You might be forgiven for wondering what planet we’re living on when
you read kids’ books today. Often it seems that excitement only comes
from big things, big people, and exotic places, which can make you long
for the books of our youth: Harriet spying on the grocery clerks;
Peter winning Dribble the turtle at a birthday party;
the Great Brain’s latest swindle. The books that were popular for
the under-10 set in the ’70s and ’80s seemed …different.
The reading we did when we were
young just seemed that much more
vivid and more embracing than the
reading we do as adults.
There are good reasons for that,
says Deirdre Baker, a professor
of children’s literature at the
University of Toronto. “A lot of
what you read and come across
is discovery for the fi rst time.
It has that joy of discovery and
involvement.” When we are young,
we don’t yet have the patterns of
literature truly down pat, so there
are no clichés, no tired plot twists or
overused adjectives. Everything is
new; every story is fresh.
Deirdre notes that reading is
something we introduce to our
children, and, while the books that
we read and loved may not be the
greatest literature ever to emerge,
our interest in those books will
register with our kids. Introducing
them to our kids is a chance to
revisit old stories, old fictional
friends, and to share something that
was special to us. For those reasons
alone, she says, introduce your kids
to whatever books interested you.
And get dad involved. “It sounds
weird,” says Deirdre, “but studies
have shown that children who have
fathers who read are more likely to
become readers.” She’s right, that
does sound weird. And she doesn’t
even mean dads who read aloud;
it’s just dads who read their own
books to themselves. It’s perhaps
a reminder that, in so many ways,
children take their reading cues
I recently dusted off my old
chapter books to read them to my
children and was hit with a wave
of nostalgia. Are they as good as
I thought they were? I turned to
Deirdre and her colleague, Ken
Setterington, a storyteller, author
and book reviewer, for a studied
Good children’s books from the ’70s and ’80s
The Great Brain | By John Dennis Fitzgerald
“I think it’s wonderful,” says Deirdre. “It’s funny, there is a real sense of having that kind of status in the family,
having to deal with the older brother who is always going to pull one over on you. And it allows serious issues
into the story without being moralistic … I think that’s a real strength.”
The Great Brain of the title is John’s older brother Tom who has a knack of swindling all the neighbourhood kids.
John is usually the one to bear the brunt of his schemes. The stories take place in a smallish town were everyone
always seems to be sitting out on the front porch. There’s lots of activity in the street and people have time to gather
around to offer opinions on breeding dogs, the smell of outhouses, or to grumble about those pesky kids.
It’s a pretty rough and tumble life with fights and scuffles, and real trouble to get into. Still, it’s pretty safe, too.
The Jenson boys get lost in the Skeleton Caves for two days, but are found, scolded, and life goes on.
Going back to this book was like visiting old friends. The writing is smooth and mature, the scenes are vivid,
and the illustrations by Mercer Mayer are complex, dark and deep. There are eight books in the series,
and even now I find it hard not to go from one to the next, to the next.
Little House in the Big Woods | By Laura Ingalls Wilder
Over the years there have been many, many people who have gushed about the Little House books, though for today’s
reader, Laura Ingalls Wilder might as well be describing Mars. There is really nothing in Laura’s world that we might
find in ours. But there is at least one thing that remains as vivid now as it did when the first book was published in 1932:
that voice. On its publication, one reviewer wrote, “Wilder writes with such lively recollection and keen pleasure in her
own childhood experience. An atmosphere of festivity and good comradeship between the children and their elders
pervades the book.”
Those things are still there and are still fresh and welcome. Laura had fun. She liked people, except for Nelly Olsen,
and they liked her. Laura is polite, creative, and alive, and isn’t afraid of engaging with the world around her.
She doesn’t save the world, or solve a crime, or find a secret passageway, which is kind of a nice change.
But today’s literary context has more to offer readers. “I would recommend them,” says Deirdre of the Little House
books, “but in conjunction with other books that are from different perspectives, such as Louise Erdich’s The Birchbark
House. Written from the point of view of an aboriginal girl, it also deals with family and has a lot of the same types of
qualities.” And Canadian author Jean Little’s historical fiction – both current and decades old – continues to stand up.
Harriet the Spy | By Louise Fitzhugh
“It’s a great book,” says Deirdre. “It’s innovative. It’s still absolutely
germane. The writing is sharp, ironic and honest, and it still makes adults
uncomfortable because Ole Golly says sometimes you have to lie,” in
order to keep the peace.
Brash and fallible, Harriet is certainly no Nancy Drew, which is what readers
noticed first when Harriett first appeared in 1964. She keeps notes on
the people around her – all in block capitals – and becomes a social pariah
at her school when her peers discover them and share them around.
“I’M GLAD I’M NOT PERFECT,” she writes after getting in trouble. That
was a big deal to a young reader. By acce ting her imperfections she
allowed us to be imperfect too and to know that it’s OK.
“Its a powerful book,” says Ken. “It’s a classic, and it’s one that I’ve
always cared about. It really reaches kids because Harriet is completely
different from all other characters in children’s lit. Kids can identify with
her, and there is a recognition they don’t find in other books.”
Ramona the Pest | By Beverly Cleary
“This book is still completely relevant,” says Deirdre. Ramona is the model of a certain
kind of child, and to this day remains a great example of the type: she’s a pest, opinionated
and forthright. All of which make her great reading for kids. She takes a bite
out of a block of butter, says lots of things that she shouldn’t, and colours in a library
book in the hopes that, if she makes it her own, she won’t have to take it back. Didn’t
we all want to do something like that at some point? Ramona also pays the price of
her actions which, to a kid, this is exciting stuff. Her parents argue, say the wrong
things, and apologize. They’re human too, which feels good for parents to read. With
Cleary’s subtle craftsmanship, Ramona remains as fresh and appealing today as the
day she was written.
Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret | By Judy Blume
Blume created considerable buzz by writing about menstruation and puberty.
You’d have to do a lot more to get people’s attention today. Still, there just wasn’t
that much out there, at least in the 70s, that was as frank as Margaret. She felt a bit
lost at sea, perhaps confused about some things and puzzled why adults didn’t
seem to understand her or treat her as she felt she ought to be treated. And she had
a private life full of personal confi dences and desires. That was big. But, both Ken
and Deirdre feel it probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal then if it hadn’t
been for Margaret’s period. Fair enough.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E.
Frankweiler | By E. L. Konigsburg
“It’s a kid running away from home and living in the Metropolitan Museum in New
York, and it’s amazing,” says Ken. “She’s stealing the money out of the fountain, she’s
sleeping on Marie Antoinette’s bed. … She’s really mad at her family, and that’s why
she’s run away. She wants to prove that she’s special.” Deirdre agrees. “Wonderful.
Absolutely wonderful. … Whatever it is that Judy Blume has to offer, E. L. Konigsburg
has way beyond that. Her characterization is subtle; she is really about the complexity
Glen Herbert is a writer, editor, and father of three who lives in Burlington, Ont.
And yes, he is also an avid reader!
Originally published in ParentsCanada, July 2012