What Makes Great Children’s Literature Great?

April 22, 2019 Updated: April 22, 2019

When it comes to reading great children’s literature, I’m making up for lost time. I was not a voracious reader as a child, and my parents, though interested in our education, left it up to the schools that my siblings and I attended. They read to us at home when we were younger, but it did not endure as we became more active outside. We enjoyed the happy luxury of being young at a time when children could safely roam the countryside with friends for hours.

I am now a parent, homeschooling my own daughter, and enjoying the equally happy luxury of introducing her—and myself—to many great works of children’s literature. Led by other parents who have trodden the path before me, I have the pleasure and responsibility of curating my child’s literary world. And it is an immense and delightful world.

Children’s literature may be written off at first glance as not serious literature. It resides in the more colorful and potentially sticky section of libraries, which adults have outgrown. But, it only takes a moment of reflection to realize there is more to it than its entertainment value or ability to lull a toddler to sleep.

What Makes It Literature?

The word “literature” can refer to anything from leaflets and printed matter to all the works written for others to read. Among its definitions, Webster includes, “Writings in prose or verse, especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” I think we can all agree on this.  Mainly, I’m thinking about novels here.

Likewise, when I think of literature for children, I think primarily of longer fiction and exclude those shorter books that are meant for reading through in one sitting. However, there are always exceptions, as we shall see.

What Makes It Great?

Literature, to be great, whether written for juvenile readers or for adults, must be well-constructed. The writing must be good, not just technically but also crafted with a clarity of expression that elicits image, action, and emotion in the mind of the reader. It must be enjoyable to read and continue to please upon repeated readings.

A truly great work of literary art will draw the reader into the world of the story, rather than leaving him as an observer. The story involves a complexity that makes this world and its inhabitants believable and multidimensional. This world must reveal organic unity so that it not only makes logical sense but also involves multiple layers, nuance, and even surprise.

It will invite the reader to grapple with universal human problems, ideas, feelings, and experiences. Ultimately, great literature (and great art of any kind) puts the reader in contact with the good, the true, and the beautiful, even if it has to be teased out through contemplation.

What Makes It Children’s?

“A Little Girl Reading,” 1900, by Johan Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. (Public Domain)

This may seem obvious because we generally know when a work is for children, as opposed to adults. But when you try to put a finger on it, you’ll find there’s more to it than just bright pictures or happy tales about kids. Just as I did, all the book-loving parents I consulted had to make a second attempt at this distinction. Much discussion helped us focus on those things that truly matter in distinguishing a work as children’s, versus general, literature.

It is often the case that a book written for children will have children as the protagonists. But, they may also be animals, as in “Charlotte’s Web,” “Black Beauty,” or “Wind in the Willows.” Characters might also include mythical creatures, as is the case in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” What is crucial is that human adults are not the primary actors and the story world is not the real-life world of adult concerns.

I might mention, as contrast, a book in which the protagonist is a child, but which is decidedly not a work of children’s literature: Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist.” The point of view is that of the boy, Oliver, but the world is one of adult issues.

Another thing that distinguishes children’s literature from adults’ is that, while it must contain enough complexity to be interesting, it will be scaled down to the developmental level of the target audience without being trite. The themes should never be about matters inappropriate for children. The vocabulary may be more accessible to younger readers. This is somewhat relative, however, as may be noticed when older children’s classics are considered alongside even adult books of today!

While a great work will usually bring about growth in the young reader, those that become favorites are neither pedantic nor didactic.  The author gets down to eye level with the child reader. What child would wish to open a book just to find another adult telling them what he must do and think? Children want to have adventures, contemplate great thoughts, and yes, be entertained—just as adults do. These are all possible in a truly good children’s book.

Can Children’s Literature Be Great?

The greatness of some children’s books is apparent at the time of publication, but it is only confirmed over time. As the reader grows older, the book still speaks to her. It stands up to many readings (a mercy when parents are called on to read it again and again to children), remaining fresh and enjoyable each time. The title will remain beloved over many generations. A book that contemplates perennial human issues will always speak to us.

Some works of children’s fiction that have remained universally beloved over time include Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” The “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, “The Jungle Book” and “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” and Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  The list could go on and on. And on.

Though I originally limited my definition of children’s literature to novels, several books and authors demanded exception. A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” is truly a poetic, philosophical work that touches even adults with wonder. Robert McCloskey combined his illustrations and stories in picture books (“Blueberries for Sal,” “One Morning in Maine,” and others) that tenderly capture very real moments of childhood and seal them in the hearts of the children and adults who have read these books.

Another anomaly among great children’s books is the series of “Freddy the Pig” books by Walter R. Brooks. In addition to people, the characters include talking animals. The writing is masterful. The plots are dizzyingly complex. The missing element is that there is a complete lack of grappling with big ideas. Yet, I can’t bring myself to drop them from the list. What they lack in philosophy, they make up for in comic genius. Brooks is the P.G. Wodehouse of children’s literature.

Time Will Tell

Not every book that makes a splash at the time of publication will endure. I consulted the list of all Newbery Medal winners (from the first in 1922) and noted that I was not familiar with the majority. They may have spoken to the voting committee of their time, but they failed to remain in the hearts of readers over the long haul.

A better indication of the best children’s books is parents who grew up with them and are looking forward to reading them to their children, not only to share them with the child but also to enjoy them again themselves. Great books never really get old and, in fact, can be enjoyed by adults, even without sharing them with children.

The parents I canvassed on this question described those books they would consider great, or classics, using phrases such as “perennially interesting,” “made a big impact,” “stood the test of time,” and “get more from it with each reading.” It is much the same with adult classics, but all the more remarkable that they can be both formative for a child and also meaningful to an adult.

Popularity Isn’t Always Reliable

There are some books that endure and are enjoyed readily by children for several generations but are not particularly great. These often come in long series of non-sequential books, like Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Children mysteries, or the Famous Five series. The writing is simply not the stuff of greatness. They are not bad, but they are merely formulaic entertainment. A fun read. They don’t hold up because of their greatness, but because children with voracious reading appetites must be fed books continually!

Other good books sometimes fall into neglect as well. They may go out of fashion for a time and become hard to find. I am astonished by the number of wonderful books I have discovered through friends that I had never heard of! The Swallows and Amazons series is an example. First published in England in 1930, it has remained a favorite in the UK but did not have as big an impact in the United States until recently.

The Future of Great Children’s Literature

There is no reason to worry that the output of truly great children’s literature will come to an end. There are many promising new authors whose books meet the qualifications and are gaining a following among children and their parents. Kate DiCamillo, as an example, has been writing books since 2000. Her stories “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” and “The Tale of Despereaux” are just two of her moving novels.

Another new author within the same timeframe is Grace Lin. Her “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” for example, is a masterful feat of storytelling. Woven through with Chinese folklore, and elegantly written, her books seem to be from a former era. Her illustrations are worthy of framing. I suspect they will have a lasting impact as well.

I’ll close with the words of a wise, book-loving friend who contributed to the discussion distilled here: “Great books become a part of who the child is and of the scaffolding which helps the child understand his or her world, to grapple with human nature, and divine nature, and the big, important questions that children are just beginning to be aware of.”

Susannah Pearce has a master’s degree in theology and writes from her home in South Carolina.

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