Top Children’s Chapter Books of All Time!

Betsy Bird of Fuse#8 is running a poll to assemble our collective top 100 children’s chapter books (books for kids under 13 who can read chapter books on their own). No YA here, strictly children’s books. Her method is to have everyone submit a hierarchical top ten, which she will weight and combine with scores from everyone else to produce the final list. I am very excited to participate, but of course narrowing it down to ten has been really, really tough.

What makes a book a top book? For me, of course, I need to have read it. Anything I’ve read more than once will probably stand out more than the rest, although there are a few exceptions to this. When I finally had created a list of books that are important and well-loved (definitely longer than ten), I created a hypothetical scenario for myself. A friend is having a baby soon, and she asks me to recommend ten books I think her future kid might enjoy and that are “don’t miss” books to make sure she at least has on hand, even if the kid turns out to be a Captain Underpants type rather than a “great junior classics” type of reader. I don’t know yet if the baby is a boy or a girl, if it will love fantasy or historical fiction or “just like me” stories, but I figure this list of ten is at least worth having around to shove under his or her nose every so often because if Junior does pick it up, it’s guaranteed to be a great and worthwhile read. So here’s the list I’m submitting to Betsy as well as my runners-up and a list of the authors whose whole oeuvre I would tell my friend to gravitate towards on library trips.

  1. The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
  2. A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konisburg
  4. Holes by Louis Sachar
  5. The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis (obviously you would start the series with Wardrobe, but this is the best of the series)
  6. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  7. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  8. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  9. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  10. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

There are two books on that list you’ve probably never heard of, The Pink Motel and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. When I was a kid, I decided I would read my way from start to finish through my small library’s entire children’s chapter book section. But I loved some of the books I read so much I would go back and read them over and over again. That’s why so many of my favorite children’s authors are from the beginning of the alphabet!

So yeah, my pick for the top children’s book ever published is one that very few folks have ever heard of, first printed in 1959 and now out of print. But it isn’t nostalgia that makes it my #1 choice. It really is the best. I’m not even going to try to describe why – just read it. Hopefully your library still has a copy! (And hopefully with the original cover. Check out the hideous reprint from 1993. Interestingly, I guess enough people know about and love this book that even that crappy paperback reprint is selling for over 30 bucks now used. Thank goodness I snagged my own copy – with the original cover – on eBay over a decade ago!)

I feel like the books on this list have a good balance of male and female protagonists, all of them complex and interesting enough that kids of any gender and temperament would find something to identify with or at least to intrigue them. I believe the only one on here from the past 30 years is Holes. Obviously my selection pool is going to be biased because I read a lot more kid’s books published during and before the 1980s, when I was a kid, but I do try to keep up with the latest chapter books. The stuff I read now isn’t going to have that same intense emotional impact it did back then, though. (Which shows how amazing Holes is that it had that kind of impact on me at age 25.) I don’t know if Island of the Blue Dolphins would make the list if I read it now among all the other adventure/survival/dystopia books out there today. But back when I read it (again and again) it positively blew my mind with Karana’s incredible degree of self-reliance. I would always read with awe the little paragraph at the end about how it was  based on a true story.

Okay, without further ado, my runners-up for the top ten and my list of authors who have written many great children’s chapter books (these are not in ranked order):

    Half Magic by Edward Eager
    Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
    Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
    The Once and Future King by TH White
    The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
    Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth
    The All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
    The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
    A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
    Edward Bloor
    Carol Ryrie Brink
    Frances Hodgson Burnett
    Eleanor Cameron
    Roald Dahl
    Edward Eager
    Nancy Farmer
    Ursula K LeGuin
    CS Lewis
    EL Konisburg
    Robin McKinley
    Farley Mowat
    Richard Peck
    JK Rowling
    EB White

It was something of a relief to put these lists together. It was nice to remember these books I’ve loved so well and read so many times. But even more it was a nice break and palate-cleanser from the generally dark tone YA has taken on these days, whether it’s in the form of grim dystopian worlds, angsty supernatural heartbreak, or no-holds-barred malicious high school gossip.  Hopefully I’ll make friends with some new children’s chapter books when the Top 100 list comes out!


4 Responses

  1. Not to give anything away, but you were not the only person voting for your #1 choice. Just sayin’…

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Cheaper by the Dozen would have been on my top ten list but I found out it was not eligible 😦

    I completely Forgot Once and Future King — oh well, guess it didn’t deserve to be there, eh?

    That’s where I put All of a Kind Family too, though some of your “Second 10” were on my top 10.

  3. Cheaper by the Dozen is ineligible because its true 😦

    My top 10 list:
    1. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
    2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
    3. Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss
    4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
    5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    6. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien
    7. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
    8. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
    9. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsberg
    10. The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill

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