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Rebecca Serle

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Top 10 Classic Children's Books

Posted: 10/26/10 01:43 PM ET

I often lament that new picture books don't get read because the classics hold up so well. It's a ridiculous complaint because, um, the classics hold up so well. Am I really all up in arms about there being excellent books in existence? Hmm, better revise.

Instead of trying to introduce you all to new titles (and authors!), I thought this week it might be fun to settle down with the old familiars. I get asked a lot what books I recommend for a nursery, home library, etc., and I always tell parents to start with what they loved as children, what they want to share, and broaden out from there. I talk a big, current game but the truth is, the classics are important. They are what made us fall in love with books to begin with. So, after much thought and deliberation (and a fair bit of hair-pulling) I give you my top 10 classic children's books. Yes, just 10.

A few caveats, before we begin:

  1. In order for it to be deemed a "classic," the book had be published at least 40 years ago.
  2. I included picture books in the list, but not Young Adult novels. That's another list, for another time. Hint: it probably involves a lot of Judy Blume.
  3. These are all books I loved as a child.

I didn't make the narrowing process too easy on myself, as you can see.

Enjoy! And please share your favorite classics in the comments section.

"From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E. L. Konigsburg

Who could forget Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid and their adventures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? I re-read this one this year for the first time in over a decade, and it was just as funny, smart and engaging as I remembered.

"The Runaway Bunny" by Margaret Wise Brown

I realized that I did not have this book in my childhood collection anymore and bought it for my mother this past Christmas. We both bawled like babies when we read it again. No other author has topped what Brown does so well: capturing the pure, unconditional love of a mother for her child.

"Eloise" by Kay Thompson

The little girl at the Plaza still delights readers right along with "Fancy Nancy." I love that she hasn't lost her shine on the bookshelf. My favorite "Eloise" book is probably "Eloise in Paris." I bought it at the infamous Shakespeare and Company on a trip to the city of lights a few years ago, and I think it's one of Thompson's best.

"The Story of Babar" by Jean de Brunhoff

One of the things I love about "Babar" is how increasingly complicated the story got the older I became (that's actually one of the things I love about most children's literature). The little elephant as a platform for French colonialism? Perhaps.

This article by Adam Gopnik is one of the best critiques I've come across and is definitely worth reading.

And here is an interesting link courtesy of Betsy Bird from the Babar exhibit at the Morgan Library.

"The Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner

These were the first books I remember being really, totally, flashlight-under-the-covers hooked on, but what made them really special was that I read them with my dad. There are 19 originals written by Warner and over 100 others based on the story about four children who, after the death of their parents, run away and begin an independent life in an old, abandoned boxcar.

"Frog and Toad" by Arnold Lobel

This was the book I learned to read on and what foreshadowed my eventual love of "The Wind in the Willows." Frog and his friend Toad's simple, thoughtful adventures provide a wonderful foundation for any beginning reader.

"The Tale of Peter Rabbit" by Beatrix Potter

I was lucky enough to visit Potter's home in the lake district of England a few years ago, and it was all I could do not to get back on the plane with a Peter Rabbit monogrammed suitcase. I love this book and everything that has come from it. Readers continue to be delighted by Potter's rendition of the child -- mischievous, explorative and just a little bit naughty.

"The Borrowers" by Mary Norton

I, appropriately, borrowed this book from my best friend in the first grade and never gave it back. Bethany, if you're reading this, I have your copy! "The Borrowers" is the story of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of houses and borrow from the occupants. I may have tried to pull up a plank or two because of it.

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It's impossible to have a list of classic children's literature and not include Burnett's masterpiece. There are eight million things I could say about this book (I once wrote a thesis on it, actually -- the garden as the metaphor for childhood, deep stuff) but it's a brilliant work that I hope generations of readers continue to fall in love with.

(Because my list could only spotlight ten books [who was it who said that a man may break rules but a great man breaks all rules but his own?], I must include "A Little Princess" under Frances Hodgson Burnett's name. It's still one I read regularly.)

"Amelia Bedelia" by Peggy Parish, Illustrated by Fritz Seibel

I can remember my best friend's mother reading "Amelia" out loud to us in an exaggerated British accent. These books made me laugh. They made me roll on the floor laughing. I shared an Amelia Bedelia book with a group of students a few weeks ago, and it had the same effect (British accent was brought along, obviously). I find the new ones by Herman Parish to be lacking something, but it could just be that I'm a sucker for the originals.

Well, that's it, folks. I plan to do a top-ten picture books list as well as a top-ten young adult novels list over the coming weeks, so stay tuned. There are, of course, many more classics, and I'd love to hear what you all loved as children. Comment away!