’t take to her books at all (despite my best efforts) but Tess loved and collected the Animal Ark books of Lucy Daniels, which I thought were pretty awful. Tess is now doing a PhD in eighteenth century poetry so I’m all for letting them read what they like!

    • I wasn’t drawn to the Blyton books but loved E. Nesbit and her “successor” Edward Eager. Link always preferred fantasy with a lot more action in it. I remember Animal Ark!

  7. Deb

    I am trying very hard to read down the house but . . . My husband keeps bringing home “found” books. We have a little exchange going on at the post office where we can leave books we are finished with and pick up new books for free. It is great to live in a small community.

    • Hi Deb, I must confess to bringing home 2 library-discard books. In all fairness, I will have to read them by year-end to meet my challenge! I love the idea of your book exchange.

  8. Fiona

    I loved all the Secret Seven and Famous Five books. Weirdly I also used to fanatically read the Readers Digest in mid-primary school (mostly the “Drama in Real Life!” Section.)

    But my absolute favourite was Doctor Who. I still feel happy at the memory of the sheer thrill of waiting to get the next book in the series…and the excitement of finding a new one to read!

    • I haven’t thought about Readers Digest for ages. I liked lots of the columns but especially the vocabulary quiz (geeky me).

      I remember having shelves upon shelves of Dr. Who paperbacks at the library – they were wildly popular!

      • Fiona

        Oh yes! The Vocab Quiz. I forgot about them but I used to love them! And “Laughter is the Best Medicine”…lol!

    • My grandmother subscribed to Reader’s Digest and I would catch up on back issues whenever we visited her house. “Drama in Real Life” was my favorite!

  9. What a great job!! My son had some friends over and one who worked part-time in a local bookstore at college asked “whose are all those books you have upstairs?” All of ours is the answer, as all five of us love to read. My favorites in elementary school were the endless series of books on the boy version of a future leader or hero = “Young Abraham Lincoln” for example. I read about everyone they had. Since I was a sports nut, I would read a great deal about sports heroes’ biographies and how they came to be who they are. And, we did read Pippi Longstocking, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, etc. Thanks for the memories. BTG

    • Hi BTG, I remember those “Young Leader” books. When I was writing the post, I realized that reading biographies of successful adults probably counterbalanced all the ineffective adults in the series books I read. I read a lot of biographies of scientists and authors. Thankfully, they gave me the idea that adults work for a living and make a contribution to society.

      • In my country where we show how not to act as an adult on TV – via the various housewives of (insert city), faux reality shows and now arrogant, narcissistic realtor shows from NYC and LA – we need more ways of showing how we are supposed to act. This lack of civility is one of the greatest dangers to our country, as it permeates everything.

      • Could not agree more for both of our countries.

  10. I think my daughter has influenced my reading more than me hers! She got me Into reading Kate di Camillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and Edward Tulane books, also Birchbark House, and a whole bunch of the American Girl historical books. I was enriched by all of them!

    • I have read the Despereaux book but not the Tulane ones. The Birchbark House was one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but a very necessary one, to balance the historical settler novels. I’ve read tons of stuff that Link recommended to me as well – I agree it works both ways!

  11. I agree…that Josephine March conformed was a disappointment to the extreme. She was built to be strong, to be an adventurer or a pioneer. But, no…I love some of those books on that list though. I was an Enid Blyton girl when I grew up…the magic faraway tree was the best!

  12. I loved books about the war and the depression in high school, and prior to that, I can’t clearly recall what I read. I know there were Babysitters Club, and similar ‘trash’. I also read Roland (sp?) Dahl, and Judy Bloom.

    I agree that fictional characters should continue to live unconventional lives. I couldn’t believe the (very much not a children’s book) that the 50 Shades of Grey series had her marry. Surely that’s counter intuitive to the promiscuity and experimentation. Surely exploring other relationships would have been as interesting as all the bondage etc was!? Who knows…

    • I’m sure that E L James is writing a new trilogy about a new character with another sexual preference which will become the latest trend, don’t you think?

      • Agreed! I didn’t realise a new series was being written, but I think you’re right!

      • I was only guessing – I just read that she may continue the same series (?) At the library, all the 50 Shades readers have gone on to read the Sylvia Day series (Bared to You, etc.)

  13. My parents introduced me to some of their favorite mystery series (Basil of Baker Street and Trixie Belden) which we read together, but I don’t remember them specifically encouraging me to read any one book. I also loved Ramona, the Little House books, and the Babysitter’s Club. I haven’t read most of these books in more than 15 years though, so I can’t comment on their portrayal of adults, girls growing up, etc.

    I’ll definitely read aloud to my kids and recommend books, but I’m fine with them choosing books once they’re old enough to express a preference. (I often hated books I was required to read for school simply because I was being forced to read them, so I really appreciate that my parents didn’t push books on me and I want to do the same when I’m a parent.)

    • I forgot about Basil – I liked that little fellow, too! He must have been a forerunner of today’s mouse detectives.

      I am all for encouraging and recommending books, but it’s liberating for them when kids can choose their own.

  14. My book list when I was a kid looked much like yours. I read every sleuthing book I could find along with all of the same lifestyle books as well. I think those books were a great foundation for reading which I still love to do today!

  15. Lane

    I have a lot of overlap with these lists, too. I remember my first reading of M. L’Engle’s Time trilogy ( I was in the 6th grade when A Wrinkle in Time came out– blew my young mind!). I loved Rumer Godden’s Miss Happiness and Miss Flower in the 4th grade and ever since– has everything–being different, acceptance, ideas of home, wonderful pictures. I tried making many of the components of the Japanese dollhouse described. My Side of the Mountain– a wonderful story of a young lad living on his own in the woods. So many books, still!

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