The Nifty 50
WORLD's list of 50 great 20th-Century books for children
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A year ago WORLD published a list of the top 40 books of the 20th century (with the help of readers, the list later grew to 100). This year WORLD takes a look at the world of children's literature by publishing a Nifty 50 list of children's fiction written since 1900. Picture books come first on our list, in alphabetical order by author, followed by juvenile fiction.
In composing the list I consulted with other moms and with my husband, who has 22 years of bedtime stories under his belt, but since we're the parents of four boys I have to acknowledge that the list is tilted toward boy favorites. (Parents with daughters are welcome to send suggestions for list expansion.) Some books that are written for children seem to appeal more to adults than their intended audience. A favorite like Ouida Sebestyn's Words by Heart, a story of a black family in Oklahoma after the Civil War, deals beautifully with the difference between knowing Scripture and applying it, but it didn't appeal to a focus group of boys.
We limited the list to one book by each author, and sometimes that was hard. We chose Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss, but Yertle the Turtle is also terrific. We chose Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak, but Pierre: A Cautionary Tale (about the boy who learned to care) was a close second. Same goes for William Steig, whose great Yellow and Pink barely beat out Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
One final note: Since the list focuses on books written in the past 100 years, some classics such as Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, An Old Fashioned Girl, and Five Little Peppers and How They Grew are not on it. Since the list is limited to fiction, some excellent nonfiction titles (for example, books by D'Aulaire, Gail Gibbons, and David Macaulay) aren't on it.
Please send letters to the editor commending specific choices or castigating us for omissions. But for now, let's dive in.
Margaret Wise Brown
The persistent bunny mother acts as does God in Psalm 139. Kids will like comparing the illustrations to those in Goodnight Moon.
The Lost Sheep
Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen
One of a series of four books based on parables from the Bible. A joyous combination of text and illustration.
A wonderful read-aloud story about a train. The writing displays great train rhythms that kids love.
The Knight and the Dragon
Tomie de Paola
An inexperienced knight and dragon make preparations for their first battle.
A circus bear has to learn a new trick or be out of a job.
Asterix the Gaul
Goscinny and Uderzo
First in the series about a Gaulish village's comedic fight against Roman tyranny.
In the fall a farmer takes his crop to market. He sells everything, even the ox that pulled his cart, and walks home with seeds, tools, and presents to begin the process all over again.
The Tale of Three Trees
Angela Elwell Hunt
Three young trees' dreams of future greatness are fulfilled in surprising ways.
Harold and the Purple Crayon
A boy creates his world with his trusty purple crayon, saving himself with a stroke of his imagination from many catastrophes.
Robert Kraus is better known for Leo the Late Bloomer, but we enjoy this little mouse's attitude. He likes cheese. Is that a crime?
The Carrot Seed
Charming drawings by Crockett Johnson illustrate this simple story of a seed that grows into an enormous carrot.
The Story of Ferdinand
Ferdinand would rather smell the flowers than fight in a ring, but on the day the bullfighters come to find the toughest bull, placid Ferdinand has just been stung by a bee.
Custard the Dragon
While Belinda, Ink, and Blink brag about their bravery in this story-poem, it falls to Custard, a "realio trulio cowardly dragon," to defeat the pirate.
A cowardly war horse overcomes his fear to save himself and Sir Galavant from the ogre.
The Bed Book
For kids tired of their "nice little, tucked in tight little, turn-out the light little beds," here's a whirlwind poem about more exciting places to lay their heads.
Just Plain Fancy
The Amish dress plain to please God. But what happens when two little Amish children find they have hatched a colorful peacock alongside their chicken?
Mr. and Mrs. Pig's Evening Out
Garth Pig and his siblings outwit a wolf disguised as a babysitter.
The Relatives Came
A story of family love beautifully illustrated by Stephen Gammell, with lots of great detail, like the Granny sucking her thumb while she sleeps.
Cars and Trucks and Things That Go
This book is full of cool vehicles. Children like looking for Goldbug, who is hiding on every page.
Chicken Soup with Rice
Everyone knows Where the Wild Things Are, but our favorite Sendak book is a little volume with a poem for each month: "In January it's so nice, while slipping on the sliding ice, to sip hot chicken soup with rice. Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice."
Horton the Egg
Maizie the lazy bird would rather play than waste her time sitting on an egg, so it falls to elephant Horton to do her job.
Oh What a noise!
Another fun read-aloud full of city noises that build to a crescendo.
Yellow and Pink
Two marionettes ponder how they came to be. A clever argument for creation.
Granfa' Grig Had a Pig
A collection of Mother Goose rhymes brought to life with sly humor by Wallace Tripp.
Mr. Popper's Penguins
Mr. Popper is a housepainter who dreams of high adventure in the Arctic. Some of those dreams come true with the arrival of a strange package containing the first of many penguins.
A small bear from Peru finds a home and causes lots of mischief in London.
An orphan girl kidnapped by a giant finds he is the friendly exception among large and truly filthsome creatures.
Journey Through the Night
A four-volume series about the Dutch resistance from a Christian perspective. For older kids. Out of print and hard to find.
Thomas J. Dygard
A young thug has his life turned around by football.
Tintin in America
Funny cartoon-style adventures starring the Belgian boy journalist Tintin and his dog Snowy.
All Creatures Great & Small
Humorous and warm-hearted tales of a country veterinarian in Yorkshire.
An abbey full of mice fights against a vicious rat and his vermin horde. First of a series.
Kjelgaard wrote a series of dog books that are favorites among children who like animal stories. Here, a trapper and his dog set out to rescue a scientist and bush pilot trapped in a virgin wilderness.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The classic Christian allegory about four children who find themselves in a parallel kingdom ruled over by the lion Aslan. First in the must-read Narnia series.
Wacky stories of irrepressible Pippi who lives by herself while her sea-captain father is out at sea.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle
An old woman knows just the right sort of "medicine" to cure the bad habits of little boys and girls.
Anne of Green Gables
Lucy Maud Montgomery
The first in a delightful series about the orphan who comes to live with an elderly couple on Prince Edward Island.
The gentle story of a boy and his raccoon.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Scott O'Dell's keen eye for detail and historical accuracy made him one of the best writers of historical adventures for young people. In this volume a young Indian girl is stranded on an island.
The Great Gilly Hopkins
This is a fine novel about a tough little girl in foster care and the kind, Christian foster mom who gets through to her. Caution: Gilly's language is profane in spots.
Fat men from Space
The spacemen in this book look amazingly like Pinkwater: overweight, wearing plaid sports coats and horn-rimmed glasses, and scarfing down burgers.
A young aborigine escapes from headhunters and finds his way to civilization. Along the way he meets up with Dutch missionaries.
Where the Red Fern Grows
A story of a boy and his dogs, and their summer together in the Arkansas Ozarks.
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry
The story of a black family in Depression-era Mississippi, with an emphasis on the role played by the church in the family's life.
Delightful tales of an observant Jewish family in New York City in the early 1900s.
Another must-read: Bilbo Baggins, set in his ways, surprises even himself by going on an adventure with dwarves to combat a dragon. Older children move on from here to the superb Lord of the Rings trilogy, but (with occasional skipping where the action slows down) the three books also make excellent bedtime reading extended over many weeks.
First in a fine series about the Tillermans and their friends in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay.
The famous story of Wilbur the pig and how his life is saved by Charlotte, a spider who is both a good friend and a good writer.
Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Both boys and girls like these stories of pioneer living.
Amos Fortune, Free man
Amos, an African prince, was captured and sold into slavery in the United States. He works to buy his freedom powered by his Christian faith.
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