A FEW YEARS AGO in a city that will remain nameless, a children's librarian, a professor of children's literature, and I, representing writers, were invited to appear on a local TV program to talk about children's books. When the three of us met at the studio an hour in advance as ordered, we were each carrying a large canvas bag full of our favorite books. The production assistant was horrified. There were already books on the set, she explained. There would be no room for those we had brought. "But we don't know what books you have out there," we protested. "How do we know there is anything that we want to recommend?" Reluctantly, she allowed each of us to dip into our enormous bags and choose two books to take onto the set with us. Seconds before we were to go on the air, we met the handsome host. As the lights blinked, he leaned toward us, smiling benevolently. "I just want you to know," he said, "that I have five children, and I'm an expert on children's books."
You can guess the rest. During the 15 or so minutes we were on the air, the three of us were hardly allowed to complete a sentence, while our host waxed eloquently on about Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and a raft of dictionaries, photo essays, and cartoon books cashing in on the Star Wars boom. The only reason I was able to mention any book at all was that during an audience call-in period, someone asked if there were any books of poetry especially for urban children we could recommend. Apparently, poetry was not our host's forte, so in the one-second pause, I snatched up the copy of Eloise Greenfield's Honey, I Love which I had brought to the set and shoved it at the nearest camera, which may or may not have been on.
Now I have four children, but I am not an expert, real or imagined, in the field of children's literature. I am a reader who, given the one-second opening, snatches up books I care about and jams them into the nearest conversation. My long-suffering friends and startled acquaintances have had everthing from Jacob Bronowski's The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination and Shusaku Endo's Silence to Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Brave pressed upon them in recent months. The category in which I read most extensively is adult fiction, and in the past year I have gone back to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad as well as gloried in new books by Mary Lee Settle, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler and Anita Desai. It is, therefore, with high standards indeed that I go to that branch of literature which is children's fiction. For the child reader, like the reader of any age, has a right to books that provide, in the words of Frances Clarke Sayers, "the shattering and gracious encounter that all art affords."
It is a constant marvel to me that in the world of vapid TV sitcoms and Star Wars coloring books, so many works of true artistic merit exist. I know they do because I have read them and my children have read and reread them. When I talk with Virginia Haviland and Peggy Coughlen at the Library of Congress, I realize with a pang how many more there are that I have not yet had a chance to read. And yet there are, apparently, many literate adults who are unaware of this wealth. In the December 1, 1980 issue of The New Yorker , in an article about children's books, the writer says: "There are . . . loads and loads of good books for young children below ten, let's say--but unhappily, there is a dearth of interesting stuff for children who read fluently but are not yet adolescent: those who in an earlier time would have been reading Little Women or Treasure Island . The simplest explanation for this is that such books are difficult to write. As one editor said to me, 'We have only one Charlotte's Web because there is only one E.B. White.'"
Although Charlotte's Web belongs on any list of the great children's books of the century, the good readers I know had read it several times over well before their 10th birthdays. Fluent readers of 10 to 12 can read anything the average adult can. Their tastes may not include elaborate discussions of suburban adultery, but, in many ways, they are the ideal readers--intelligent, capable of deep feeling, and eager to collaborate imaginatively with the writer. A number of gifted authors have recognized their worth as an audience. In fact, the scope of this article will not permit me to include nearly all the titles I would like to thrust upon you. But better, I suppose, a few titles with the hope that you will seek them out, than so many that you won't take me seriously.
Granted that even in one family tastes differ, still there are several books that all the Patersons would like included in this article. Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain and Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisbie and the Rats of NIMH , both of which were first read by one of the children and then, on his urging, by the rest of the family; Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins , a Robinson Crusoe story which captures the emotions as well as the imagination; C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe along with the other six volumes of the Narnia Chronicles, all of which were read both aloud and privately.
In the rich world of fantasy, it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea and the other two books in the Earthsea Trilogy would lead the family list, but we would also include Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time , Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three , and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising . And then there are those marvelous books that hover on the border of reality: Jill Paton Walsh's A Chance Child , Elizbeth Pope's The Perilous Gard , Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe books, and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting .
Writer's of children's fiction are often persons deeply steeped in another field of learning. Esther Forbes, whose Johnny Tremain was mentioned earlier, is a Pulitizer Prize-winning historian. Jean Craighead George is a naturalist, and her books, including Julie of the Wolves , carry the authority of her knowledge without losing narrative power. Rosemary Sutcliff is so at home in the world of ancient Britain that it bursts to life in The Shield Ring and her other books set in this unknown time.
For realistic fiction set closer to today, my daughters, along with thousands of perceptive young readers, would plump for Lousie Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy to lead off this list which bulges with such disparate favorites as Jane Langton's The Boyhood of Grace Jones , Eleanor Cameron's A Room Made of Windows , Vera and Bill Cleaver's Where the Lilies Bloom , Sue Ellen Bridger's Home Before Dark , E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler , as well as Molly Hunter's extraordinary A Sound of Chariots and the electrifying Annerton Pit , by Peter Dickinson. All of these are worthy to share the shelf with The Secret Garden and The Yearling , my own favorites as a child.
There are a number of books hard to pigeonhole but nonetheless unforgettable, such as Virginia Hamilton's Arilla Sun Down , Laurence Yep's Dragonwings , Julia Cunningham's Drop Dead , and Fritz Muhlenweg's Big Tiger and Christian .
There is no way to finish this list. I must simply stop, almost drunk on the memories I've called up, while many of you who are reading this article are out there crying hoarsely, but she forgot . . . but where is? And, of course, you are right. Even before this goes to press I will be upbraiding myself for my ommissions as well as my ignorance. Let me suggest for those of you whose appetite is whetted that you order the Library of Congress publication The Best of Children's Books, 1964-1978 which is an annotated bibliography of 1,000 titles culled from the Library of Congress annual children's book list. It is available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Goverment Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402 and costs $4.
Meantime, I shove these particular titles into the public eye, not with the hope that experts will ever be converted, but because these are books written for the young in which I and mine have found "the shattering and gracious encounter that all art affords." It is an experience I feel compelled to share.