There are well over 25,000 new children’s book titles published each year. Some are written by established writers, some are more graphic based and created by illustrators, and still others are penned by celebrities who are hoping to get into the kiddie lit game. While many of these books will be relegated to the dusty back shelves of community libraries everywhere, some are destined to become classics in the children’s literary canon. The question is: how can you tell what will become a classic?
It may not be immediately apparent which books will be reprinted ten-fold for eager children of many generations to flip through their pages. However, there are a few characteristics that most classic children’s books have in common. Here are five of the biggest.
1. Classics have a great and likeable character.
Whether it’s a real person like Laura from the Little House on the Prairie series, a fictional character like Max from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or a lovable animal like Gene Zion’s Harry the Dirty Dog, most children’s classics focus on one character with whom kids can either immediately identify or can immediately recognize as entertaining (think Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat). Whether it’s a hero or an anti-hero, most classics in children’s literature have strong one.
2. Classics have an uplifting ending.
They may not always have a happy ending, but they always leave the door open to more possibilities. So, there might be a wonderful transformation, like at the end of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, but there also might be the potential for more adventure. The ending of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie has the family heading toward a new part of the country after they realize they must leave their home, while the conclusion of Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day simply has Peter heading off to play in the snow once again.
3. Classics are fun to listen to.
Remember, children’s books are often read aloud, so they need to sound good. This helps to explain the appeal of nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss’s books in particular, but the principle also applies to books with quirky aspects like talking animals, such as Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.
4. Classics show us what it means to be human.
In this regard, great children’s books really aren’t any different from great novels: they shine a light on the human condition. According to Philip Nel, a scholar of children’s literature and a professor at Kansas State University, asserts that classics “speak to those basic concerns that define human beings as a species — love, fear, hope, anger, family, power, and the need for acceptance.”
5. Classics appeal to both children and their parents.
Reading is rarely a solo activity with children — there’s a parent reading to them or with them. Because of this, great children’s books need to hold a parent’s interest just as much as it holds a child’s.
What were your favorite books when you were a kid? Maybe at first you preferred simple tales with striking illustrations like Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, while later on you were more into fun chapter books like James and Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. Whichever ones you loved the best, chances are that they met some of the criteria on this list. Chances are also good that you now share them with your children, enjoying quality family time and fostering a lifelong love of reading.