Recently, my sons and I enjoyed the unique pleasure of losing ourselves for a few nights of bedtime reading in a compelling children’s book, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker (2010). The book, a richly imagined historical novel set in 1914 Missouri, has as much to tell us about history, community, and early 20th century America as any I’ve read in recent years (while packing a serious supernatural punch at the same time). Sometimes we literary scholars or critics treat children’s books as, if not less serious than adult writing (and often it is this as well), then at least entirely distinct from such works. Whereas the truth, to my mind, is that all books are on a shared spectrum, both of greatness and of what we can learn from them about both our own lives and our broader communities.
So for this post, I wanted to highlight five other great children’s books, and to think a bit about what each can teach us:
- Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900): Best known as the inspiration for the beloved 1939 film, Baum’s book—the first of more than fifteen Oz books he would publish over the next two decades—is far stranger, and far more linked to American society and politics, than its film adaptation. The Populist movement, the debate over the gold and silver standards, images of agrarian and urban life, and the possibilities and limits of utopian ideals for American society all play a role in Dorothy’s surreal journey from Kansas to Oz and back again. Baum’s world and book are certainly fantastic, but as with most of the best fantasy writing, The Wonderful Wizard has a great deal to tell us about our real world and its histories and communities as well.
- Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939): Burton’s picture book has the youngest audience of the five I’ll highlight in this post—and proves that even children’s books for very young audiences can and do connect meaningfully to historical and social contexts and themes. In Burton’s case, the backdrops of both the Great Depression and of the increasing urbanization and mechanization of American society help push Mike and Mary Anne out of the city and toward the small town of Popperville, a somewhat nostalgically imagined community that is not without its own prejudices and that Mike and Mary Anne help continue to grow into its own more prosperous future. Children might come for the construction vehicles and the beautiful illustrations, but they’ll come away with a moving glimpse into a historical moment that continues to echo into our present society.
- Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix (1957): Ormondroyd’s mythological adventure story is by far the least well-known of the five books on this list, and I’ll admit to my own personal and nostalgic motivations in including it: it was the first chapter book that really impacted my youthful imagination, and as a result the first I read to my sons as well. But Ormondroyd’s charming story, in which young David meets the mythic title creature, is introduced to a world of legend and story by him, helps him defeat his arch-nemesis The Scientist, and then watches him meet his inevitable fiery fate and rise anew from the ashes, has a great deal to tell us about the vital role that myths and stories can play in our lives and society, the need to protect them from those who would lessen their power, and the simple yet crucial act of seeking imaginative adventure in our own backyards.
- Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game (1978): Raskin’s multi-layered puzzle of a novel is a mystery and a thriller, full of humor and whimsy yet chills and suspense as well. She gives young readers enough clues to figure out where the mystery is headed, and an ending that pulls together all of her threads marvelously and makes us want to return to the start and begin rereading immediately. As such, The Westing Game taps into and amplifies skills of reading and analysis, critical thinking and problem solving, that will benefit her readers far beyond the pages of the novel. But the triumph of Turtle Wexler, Raskin’s youthful protagonist, over her many competitors in the “game” is also a lesson in independent thinking and escaping the limits of social expectations and norms. All ways in which the most fun book on this list is also an instructive and inspiring read.
- Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007): This one might seem like cheating, as Alexie is a prominent and acclaimed novelist and activist, and Diary his one foray into children’s books (or young adult novels, to be precise). Yet none of those broader details change the fact that Diary is a young adult novel, one written in a style and voice that will engage and speak to teenagers and pre-teens about the kinds of issues and challenges (bullying, acceptance, family, depression, body image, and more) specific to those ages. But at the same time, Alexie’s book offers one of our best cultural representations—in any genre and artistic medium—of 21st century Native American life and identity, an originating and defining American theme that has become newly resonant over the last year with the Standing Rock protests. Which is to say, teenagers are far from the only American audience who will find much of interest and much to learn in Alexie’s sad and beautiful book.
I’m so glad that there is a place at the American Writers Museum for children’s books, a vital and sometimes under-appreciated part of the American literary tradition!