For modern readers, the idea that children’s books should be entertaining is a given. But that wasn’t always the case: In the late seventeenth century, philosopher John Locke’s suggestion that reading be fun for children—instead of simply instructional—was revolutionary. Bas Bleu has carried children’s books for twenty-five years, always with a mind to which stories would be most enjoyable to budding bluestockings. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week, we put together a short list of influential children’s books that have been enjoyed by generations of readers. We couldn’t possibly fit all of the worthy titles on one list, so feel free to add your favorites in the comments below!
Aesop’s Fables: The morality tales known today as Aesop’s Fables have circulated among humans for thousands of years, shared through the oral storytelling tradition long before they were first collected in writing in the fourth century BCE. But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the fables were actively marketed for children. Designed to entertain and delight youngsters while teaching values lessons (often via anthropomorphized animal characters that are now the standard in modern children’s books), the fables have been adapted and reinterpreted over the centuries. Today they remain in active circulation, and several—such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”—are the roots of well-known English-language idioms.
A Little Pretty Pocket-Book: You’ve heard of the Newbery Medal for children’s literature. It was named for John Newbery, an eighteenth-century bookseller who wrote and published the first modern children’s book in 1744. A collection of rhymes, illustrated stories, and games, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was designed to entertain little readers…even as it modeled good values and behavior. Children were encouraged to use the book to keep track of their own good and not-so-good behavior, a child-focused appeal made all the more revolutionary by the book’s compact size and colorful, kid-friendly cover. Historians indicate Newbery was the first publisher to prove that children’s literature could be a profitable business venture.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: It’s difficult to imagine children’s literature or pop culture without Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, with its infamous Cheshire Cat, Jabberwocky, and Mad Hatter. But when the novel was first published in 1865, it marked a turning point in children’s literature. Several decades earlier, the genre had warmed to the idea of making reading fun for young readers…as long as books still emphasized good morals, reason, and reality. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a game changer, filtering the challenges of growing up through a fantastical lens. Books like Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed, signifying a shift away from practicality and in favor of imagination and children’s emotional development.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit: Exasperated by publishers who wanted her debut book to be longer or shorter or larger or more colorful, Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of the mischievous little bunny’s story in 1901. Specifically sized to fit easily in kids’ hands, the diminutive book initially was distributed among family and friends. The first printing sold out within months, sending Potter back to press…and bringing previously reticent publishers calling. A year after its first commercial printing, more than 50,000 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit had been sold. The shrewd Potter had faith in her book’s long-term prospects and was “the first author to license fictional characters to a range of toys and household objects still on sale today.” More than a century later, Peter’s tale has been translated into thirty-six languages.
Little Golden Books: These slim little books with their trademark gilt spines are so ubiquitous today that it’s hard to imagine a child’s bookshelf without them. But when the Little Golden Books debuted in 1942, they made a big splash in the children’s book market. At the time, most children’s books cost $2-$3 (more than $30 by today’s standards), a price far out of reach for most American families still struggling through the Great Depression. Little Golden Books, however, cost just 25¢, fit easily into children’s small hands, and boasted sturdy cardboard covers and spines. They were also sold in grocery stores, drug stores, and department stores, handy “impulse buys” for parents doing their weekly shopping. Not surprisingly, the Little Golden Books were bestsellers right out of the gate!
The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon: Choosing between Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s classics was a tough decision. Ultimately, we chose both, as so many parents, teachers, children, and baby shower attendees have done before us. Brown was one of the first authors to write specifically for children ages two to five, so it’s only fitting she have two books on the list. Published in 1942, The Runaway Bunny—about a stubborn little bunny whose longing for independence cannot outpace his mother’s unconditional love—was Brown’s first collaboration of many with illustrator Clement Hurd. They also teamed up on 1947’s Goodnight Moon, a rhyming poem about another little bunny partaking in a simple bedtime ritual. Allusions to The Runaway Bunny abound in Goodnight Moon, and the seeming simplicity of both belies Brown’s literary genius. Interesting fact: Brown bequeathed the royalties to Goodnight Moon to her neighbor’s nine-year-old son!
The Outsiders: S. E. Hinton was only fifteen years old when she began writing her debut novel, about rival gangs in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a 2014 interview with The New Yorker, Hinton explained that she wrote The Outsiders because, at the time, “There was only a handful of books having teen-age protagonists: Mary Jane wants to go to the prom with the football hero and ends up with the boy next door and has a good time anyway. That didn’t ring true to my life.” The Outsiders was published in 1967 by adult trade publishers—there was no “young adult” market at the time—and garnered middling sales. But when Hinton’s publisher realized how many teachers were using the novel in their classrooms, “they realized that there was a separate market for young adults.”
The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Born in the United States but raised and educated in Germany, Eric Carle began his career in New York in the 1950s as a graphic designer for the New York Times. Later he worked at an advertising agency, where his designs caught the eye of author Bill Martin, Jr. Together they created the perennial classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Before long, Carle was writing his own stories to go along with his illustrations, including 1969’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Fifty years later, this singular children’s book is still wildly popular, thanks in no small part to the clever die-cut pages that enchant little readers while teaching them the days of the week, their numbers, the benefits of healthy eating…and, of course, that caterpillars grow up into beautiful butterflies!
The Harry Potter series: J. K. Rowling was a struggling single mother living in Edinburgh when she penned Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.). Publisher after publisher rejected it, and the initial printing of just 500 copies in 1997 garnered Rowling an advance of only £2,500. Two years later, Harry was a certified smash, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in his native Britain and launching a worldwide phenomenon that would eventually sell half a billion books. Rowlings’ boy wizard won over fans of all ages, and an entire generation of readers grew up alongside Harry and his friends. The books set sales records for publishers and booksellers, with midnight book-release parties attended with a fervor rarely seen in the book world; helped revitalize and expand the young-adult market; and transformed reluctant readers into budding bookworms. Now that’s magic!
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