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One of these things is not like the others

It was funny to see this bookshelf in a bookstore at the Houston airport, even funnier after our recent discussions here about the canon, and after my TLA panel circling around the same topic. On Wednesday afternoon, Betty Carter, Sally Miculek, Lauren Wohl, and I entertained all kinds of questions about The Classics: what are they, which are they, who reads them, and should kids have to care? Go Ask Alice provides an excellent example of one quandary: can a classic be crap? (In debating this question vis a vis Nancy Drew, Lauren Wohl said yes while I said no.) And Marc Aronson in the audience had a good one for all of us: what are the nonfiction classics of young people’s books? He said Freedman’s Lincoln, I said Not Yet. We all laughed at the buzzphrase “new classic,” but, really, just how old does a book need to be in order to join the immortals?

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. Are you saying that you think a book can’t be a classic if it’s crap, or that if it is a classic, that means it ISN’T crap?

    Nonfiction classics are difficult, because so many of them become outdated so quickly… even if they aren’t science-based, so many of the historical ones are, say, racist. Granted, a lot of adult nonfiction classics must run into the same problems that make me say children’s nonfiction gets outdated quickly, but we’re more forgiving of adult books, I guess because we assume adults are less credulous readers, right?

    I read a ton of nonfiction as a kid, mostly forgettable science/nature books, ancient biographies that no one wanted to read but me (I checked out over and over Emily Barringer: First Woman Ambulance Surgeon), and crafting books. Am I allowed to suggest Joseph Leeming’s Fun With String, 1940? I think of White Gloves and Party Manners, a kids’ etiquette that a lot of people a generation or two above me remember fondly. They might think of it as a classic, but is it really, when there isn’t any compelling reason for kids to read it?

    I think what Lincoln: A Photobiography has in its favor (as far as the “is this a classic?” question goes) is that even though it was published more than twenty years ago, and many, many Lincoln books have been published since then, it still offers plenty to school-age kids right now; none of the later books has taken its place. Staying power.

    Is The Way Things Work old enough for you?

  2. Nonfiction classics….I’m stumped. I guess some people might say the Childhood of Famous Americans series. But aren’t those largely fictionalized accounts? It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at them, but I know there’s a lot of invented dialogue and the like.

  3. A little late in the game, but is it possible that some classics WERE crap when they were published but time has de-crappified them? A few years back, I had a conversation with a friend and fellow author about what would happen if Jane Eyre (my all-time favorite novel) came before the (at that time) BBYA committee and was picked apart for so-called literary value. I was sure that the wildly improbable plot twists (most notably, Jane running away to what turned out to be a long-lost cousin’s home and getting a sudden inheritance) would prevent it from being considered a “best book.” Such crazy plot twists (e.g., Mr. Brownlow turning out to be Oliver’s long-lost grandfather) and, indeed, plot HOLES pervade Dickens’s novels as well. Time has tempered these books, which were originally written as popular fiction. So maybe time is all it takes.

    That said, I don’t think Go Ask Alice has yet put in the time. Writer, Diana Abu Jaber, stated in a speech that her English teacher told her that a book was a classic if it was over 50 years old (Abu Jaber, made the argument for Gibran’s The Prophet). I tend to agree that 50 years is a good test of time. Go Ask Alice does not qualify (though Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, does). Check back in 2021.

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