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>Being an American Can Be Fun

>SLJ this month runs a short, vague article on possible changes to ALSC book awards criteria. Fuse8 has a pretty good discussion on it going; over here I’d like to consider the larger implied question about American children’s literature. SLJ attributes to K.T. Horning, 50, the idea that the Newbery and Caldecott have “accomplished their mission . . . to encourage U.S. publishers to seek out high-quality literature and picture books for children by American authors and illustrators.” Like this is something that gets finished? The Newbery and Caldecott are among the shiniest, sharpest prods we have to encourage U.S. publishers to keep seeking out “high-quality literature and picture books.”

The decision to limit the awards to Americans, of course, is of course worth discussion. Nationalism in literature is something we tend to value only when other nations do it, but I think the questions are worth asking: do we have and do we nurture children’s literature that speaks to “being an American”? There is Munro Leaf’s Being an American Can Be Fun, and Lynne Cheney’s various droppings, but I’m wondering more along the lines of contenders for The Great American Children’s Novel–books that speak to the theme of how being an American is different from not. In my recreational reading, I’m on something of a Turkey kick right now, reading novels and histories by and/or about Turks, and always lurking in my head is “oh, so this is what it’s like to be a Turk.” (You already have my take on Canadians.)

So what children’s book could you give to an outlander that conveys a sense of Us? I’ve argued for Sachar’s Holes as a G.A.N., steeped as it is in the American tall tale tradition, and placing the roots of its story in our mythic Wild West. It seems, too, that a lot of the recent immigrant literature, by presenting a protagonist “settling” in a new land while carrying along the old (usually in terms of parents and grandparents) does a sort of microcosmal version of the idea of America as a nation of pioneers, while Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House and Game of Silence provide a “we were here all along” corrective to Wilder’s Little House books, themselves indisputably G.A.N.s in my view. If somebody asked you for a children’s book that “tells what it’s like to be an American,” what would you give them?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Andy Laties says:

    >Everything I know about being an American I learned from “Andy and the Lion” by Jim Daugherty.

  2. Rachael V. says:

    >Oh wow. How about Harriet the Spy? You have rich, poor, immigrants, single dad, childhood betrayal, lesbian overtones, and egg creams. What else is there?

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >Not to mention an American ideal invoked by Bill Clinton and George Bush alike: “Sometimes you have to lie.”

  4. Anonymous says:

    >I think that to convey “Us”, you’d have to give the outlander a whole LOTTA books — One book that reflects my own kid realty, it would be MOM, THE WOLF MAN & ME, by Norma Klein. But it would probably feel pretty foreign to lots of Americans.


  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yes, and that’s probably true of other countries, too–where I read, say, Pamuk’s Snow and think, wow, Turkey, a Turk would probably roll his or her eyes and say “that book doesn’t tell you the half of it. Or even a tenth.”

  6. KT Horning says:

    >I would say any novel by the late, great Virginia Hamilton, especially M. C. Higgins, The Great and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush.

  7. >Just what does it mean to be an American? To me, it has to do with melting-pot plurality – celebrating individual cultures and perspectives, and simultaneously recognizing the whole-bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts glory of their synthesis. So I nominate Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >The American Experience casts a very large net…. I would have to put Stone Fox by John Reynold Gardnier near the top and then Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary and then Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and then Marianthe’s Story by Aliki and the Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say and then Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLaclan and then…………….

  9. >All of a Kind Family.

  10. >I think the best you can do, because of the disparity between urban/rural, east coast/west coast, etc., is to find books that define a particular slice of American reality. In light of that, I would argue for Richard Peck and Sid Fleischman, who both articulate with a lot of humor and precision the small-town, middle American experience before World War II.

    LOL at Cheney’s “droppings”.

  11. >Ooo…tough question…something uniquely American. Given the universality of being a kid, not an easy choice. Maybe it would have to be some type of American historical fiction…how about Sid Fleishman’s By the Great Horn Spoon?

    Greg T.

  12. >Holes! HOLES, *Holes*, HoLeS!

    But, for the sake of cynicism, how about FEED?

    (could be worse; I could have suggested THE CHOCOLATE WAR, one of my all-time least favorite reading experiences 🙂

    Holes! HOLES, *Holes*, HoLeS!


  13. Jennifer Schultz says:

    >I’m copping out by saying I can’t think of one book I would chose, but I would add Laurence Yep’s books to the list.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant in which people eat bologna and sleep on the floor and drive long distances only to turn around and drive back. You can’t get more American than that.

  15. >All I could think of was the song “Asshole” by Denis Leary. Talk about cynical.

    Couldn’t think of any one children’s book. I’d recommend a reading program of about 100 with strong regional characters, as Sharon mentioned. I really can’t think of a children’s book that’s *about* America, the way that Dos Passos’s USA trilogy allegedly was.

  16. >I know I might catch some flack for this, but I’m thinking Criss Cross.

    Or, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

    I’ll also second any of the Ramona Quimbys and Holes.

  17. Andrew Karre says:

    >I second FEED, definitely. If a great American novel holds a mirror up to the culture and captures it with all its grand-but-flawed ambitions and its appalling failures, then it’s hard to top FEED. It should replace 1984 in high schools as the default cautionary tale.

  18. Roger Sutton says:

    >I congratulate all for your brave stabs at a pretty murky question. Melinda has it about right when she says that one book won’t do it, because children’s books tend not to take on that kind of a big theme. Big themes of other kinds, yes, but not so much what-it-means-to-be-an-American. I think the Feed voters might be on to something, though, and maybe even more so with Octavian Nothing? Seedfolks, though? A bit too nutritious for my taste.

  19. rindawriter says:

    >The one and only:

    “Make Way for Ducklings”


  20. >And why *don’t* children’s books take on that kind of theme? Besides the fact that we have to write short, generally. Maybe we’re more interested in story than in tackling the meaning of life? (42)

    It’s definitely something to chew on.

  21. >Then there are the books by Jackie Woodson, or Linda Sue Park, or Christopher Paul Curtis – what it’s like to be American, but not necessarily white. The melting pot American story.

  22. >Whoops! I thought sdl was Sharon. But it turns out that it might be somebody else.

  23. Anonymous says:

    >Hello Roger — Long time reader, first time poster —

    I think there is not much lit in this area beacause literature aims for something timeless, whereas what it means to be an American is constantly shifting and evolving.

    Feed may speak to what it means to be an American right now, but will eventually (like Mike Mulligan, Make Way For Ducklings, and I think Holes too) feel more like Americana (hopefully).

    Not a bad thing at all, just different.


  24. Roger Sutton says:

    >SDL is Horn Book reviewer Susan Dove Lempke and a former co-worker of mine when we were both oompa-loompas at the Chicago Public Library.

    This discussion is reminding me of Lois Lenski’s circuit around the (then) forty-eight states in novels including Strawberry Girl and Project Boy. Does anyone know how many places she covered? And didn’t Janet Dailey write a romance novel set in each of the States?

  25. >Hi Roger:

    What’s wrong with nutritious? Is there a message in Seedfolks? Absolutely. Is the delivery heavy-handed? Perhaps for some. But I don’t know that a purposeful point-of-view compromises its ability to convey the nature of America to an outsider. I’d even argue that it complimented it (think of it as a reflection of the national attitudes that have coronated Oprah Winfrey). Is it the Great American Novel for Children (or for Young People, if we’re considering Feed and Octavian Nothing)? Probably not. But the question was “If somebody asked you for a children’s book that ‘tells what it’s like to be an American,’ what would you give them?” I’ll stick by Seedfolks as a good answer.

  26. Elizabeth says:

    >Leaving aside the American question for one second, I was intrigued to see that ALCS’s mission with the Newbery was “to encourage U.S. publishers to seek out high-quality literature for children.” In fact, the Newbery may be accomplishing just that mission. In recent years, as major trade publishers have put more effort into selling books in stores instead of to libraries, there is always a push going on in publishing houses to do fewer “mid-list” books and more that can get “placement at Barnes and Noble.” This is something you’ve all heard before. My point is, Kira Kira and The Higher Power of Lucky give editors very powerful ammunition when when they want to acquire a book that may not garner big sales figures in their first 8 months of pub. They represent, at least on one level, the glorious triumph of “the little book.” And in both cases that’s thanks in large part to their Newbery medals.

    As for the American question, I never would have thought of my beloved Harriet the Spy, since to me the milieu of rich New Yorkers whose kids attend exclusive private schools is hardly all-American, but Rachel V. has made me see it from a new perspective. For my nomination, I choose Frindle.

  27. Andy Laties says:

    >Well I stick with “Andy and the Lion” because it’s egocentrism dressed up as altruism which is as programmatically Americanistic as you can get. The country where Any Boy Or Girl Might Just Grow Up To Be The President (or even better: The American Idol).

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