How Do Books Become Classical children’s books?

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Many of us are familiar with Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, the Wind In the Willows, The Secret Garden and other children’s books widely regarded as Classical children’s books. What most of us probably do not know is how stories for little ones achieve such a revered status.

Do books become classics because they were written decades or centuries ago, or because they sold a certain number of copies? Does it have something to do with the plot or the genre? The answer is that several different factors combine to make classical children’s books what they are.

The Age Factor

According to Homerton College senior English lecturer Victor Watson, shelf life is one of the most important factors. Whether novels, short stories, or even picture books, the popularity of classics extends far beyond the generation in which they were written.

It isn’t enough for children’s books to be old. After all, there are plenty of them out there, but not in a million years would you – or anyone else – consider most of them to be classics. Watson said that the stories that stand the test of time are those that can be presented to new readers in fresh ways, without losing any of their shining qualities. I can only hope that future generations of young readers enjoy the stories at Tobybooks.com as much as the current generation does.

What Makes Us Human

Children’s literature programme director at Kansas State University, Philip Nel has an excellent explanation as to why classical children’s books are timeless. True classics are concerned with the things that make us human – and he doesn’t mean the fact that we walk on two legs or use shampoo.

According to Nel, those concerns include our ability and our need to give and to receive love, our hope and fears, and family matters. They also include the need to be accepted for who we are, the fact that we get angry, and issues around power. These topics have always been relevant, and probably will always be relevant. You can find some of these, as well as other themes, in the stories about Toby the Big Little Tugboat at Tobybooks.com

Children Take On the World

Another factor that helps to turn children’s books into classics is that the story has at least one child as a main character. University of Texas – Arlington English professor Tim Morris said that it is important that the character is believable. What’s more, he or she needs to face the world with energetic creativity. The character’s that remain in our hearts and minds are the ones we can identify with in our formative years, and we’re more likely to think of classical children’s books like old friends, and want to introduce them to our children, or grandchildren in years to come.

Let’s Have Some Fun

Most of what we think of as classical children’s books were published between the late 1800s and the 1950s. Whether you look at Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, or the Borrowers, they all have an element of nonsensical fun.

Before the golden age of children’s literature dawned, young readers were limited to stories that emphasised morality, death, judgement and hell. Can you imagine reading James Janeway’s A Token For Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children as a bedtime story to your little one? I certainly can’t. This horrific book was published in 1795, and probably gave hundreds of children nightmares.

Children Are the Final Judges

Writing for UK newspaper the Guardian, Lucy Mangan said that not every story that adults think is worthy becomes a classic. The worthy ones are those to which children keep returning, rather than those they read once as part of a phase.

Of course, sales play a large role in making a book a classic too. Sales must be relatively consistent over the years to keep it in print, and publishers need to update covers to make them appealing to the current market, and move with the times.

Ultimately though, it is not adults who decide which children’s books become classics. It is the young readers who do that, and as far as I’m concerned, they have done a splendid job so far.

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