The Real List of the Best Children's Books

Some books no child should go without.


By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Earlier today, my bloleague John Aloysius Farrell—picking up where the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof left off—posted here on Thomas Jefferson Street about the 10 greatest children's books of all time. My oldest child of four having just turned 20 years of age, I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable on the subject of children's literature. And, as Mr. Farrell invited others to weigh in on the discussion, I shall.

First and foremost, it is important to expose children to books that will hold their attention, especially when they are little. This requires the presence of at least one character with whom they can identify. And I can think of no better book in this regard than The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge by Hildegard H. Swift and Lynd Ward.

It is the story of a small Hudson River lighthouse that fears its usefulness is at an end once the George Washington Bridge, which towers over it, is complete. The book reminds us all that little things (and people) matter too. Best of all, while the story is fiction there really is a little red lighthouse in Manhattan that you can visit.

Because children love adventure, another book worth reading, or reading to them, is The Adventures of Monte and Molly by Darwin James Adams. It is the story, set in the 1930s, of mice imbued with human qualities that live alongside the people of New York City. They pool their funds to purchase a model of a luxury steamship from a travel agency so that they can enjoy a trans-oceanic crossing. Replete with vivid black and white and color illustrations, the story is a real page turner—if you can find a copy; published in 1938, it is long out of print—that would make an excellent project for Stephen Spielberg.

And speaking of Spielberg, there are few literary characters as compelling, at least for older children and younger teens, as Tintin, whom the master director is currently in the process of bringing to life on the big screen. A masterful comic book creation by the Belgian author and illustrator Georges Reme (known to his legions of fans as Herge), Tintin is an adventuring young reporter whose globe-trotting adventures have been translated into 38 different languages including Esperanto.

For older boys with inquisitive minds, and girls as well, what better introduction to the canons of mystery than A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? It is the first, if not the best, of adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective, as written by his faithful Boswell, Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. A ripping yarn, it combines solid deduction with, surprisingly to those of you who have not read it, a compelling story of love and revenge.

Finally, while I appreciate and endorse most all the selections made by Farrell and Kristof, I am aghast at the omission from both their lists of three of the greatest of all children's classic tales.

First is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, the template on which almost all adventure stories are based. A story of pirates, buried treasure, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal—did I mention the pirates—it is guaranteed to hold the attention of children while it is read to them and is a book they will go back to again and again.

Second is Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, another tale of friendship set in an America of long ago. I have yet to meet a child who didn't marvel, or try to replicate around chore time, the story of the whitewashing of Aunt Polly's fence in some fashion or another.

Third is Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, one of the foundation stones in the genre now called science fiction. First published in 1870, it is eerily predictive of the future in so many ways and yet the story of exploration, discovery, and, again, revenge and friendship, is certain to delight most any child. How they could have been overlooked is beyond me.

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