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Spring Edition
Volume 98, Number 4


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Off the Shelf Classics (continued)

Anita N. Voelker
ANITA N. VOELKER is an assistant professor of education.

Contemporary Children's Books Enhance Classic Literature
Consider pairing traditional favorites with these contemporary selections

During my childhood, my mother marked the first day of summer with her annual ritual: placing Silas Marner (George Eliot, 1861) on my desk. At 87 years of age, my mother still asks me to read this book. In my mother’s opinion, Eliot’s book is a classic that is too good to miss. Truthfully, I have no good reason for my yearly resistance to reading the book. But refuse I do . . . every summer.

Perhaps that is why I also resisted reviewing children’s classics for this spring’s issue of The Bridge. Secretly, I relate to children who refuse to read what their parents consider the must-reads, those timeless classics. Additionally, I struggle to understand why a children’s book is considered a classic. Because of all this turmoil, I asked to spin the theme for my addition to this issue of The Bridge. Rather than reviewing classic children’s books, I paired some timeless stories from the 20th century with recently published, and lesser known, books from the 21st century.* I am not suggesting that the recently published books will become classics, but they offer a freshness young readers may enjoy alongside (or in lieu of!) the mighty classics.

A perennial favorite from the 1920s, The Velveteen Rabbit (Margery Williams, 1922), pairs well with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Kate DiCamillo, 2006). The main character, Edward Tulane, is a lavish, custom-made china rabbit with a condescending attitude. As the title suggests, the story centers on Edward’s journey that may remind children of the adventures of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883). And like Pinocchio, there’s space in the story for the reader to imagine his or her own journey and eventual road to redemption. No one gave this book a better promotion than the esteemed author Katherine Paterson, who wrote, “Why should I care what happens to an arrogant, over-dressed china rabbit? But I did care, desperately, and I think I can safely predict you will, too.”

If you like the 1930s classic Angus and the Ducks (Marjorie Flack, 1930), which featured a curious black Scottish terrier and continues to attract new readers, I suggest pairing this inquisitive, adorable pup with another by reading Good Boy, Fergus! (David Shannon, 2006). Young readers will enjoy speculating about the life of Fergus after viewing the wraparound cover and the lively endpapers. I offer one caution if you select to read this book. Shannon’s illustrations are beguiling; readers may find themselves desiring to purchase their very own Fergus.

The 1940s classic Homer Price (Robert McCloskey, 1943) included six humorous and homespun tales of life in the fictitious Centerburg. Richard Peck’s Here Lies the Librarian (2006) has the same mid-Western warmth and rural, small-town venue. Although set in 1914, the book presents universal issues of growing up: dealing with bullies, self-identity, and the everyday life of a community. Peck’s humor is played out by memorable, quirky characters who are laugh-out-loud funny. An added bonus is a bit of history on the early years of the automobile industry in the United States.

Both praised and criticized since its first publication in the 1950s, the classic Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1953) has been treasured by many. I recommend that readers take a fresh look at another spirited girl and her family’s hardships in new lands. Our Only May Amelia (Jennifer Holm, 2001) is the only daughter in a Finnish immigrant family living in Washington state at the turn of the 20th century. Having seven older brothers, May Amelia struggles to understand her role in the undomesticated, dangerous environment her family calls home. Of particular interest in this text is the peaceful relationship the community has with the Chinook Indians.

The 1960s classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Virginia Lee Burton, 1967) is a book I often pair with another classic, Katy and the Big Snow, which Burton published four years later. Both of these books celebrate machinery. Although I appreciate Burton’s work, I am in awe of Maira Kalman’s Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey (2002). In this nonfiction tale, Kalman celebrates a 1931 New York City fireboat put to rest in 1995. No one expected that the John J. Harvey would be resurrected. But on September 11, 2001, the old tug was called out of retirement to help fight the fires that burned after the Twin Towers were attacked. This inspiring story pairs well with another recently published (2003) nonfiction book by Mordicai Gerstein: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.

While the 1970s classic Frog and Toad Are Friends (Arnold Lobel, 1970) should certainly not be missed, neither should A Splendid Friend Indeed (Suzanne Bloom, 2005). This recent Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor Book packs a big punch with a small amount of text and enchanting illustrations. The whimsical dialogue between the goose and polar bear will remind readers of the cadence of conver-sations between toad and frog. Like Lobel, Bloom depicts her characters with endearing, yet diverse, personalities that seem to remind readers of their own splendid friendships.

Although I believe there are classics in every decade, the 1980s seem to be a fine place to draw the line on classics because the majority of our students currently attending Messiah College were born in this decade. Because I remain conflicted about defining classic in children’s literature, I admit that drawing the line at the 1980s is an arbitrary decision. A discussion about what makes a children’s book a classic would be a satisfying conversation to have some warm summer evening while watching fireflies dance in the yard. If you arrive at any grand (or not- so-grand) theories, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, I am seriously considering a literary dive into Silas Marner . . . but don’t tell my mother.

* For more pairing of classics with new books, I suggest reading Book Links, July 2006 issue, which was devoted to celebrating the classics. This edition sparked my own thinking for these reviews.

—ANITA N. VOELKER is an assistant professor of education.

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