Sometimes a book is in the canon of children's literature just because the writing is so good. Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, for instance, stands as the perfection of its kind: a prose of greeny gold, of summer recollected in autumn's light. Rudyard Kipling, too, has the perfect sort of prose for what he does. From Kim to The Just So Stories to The Jungle Book, he paints the strange new world of India in strange new Indian words—none of them quite defined, but all of them given exactly enough context that the child reader can feel the satisfaction of puzzling them out.
Then, too, certain books are remembered simply because they have an ideal premise. When William Golding won the Nobel Prize in 1983, it was mostly for the power of his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. And there's a reason that he based the book on (and made a horror story out of) R.M. Ballantyne's 1857 feel-good children's classic, The Coral Island. Ballantyne couldn't write his way out of a paper bag, but The Coral Island reaches up to the platonic forms of childhood's daydreams for its setting of boys alone on a desert island.
For that matter, think of Frances Hodgson Burnett—an author with a sensibility so delicate (and a father-fixation so indelicate) that any rational child would smash a window after reading her, desperate for air. But Burnett's 1905 A Little Princess nonetheless succeeds as a story, because it provides a room where its natural readers' fantasies can dwell, as the heroine—a little girl, bookish and mistreated—turns out to be the long-lost heir of a large fortune and the ward of an older man who pampers and, ah, yes, understands her.
Meanwhile, sheer liveliness of invention can make a book a classic, one set-piece tripping so rapidly on the heels of another that you don't bother noticing how good or bad the story actually is: Around the World in 80 Days, for instance, and The Peterkin Papers; Black Beauty and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, too, different as they are. Good illustrations, as well, sometimes push a book into the canon. I've always thought Babar the Elephant was raised above its station by Jean de Brunhoff's drawings, but the Little Bear books may be the prime example: Else Minarik's discardable words are not much more than placeholders for the young Maurice Sendak's art.
Other books stay in mind because, in an inexplicable way, they seem to capture the inexplicability that every child encounters—the mythopoeic, and the unmanageable, and the frantic, and the just plain peculiar. Antoine de Saint Exupery's oddly paced The Little Prince, for example, and Charles Kingsley's strange tale of The Water Babies, and anything by Roald Dahl. It may not be possible to see Beatrix Potter with a fresh eye (nobody actually reads her; we all somehow only reread her). But, when you get a chance, take another look at the prose and drawings in, say, The Tale of Two Bad Mice, one of the weirdest things ever allowed into print.
Still, a number of books are in the received lists of children's classics for the sole reason, as near as I can tell, that they always have been in such received lists of children's classics. What makes Aesop's Fables a standard volume for children? Or the far too grown-up Three Musketeers? Or the knock-off that is The Swiss Family Robinson? Or the inferior horse story My Friend Flicka? Or that sick-making tale of the Glad Girl, Pollyanna? Or the stale Little Women, a book well known mostly because it's already well known?
I may be wrong about Louisa May Alcott. I've always thought the authorial wish-fulfillment at the end of Little Women is a little creepy, as Alcott invents an idealized husband for the idealized self that is her heroine Jo. Besides, the book is badly paced, falls apart in the second half (setting up the disaster of its sequels in Little Men and Jo's Boys), and, generally, ranks below Charlotte Yonge's 1856 The Daisy Chain in the genre of stories about the moral and spiritual formation of Victorian girls.
But other readers I respect have a soft spot for Little Women, and, anyway, the point remains: There is a success that comes only with success; we know these books because we know them, and, however well or badly written, their sharedness has become their most important quality. That's not at all a bad thing. It is, in its way, a definition of culture: the received stories, the common knowledge, the shared references.
Surely this accounts for some of the phenomenon of J.K. Rowling. In 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban appeared, the third installment of Rowling's seven-volume saga of the adventures of a bespectacled boy at a wizard-training school in England. The author's sales had been good before, but this was a publishing event unlike anything since all of London lined up to buy the next installment of The Pickwick Papers. Rowling did not so much top the bestseller lists as dominate them. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban sold a million copies in just a few weeks, at one point outpacing the second-best-selling novel by an astonishing figure of seven to one. It pulled back both its predecessors onto the hardback and the paperback lists, and for two weeks Rowling had, unbelievably, the top three bestselling hardback novels in America and the top two paperbacks.
Rowling had literary reasons for her triumph—these were pretty good books—but she had social reasons, as well. Europe and America still have a hunger for the shared topic of conversation that is the main benefit of a middlebrow literary culture. The trashy bestsellerdom of the lowbrow may be shared, but it gives us nothing to talk about. The glossy unbestsellerdom of the highbrow may give us something to talk about, but it isn't shared. Once a middlebrow book reaches a certain number of readers, however, it begins to feed on its success to gain even higher success. Add in the even greater hunger of middlebrow parents for their children to have shared literary references, and you have an appetite ravening for something like Harry Potter to feed it.
Along the way, however, Rowling performed another service—for her success wipes away the picture most readers have of the history of children's literature. That history is usually drawn something along these lines: The Victorians may have invented childhood itself, for the world had never seen anything like those nineteenth-century children before. Regardless, the Victorians at least invented the idea of needing books specifically for children.
This meant, of course, that they had no such books to start with, and so, early in the nineteenth century, they pressed into service a number of adult books that have remained in the shared children's canon ever since: Pilgrim's Progress, Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, The Arabian Nights, and so on.
Some of these were wildly inappropriate. That was the joke when Richard Burton impishly published a complete translation of The Arabian Nights in 1885, proving that the unexpurgated text did not match the tamer versions everyone knew from their childhood. At one point in Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift has his hero stand athwart a road to form a triumphal arch for the Lilliputian army, and publishers of editions for children would always begin by cutting the ribald comments from the miniature soldiers as they passed beneath the giant's tattered trousers.
Still, the pattern remained in place for a long time. Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Oliver Twist were not written for children, though they quickly became identified as children's books. Genre fiction has always had a tendency to slide down the scale from popular adult book to children's classic. Many Victorian and Edwardian stories made this move from the grown-ups' shelves to the juvenile section—Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Count of Monte Cristo, King Solomon's Mines, The Prisoner of Zenda—but the same process was at work as late as The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954.
Fairly quickly, however, the Victorians realized they also needed to start writing from scratch the stories they wanted for their children. Many of these books have fallen by the wayside—sometimes fairly (good riddance to Mrs. Molesworth's prim moralizing and W.H.G. Kingston's fatuous adventures) and sometimes unfairly (Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe is superior Christian storytelling, and G.A. Henty's boy histories deserve to be revived). Still, a few of those early and mid-Victorian volumes survive: Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales, for example, together with Pinocchio, Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Alice in Wonderland.
The real push, however, came with the late Victorians and the Edwardians. Think of all the books from this era that you've read and given as Christmas presents, over and over again. Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper and Johanna Spyri's Heidi. The Wizard of Oz and The Wind in the Willows. Peter Pan and Anne of Green Gables. Rudyard Kipling, Beatrix Potter, E.Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson: This was the golden age of children's books.
A few stray volumes got added in later years. The 1935 Little House on the Prairie, for example, though it was set in an earlier time. A sort of silver age is often said to have begun with C.S. Lewis' 1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and continued through Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey in 1961 and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time in 1962. Dr. Seuss found his legs in this era, publishing both How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957. Three nearly perfect and underrated books arrived in 1956 alone: Dodie Smith's Hundred and One Dalmatians (better than the movie versions), Nora Johnson's The World of Henry Orient (much better than the movie version), and Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.
Or so the history of children's literature is usually told. That history, however, is wrong. J.K. Rowling's success doesn't just give us a recent series to add as an incidental to the received canon. It also gives us a chance to rewrite the entire list of classic children's books we're all supposed to know—for Rowling makes visible the fact that we are actually living now in a golden age of children's literature.
Part of this shakeup is the opportunity to add some older volumes that never quite found the success they deserved as genuinely shared references, the recognizable touchstones of culture. James Agee's 1951 Easter vigil story, The Morning Watch, for instance, ought to be a Christian classic, and Paul Horgan's novel of the Southwest, A Distant Trumpet, also published in 1951, is a genuinely fine book about the forming of young men. The 1970s and early 1980s were the nadir of children's books in almost everyone's estimation, but Daniel Pinkwater's snarky comedies—think Catcher in the Rye, played for laughs—almost saved those days from the darkness of Judy Blume's resentments. Gary Paulsen's 1987 survival tale Hatchet deserved all the prizes it won. David McCord, Jack Prelutsky, and X.J. Kennedy are the best children's poets since Robert Louis Stevenson, Hilaire Belloc, and A.A. Milne (and maybe, in truth, better than those Edwardians).
Part of the Rowling moment, as well, is an opportunity to lose some of the works that are on standard lists of children's books just because they have always been on such lists. Little Women is probably here to stay, but can't we cross off The Wizard of Oz books? L. Frank Baum's sloppy fantasy series would find only mockery if it were published today. A.A. Milne was a metrical genius, and his poetry needs to be remembered, but the cloying goop of his prose ought to consign Winnie-the-Pooh to the waste bin. E. Nesbit remains on the list, I suppose, but she is never quite as good as you expect from the applause The Wouldbegoods and The Railway Children receive. Dr. Doolittle and Half Magic and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Misty of Chincoteague: These were books that people gave as gifts because there wasn't much that was better being published in their time. Even Madeleine L'Engle and Beverly Cleary now seem to me to have been overvalued, brackish water praised in the desert of their era.
Mostly, though, Rowling's shakeup of children's literature lets us claim the good work written over the last fifteen years or so. Much of it is playful fantasy, such as Gail Carson Levine's fractured fairy tales in Ella Enchanted, The Princess Tales, and Fairest. Diana Wynne Jones has been writing her Chrestomanci books, off and on, since the late 1970s, but the series laid out many of the paths that other authors would follow, and it continues down to her 2006 volume, The Pinhoe Egg. Eva Ibbotson is another older author who has been given new life by the revival of fantasy, from her Secret of Platform 13 in 1994 to her Island of the Aunts in 2000.
Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2002) and The Graveyard Book (2008) are spooky, odd, and serious books for children or adults. Lemony Snicket's thirteen-volume A Series of Unfortunate Events may get more of a boost than it deserves from Brett Helquist's illustrations (clearly inspired by Charles Addams), but the books are clever and fun. With Michael Chabon's Summerland in 2002, a major adult novelist published a children's story about mythopoeic baseball. Gary Blackwood's historical The Shakespeare Stealer, Jean Ferris' comic Love Among the Walnuts, Michael Gruber's disturbing The Witch's Boy, Cornelia Funke's unexpected The Thief Lord, and Eoin Colfer's happily vulgar Artemis Fowl: Much of this is sure to last.
Golden ages are not measured by their major figures, since genius comes when it comes, in or out of season. The real advantage of a golden age for a literary genre is the elevation of its second-rank authors: Merely good writers become great writers when they happen to live at the right moment. Few of these recent children's writers (apart possibly from Gaiman and Chabon) are major literary talents, but all of them are better than they would have been in other times.
Want some Christmas presents to give this year, books you may not know well, drawn from our new canon of children's literature? Start with the Victoriana of Charlotte Yonge's serious The Heir of Redclyffe and Lucretia Peabody Hale's comic Peterkin Papers. Then move to Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals and the poems in X.J. Kennedy's Brats. And end with some of the great newer stories: Diana Wynne Jones' The Lives of Christopher Chant, for instance, and Neil Gaiman's Coraline.
Any of them can sit unembarrassed beside The Wind in the Willows and The Just So Stories and Treasure Island and The Tailor of Gloucester—all the books we've somehow always known.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.