Monday, October 06, 2008

More on Best Book Lists and Diversity (or Lack Thereof)

On Saturday I posted a brief response to the article The 25 Best Picture Books for Children by Diane Petryk-Bloom. The author was kind enough to leave a comment, which I have reprinted here.
There have been some wonderful books written since 1995, of course. But since they haven't stood the test of time, we can't comfortably say they are among the "best."

For instance, a decade ago you might have put Dinotopia there. And now the book has almost faded into oblivion. Why? Don't know. Peter Glassman says that could even happen to Harry Potter. He says that at one time Captains Courageous was as big a phenomenon as Harry Potter is now. And almost no one reads it now.

I think Harry will last. But its too soon to be absolutely certain.

My disclaimer was the subjective nature of the task. On top of that any "Best" list will fluctuate with time. But sample these authors...that's the guarantee. You'll find greatness there. No particular title can appeal to all.

You might be interested to know that Peter Glassman wanted Miss Rumphius right up there with Where the Wild Things Are. It didn't make the cut, but it will lead the next list!
I don't disagree with any of this, as I know how subjective these lists can be. I suppose my response to the list was a gut feeling that lists like these aren't always good. I know there are those who will disagree. Putting lists of outstanding titles in the hands of kids is a very good thing. Forgive the bluntness of this delivery, and please accept my apologies in advance if this offends, but, let's face it, this is a very white list. Kids and families today don't look the way they did thirty years ago. I get that many of these books have "stood the test of time," but as the demographics of our nation change, shouldn't our choices for best books change as well? This is particularly true if we are putting these lists in the hands of parents and teachers. Now, I can see booksellers arguing that this is not their job, they are, after all, business people. However, as an educator, it is my job.

Diversity in book lists is a good thing for all readers. It helps some kids see themselves in the world of literature where they may not have been pictured before, and it helps others recognize that not all children are like them. Would it really be that hard to put together a "best books" list that included such titles? What might they be? Surely we could make a case for The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats or A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold also comes to mind. What other titles would you suggest?

Please don't read this response as an indictment of the author or any of the folks involved in assembling these titles. Diversity is not a criterion that is used when putting
lists like this together. I'm just wondering aloud if it should be.


  1. The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey.

    And don't take these lists too seriously. I doubt it's having that much impact in terms of sales or whatever.

  2. "The test of time" means, I suppose, that the list will be skewed toward white books, since multiculturalism in publishing is a relatively new phenomenon. However, there are certainly a few that can already be considered classics, The Snowy Day being the most obvious, or if you were going to include chapter books, All-of-a-Kind Family. I also noticed that the list is overwhelmingly male.

    My friend Kathe Pinchuck, who chairs the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee for Jewish kidlit, was just telling me that she went to the NY Times Great Reads for Children event, and their list of NY-themed books, though fairly multicultural, completely left out the Jewish Lower East Side experience (see for the list), which bothered her. No list can please everyone, but it's definitely worth talking about, if only to remind ourselves how very UN-definitive such lists are.

  3. I did almost include Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman in my "why didn't they make the list" comment below, but I thought I had enough books already. I don't know all that much about picture books, but that one's a stunner (in illustrations and text) that came to mind without trying to think specifically in terms of diversity. The kids I've read it to have responded with enthusiasm.

    I thought the same thing: very white list. Are the Caldecotts also so WASPy? The Newberys aren't, which makes me think that no, multiculturalism in publishing is NOT a relatively new phenomenon, but I don't know if it's as true for picture books as for other kids' books. On the other hand, most of the earlier Newberys that contain people of color are pretty problematic.

    Just thought of another--Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters.

  4. the list is wonderful...for me, a wonderful "historical" collection! yes there are ones on there that I would want kids to know but not in place of others that are a "tad" newer! In some respects, 1995 is
    "ancient" in the world of kids' books!

    I would want something by Eve Bunting on the list..Fly Away Home or The Wall come to mind.

    One of the special ones to me is a "dark" (as in sad and not "cute") but o, so worthy of its message....Way Home by Libby Hawthorn (1994) From the moment I first saw the book, it has haunted me with it depressing beauty and simplicity.

    But each to his own...everyone has a right to decide what they consider the "best"! Isn't it grand that we have the luxury of choice!

  5. Three cheers for "A Chair for my Mother!"

    Several boos for some of the deadwood on that list.

    And my own proclamation that Giant Jam Sandwich is the best picture book ever written .. I don't care if it isn't popular today.

  6. How about Corduroy by Don Freeman? And More, More, More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams. Definitely The Snowy Day!