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What children’s book changed the way you see the world?

July 31, 2009
Anita Silvey

Anita Silvey

That’s the question Publisher’s Weekly poses in its new issue to such writers as Maurice Sendak, Sherman Alexie, Leonard Marcus, Beverly Cleary, and David Macauley. The story is drawn from Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book, by children’s book expert Anita Silvey, who, by the way, will be among the authors at the Miami Book Fair International (Nov. 8-15).

Some of the answers are what you would expect. Peter Sis chose Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince; for Beverly Cleary it was Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester; Thatcher Hurd names Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows; Marc Brown selects Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are

Other selections are less obvious. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, chosen by Jean Craighead George, is not actually a children’s book but a very grown-up satire that calls into question most of the accepted verities of American life. For Marcus, the Young Reader’s Edition of John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage showed for the first time that a president could be “a vibrant young man, and (even better) that he could be a writer, too—just as I dreamed of being one day.”

For Sherman Alexie (also scheduled for a book fair appearance), Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day marked the first book featuring a dark-skinned character — “a character who resembled me physically and spiritually.”

I’m most taken with Maurice Sendak’s selection of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, which he calls “just immense fun.” Sendak goes on: “Books shouldn’t teach. They shouldn’t give lessons. Kids should feel that they can do what they want to do and no one will punish them. They can just be kids and enjoy reading and looking at a book.”

As a child, I read widely, both fiction and nonfiction, but I can’t remember a specific children’s book that left a lasting impression. It was, instead, all of them together, the joy of reading that ran through one book and into the next. One book that did alter my course, at least a bit, was Rocket Ship Galileo, one of 12 juvenile novels written by the sci-fi Grand Master Robert Heinlein, which opened my mind to a new universe of science fiction and fantasy.

But it wasn’t the subject matter which thrilled me about Heinlein’s books, it was the rapturous reading pleasure imparted by this skillful, no-nonsense storyteller. To this day, I think his novels for young adults are superior to the books he wrote for grown-ups, which are, alas, filled with nonsense.

What children’s book changed the way you see the world?


9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2009 12:18 pm

    I was read to so often as a child it is hard to pick just one. My grandparents certainly read me enough Dr. Seuss for me to pick out the themes behind the actual words. I remember knowing that the Sneeches with the stars on their bellies were wrong for being biased against those same Sneeches without stars. I also remember relating alot to Horton Hears a Whoo, since my father was missing a lot like lazy Mazy the bird.
    But my mother was so insistent on dropping Shel Silverstein into my arms, and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic” were huge influences as well. And I can’t remember if the title of another was “I’m OK, you’re OK” which dealt with warm fuzzies and cold pricklies but that was frequent fare as well. I know when I finally picked up my first books, I was reading about a Mike Mularkey and his Magic Steam Shovel which valued hard work, but not so hard that you dig yourself a hole you can’t get out of and find yourself exhausted.
    To be honest, I don’t know if it was a book that really changed my world, or if it was the people that delivered the stories to me that did.

  2. July 31, 2009 1:45 pm

    Yes Yes,

    One of the he best book for children to come out in 50 years is PurpleUmpkin. The early childhood educators are very happy with this little book. That is only the beginning of a book. Getting a book to market is very tough. Whether a great book becomes a best seller has little to do with the quality but with the channels of distribution. So the new kid on the block is PurpleUmpkin. A best seller soon. The Presidents book.
    Question? How do you get to go to the Miami Book Fair? ( not buying a booth). The answer may surprise you

  3. rachel permalink
    July 31, 2009 2:33 pm

    Oh it’s not fair! One book, to pick just one book is laughable. I feel like there needs to be different categories. There are young children’s books, with illustrations, and then there are young adult books.

    Dear Mili, Where the Wild Things Are, The Black Falcon.

    Charlotte’s Web. Anne of Green Gables. The Secret Garden. Matilda.

    Pictures 1918. We All Fall Down. A Wrinkle In Time.

    I know that’s a lot. But books changed me. (books change me). I was always living in books and they altered the way I viewed the world and acted it, and what I (thought I) wanted from it.

    Additionally, I had a very active imagination, and along with my sisters I would play games based on books – we imagined and lived in whole worlds taken right out of books. I’m sure this increased the impact of certain books on my life. (To this day lines from children’s books get stuck in my head like lyrics to a song: “remember the promise you made in the woods, remember the promise to love me.”)

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 31, 2009 2:45 pm

    Quite a list, Rachel. This whole discussion is making me want to read nothing but classic children’s and YA books for a month. Or three.

  5. Oline permalink
    July 31, 2009 4:20 pm

    I am having a hard time remember what children’s books I read as a child. I didnt read The Little Prince until I was in high school and it remains a favorite. I know I went thru most of the kids books in my small hometown library. I read a Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was about 12 but before that, around age 9 or 10, I started reading Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Mary Roberts Rhinehart…For me, kids books were anything I could get my hands on

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 31, 2009 7:05 pm

    C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series were among my all-time favorites as a child. Fit in well with my Christian upbringing and the whole good v. evil thing that I didn’t start questioning until late middle school whereby “The Little Girl WHo Lives Down the Lane” took numero uno on my list.

  7. Janet H. Speziale permalink
    July 31, 2009 10:02 pm

    Hi, Chauncey!
    How about the Golden Book “The Poky Little Puppy”? Also, (when I was older) any and all of the L. Frank Baum books. (He was born and raised in Chittenango NY, not far from where I came from.) I’m not sure if I understood the books, but I sure did enjoy reading them!!!
    And of course, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”….
    Hope all’s well with you and the girls.
    Take care,
    Janet

  8. Marta Magellan permalink
    August 4, 2009 8:51 am

    I agree with Rachel. One book that changed you? They all did. I do remember the first book I read that turned me into a reader, though. In one way, one very important way, it changed me. After I received a copy of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, I was hooked on fiction. It’s not even that great but it had an impossibly happy ending, which I loved then. Every time we were taken to the library, I no longer headed straight for the picture books — I checked out Little Women, Little Men, The Little Princess, Heidi, Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Wizard of Oz, and whatever else was available, mostly classics, all wonderful.
    For fifty cents I could buy books at a local discount department store. I bought everything I hadn’t checked out of the school library, including Trixi Belden mysteries (also not memorable books, but I must have enjoyed them because I spent those rare fifty-cents on them). It was all about the pleasure of reading, of being taken into different worlds, and that first book was the springboard toward a lifetime of reading. And it begins with a children’s book. Yes, read more of them, but definitely give them as presents to every child you know.

  9. August 7, 2009 10:13 pm

    Wow! The Poky Little Puppy, how could I have forgotten! The cover just flashed back to me in a rush nostalgia. In a busy farmhouse the only place where privacy and quiet was guaranteed was the old unused outhouse. Half collapsing, covered in wild vines with streaks of sunlight strobing through the dusty air it was the perfect place to sit with a stack of golden books on one side and a stack of Enid Blyton on the other. I couldn’t begin to pick a single book that influenced me I’d have to say they all collectively did and still do. As a published author of children’s fiction (www.thepizzagang.com) I can only dream of giving other children the bliss those books gave to me

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