bless you, betsy

by marjorieingall on April 6, 2010

As I mentioned earlier, Betsy Bird, a children’s librarian at the NYPL and blogger for School Library Journal, polled her readers on the top 100 middle-grade children’s novels of all time. Josie and I both voted on our top 10s. Every weekday morning I’ve raced to the computer to see how our books are doing. Josie sits on my lap. We both love Betsy’s run-throughs of the winning books’ various covers, the way the cover art has changed over time and they way different countries have chosen to portray the stories therein. And based on Betsy’s descriptions, we’ve chosen a bunch of unfamiliar titles we want to read together. NACHAS! We’re currently reading The Thief (#83 on the list) at bedtime — so far I’m meh. It’s not a great read-aloud, with lots of dense sentence about topography. Now we canter on our horses on this road. Now we walk with our packs on this path. Now we are in a dry creek bed. Now the brush is scrubby. Now I am narcoleptic from boredom. And yet I’m enjoying myself, because I know I don’t have much longer to read to Josie (unless we turn into that adorable sure-to-get-a-book-deal dad-daughter pair profiled in the NYT — he’s read to her for 3,218 nights, which is so not gonna happen for us if I persist in occasionally wanting to go out to dinner with my husband or send my child to sleepaway camp, but I digress). I cherish every minute of our shared bedtime reading, knowing that The Time of The Eyerolling, in which tween/teen Josie will be mortified by everything I do, is nigh. But for now, we get to bond, and reading aloud — with stories that are richer than the picture books I read with Maxie — is a great outlet for my hammitude. Dialogue-heavy books that are just a little too thematically or emotionally complex for her, at 8, make perfect read-aloud bedtime books for us — we can talk about the moral issues they raise; I can make sure she’s really getting what’s going on; I can point out some felicitous writerly trick the author has used that Josie might adapt for her own writing.

My friend Gayle Forman was recently talking about how she has so little patience now for acclaimed adult literature that luxuriates in laaaaanguage and teeeeelling detaaaaaail and oblique elliptical self-satisfaaaaaction (extra vowels are mine, not hers) — her point was that great children’s and YA books can’t be self-consciously AAARTY because they need to keep kids’ completely engaged. They’re tight. They keep the audience in mind. They’re really an impressive achievement — creating character and poetry and humor without wank.

Where was I? Oh yes. Once Betsy reached the home stretch of the countdown, she invited readers to guess the top 10 winners. As we ticked closer, it became clear that Josie’s beloved Eva Ibbotson wasn’t gonna make the list at all. Now that we’re at #5, I’m weepily confident that Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rifka, which Josie and I both had on our lists, will be shut out as well. (Another Hesse book, Out of the Dust, did make the list at #76.) But onward and upward. Here were my predictions for the top 10, as sent to Betsy:

1. charlotte’s web
2. harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone
3. the lion, the witch and the wardrobe
4. the giver
5. from the mixed-up files of mrs basil e frankweiler
6. holes
7. a wrinkle in time
8. the phantom tollbooth (dan levy is SO DELUSIONAL about this being #1)

i waffled for my last couple of books: harry potter and the half-blood prince? (does anyone really believe this flabby, i’m-too-powerful-to-be-edited book belongs this high??)? peter pan (a classic, but no fave of feminists like moi)? diary of a wimpy kid (fave of the wee but not of bigs)? the little prince (PRETENTIOUS MUCH?)? watership down (ew, rabbits)? the secret garden (eh)? mary poppins (great story, not so much with the great writing)? anne of green gables (how many elderly readers do you HAVE?)?  i’d love to think the whipping boy by the lovely late mr fleischman made it, but i’m thinking no.

SO, since i have NO CLUE, i’ve decided to guess wildly that kids voted in sufficient numbers that:

9. diary of a wimpy kid
10. harry potter and the half blood prince

THANK YOU, again, for the giant mitzvah that is this list.

Already I’ve blown it: The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables both did make the top 10. I was correct about The Phantom Tollbooth, The Giver, Holes and Mrs Frankweiler, though I’ve only gotten the latter two in the right places on the list. I’m completely positive Charlotte’s Web will be #1 (now watch me eat those words) — certainly it was #1 on my list! (Again, you can see Josie’s and my original choices here.)

In conclusion: SQUEEEEEEE. I can’t wait for the final four books, and I’ll be desolee when the countdown is over. Maybe someone will do a top 100 YA novels poll (not Betsy, who has made it clear she’s not interested in YA)…but you know what? I don’t have terribly strong feelings about YA as a genre either. And Betsy already did the top 100 picture books poll. I’m gonna be so bereft when I can’t run to my computer anymore in the mornings for poll results, I’m going to have to drown my sorrows in on-sale malted milk eggs. At least I can take consolation in the books I’ve discovered through the countdown — I do get to read them with Josie, and that’s pretty danged awesome. (After The Thief: The City of Ember, #77.) Thank you, Betsy Bird.

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