The Children’s Canon: Why old books dominate early childhood

Margaret Wise Brown would have turned 106 this year. And Goodnight Moon is still on Amazon’s children’s bestseller list. P.D. Eastman, author of still-bestselling Are You My Mother, would be 107 in November. Of Amazon’s 20 bestselling board books in spring 2016, only 5 were published this decade. Four date from 1969 or before and two more are pushing 35.

Outside of the ranks of the bestsellers, more oldies-but-goodies hold prominent places: just check out the picture book section of any bookstore. Make Way For Ducklings, published 1941, adorns mine, as does The Little Engine That Could (1930) and Where The Wild Things Are (1963).

Why? We still appreciate adult works from those years, but they’re not half the bestseller lists. While adults mostly choose new releases for themselves, kids get the old stuff.

HOW IT HAPPENS

I suspect the reasons for this revolve around risk aversion, familiarity, and nostalgia.

Non-parent board book buyers are primarily looking to avoid a screwup. I watched a middle-aged couple going through the board book section last week, comparing the merits of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967) vs. Goodnight Moon (1947). They were looking for something simple and rhyming to give for a baby shower, something that could be used right away. They hadn’t read to children in a generation. But books are a nice gift at a low price that don’t depend on the age, size, sex, or style of the baby or its parents, so a lot of board books get bought this way. And those buyers stick to the familiar.

To some extent, that hesitation to experiment applies to parents and caretakers who buy books too, because once you bring a book into your house you’re stuck with it. Classics are vetted by time and survival in a way that new releases aren’t—and new releases get publicity based on author celebrity, relevance of topic, novelty, and all sorts of other virtues that have nothing to do with how good it is to read to a small person. Think of Go the F*ck to Sleep—tons of buzz, not a very useful addition to a toddler library.  And with an active kid or kids to corral in a bookstore or library, it’s hard to look over even a board book to see if it’s what you want.

Online buying is calmer, but it’s not much easier to evaluate new releases. Thumbing through most of the images is disallowed for the majority of board books sold online. This is probably meant to avoid parents using the “look inside” feature or equivalent as a free e-book for their littles, but it means it’s hard to judge the quality of the book. So the classics win out more than they might otherwise--whatever else, you know an old book is a safe choice. 

For parents and non-parents alike, too, nostalgia plays a major role. If you remember reading the book or having it read to you—or even hearing stories about it from your family—an old book holds a special place in your heart.

So it’s easy to see why old books dominate the children’s section even beyond their clear merit. But if it’s not broke, why fix it?

WHY WE CAN’T JUST READ THE CLASSICS

The adult canon has been criticized, analyzed, and edited as we change our cultural tastes and priorities. The children’s canon is edited just as surely as what appeals to parents changes, but without the same conversations about why we change it, or how, or what we are missing that the classics don’t provide.

We talk about the need for diverse books for children, but when we import 40% or 50% of our books from a generation ago or more, diversifying the bookshelf becomes a much more difficult problem.

In themselves, none of the books of the children’s canon seem terribly problematic to me. Taken individually many are fantastic. No one wants to do without The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) or Goodnight Moon.

Taken collectively, though, the still-popular set of classic children's books shows a very outdated version of daily life: Daddies get short shrift. There are few nonwhite characters. Police officers and doctors are men. You won’t find a person of color in a position of authority, and of course there are no nontraditional family structures.

To apply questions of representation and perspective to classic board books feels petty, especially when the stories and art still please children. And when they have a claim on our nostalgia, it’s even more difficult to judge these books by the same standards we would a new release.

The familiar is comfortable. But for that very reason, it’s important to think carefully about what we allow to become familiar.

We import our entire culture from the past, every day—but we change it every day, too, and each change makes a difference. I’ve written before about strategies to combat the lack of female perspectives in children’s books, and there are many lists of (great!) picture books starring people of color, including some I'm adding to here.

But one easy way to find children’s literature that reflects modern values is to make sure to include books produced more recently, by authors and illustrators who are attuned to the world that actually surrounds today’s littlest readers. Books written for this generation will produce our own share of beauties, too. 

 

Related:

Lovable board books released since 2011 (running list)

Reading girls into all-male kidlit

Board books starring children of color (running list)

Board books with female MCs (running list)

Books with parental gender balance (running list)