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100 Best Books for Children

A Conversation with Anita Silvey

Q) You have already edited a great resource, The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators, which includes thousands of titles. What made you decide to write this book and focus on a much more select group?

A) Every time I talked to members of the media or parents, they kept wanting to discuss the same books. For about twenty years this focus on such a few titles bothered me. Then, one day I realized that people talked about the same books because those books had truly made an impact on children; they were special in a way that other books might not be. So I set out to locate the 100 books that define excellence in children's books and to write about them.

Q) Along the same lines, there are a lot of resource guides and lists out there for "the best" books for children. What makes your book different?

A) First of all, most of these guides contain several hundred titles or thousands of titles. I focus on a very narrow group of books, and because I do I can go into more detail about the contents of the book, the book's strengths, and the stories behind the book's creation. By keeping the selection so narrow, 100 Best Books for Children makes the task of selecting books extremely easy for parents. It also helps parents to locate the gems that should be part of every child's literary heritage.

Q) You've read about 125,000 children's books — how did you even begin to narrow the field to the 100 best books?

A) Fortunately, many publications and institutions compiled their own 100-best lists at the turn of the century. After creating a database with those titles, I began interviewing several hundred people, asking them about their favorite childhood books and their children's favorite books. In this way I tested what experts thought against the actual experience of children and parents. Then I read approximately six hundred titles in six months. I didn't want to compare a memory of a book to one I'd recently encountered. Finally, I had to go through the torturous procedure of whittling the list down to 100.

Q) Could you tell us a little about the criteria you used and how you chose that criteria?

A) I've been evaluating children's books for thirty-five years, so this project merely continued that process. First, I considered quality, for "only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young." Then I looked for those books that have stood the test of time; the ones that have proved to be true classics, books that move to the next generation. I thought about popularity, as shown by sales figures, and about how much impact these books have made on individual children. I then tried to balance the list — to include various genres. In my final cut, I chose books that work well for family or classroom sharing. I believe the best children's books communicate to both children and adults.

Q) In addition to descriptions of the books, you also impart "the stories behind the stories." Would you share one of your favorite insider accounts?

A) Many of our greatest writers for children had tremendous difficulty getting published. Dr. Seuss was turned down twenty-seven times. He was going back to his apartment to burn the manuscript for And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street when he ran into an old Dartmouth friend who had just been named children's book editor of a small press. The friend was searching for books, and Seuss had one. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q) In your behind-the-scenes stories, you mention many of the editors by name and give us a peek into the author-editor relationship. How important is that relationship to the creation of a great book for children?

A) Children's books are a good deal like plays or movies. Although everyone focuses on the actors or actresses, a team of people have made those performances possible. I wanted readers of 100 Best to see the people behind the scenes of our great books — the editors, art directors, production managers, publishers, and reviewers. All books are created by a team. Usually, with our best books, those teams have worked particularly well together.

Q) How did you find those back stories?

A) At first I consulted everything that had been published about these 100 books. But the printed material left a lot of unanswered questions. So then I worked with original manuscripts and correspondence. I also interviewed people involved in making the book. From these three sources, "the stories behind the stories" emerged.

Q) What is the behind-the-scenes story for 100 Best Books for Children?

A) Every time I got discouraged in the three-year writing process, something happened to inspire me to keep going. I was visiting the editor Susan Hirschman in New York. She was walking me through Else Minarik's Little Bear to show how Minarik constructed the text. The phone rang; Susan said, "I'll let that go," and we went back to the book. But then we heard Else Minarik's voice on the answering machine. They had not talked to each other in about thirty years! Susan picked up the phone, and we told Else what we were doing when she called. That day I went back to writing the book with increased vigor.

Q) Often, parents choose books for their children based on their own childhood favorites. While there are many, many worthy children's backlist titles, there are also excellent new books being published for this audience. Does your list include both backlist and new titles?

A) Many of my own childhood favorites made the list: Make Way for Ducklings, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, and The Diary of Anne Frank. However, some titles didn't — such as Papa Opp and the Galloping Ghost.

The most recent publication turned out to be Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). I chose fifteen books published in the 1990s, a very fine decade, with titles such as The Giver, Holes, and Officer Buckle and Gloria. I also included an extensive recommended booklist that incorporates recent titles as well as backlist favorites.

Q) Today we are besieged by celebrity books. Can anyone write for children?

A) No specific career path prepares someone to write for children. Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows) was a banker; Louis Sachar (Holes), a lawyer; John Gardiner (Stone Fox), an engineer. Many of our best books began when parents or grandparents told a story to a child. However, I do believe that our children would be better served today if parents simply ignored the recent avalanche of celebrity books and focused instead on titles of meaning and quality.

Q) You include a reading journal at the end of the book. Can you tell us why?

A) I wanted families to record, for posterity, their own stories — what happened when they shared the book together. We keep baby albums and picture albums, but every family should also keep a reading journal. It will be absolutely priceless to a child when he or she becomes an adult.

Q) You dedicated your book to your grandparents. How did they influence you?

A) My grandparents were passionate about books. When my grandfather disagreed with a book, he would yell at it and sometimes throw it across the room. As you might imagine, that behavior made quite an impression on me. My grandmother filled their home in Marietta, Ohio, with books, and she always took me to the Marietta Public Library. About fifteen years ago, I visited that library and felt as though she were holding my hand.

I myself have been known to yell at books, throw books, and haunt libraries and bookstores. So the apple has not fallen very far from their tree!

Q) What is the most important thing that any parent or caretaker can do when it comes to children and reading?

A) Read to children at least ten minutes a day and find ways for children to have their favorite books at home. Keep reading, even after children have learned how to read. You will not only be giving your children the best possible gift — educating their minds, increasing their vocabulary, and opening up the possibilities of life — you will be generating precious memories for everyone.

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