100 Best Books for Children
by Anita Silvey
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004
I don’t know how I came across this book. I think I once enthused about Michelle Landsberg’s guide to books for children and someone mentioned Silvey. I bought it, it sat by the bedside for months, got shelved, gathered dust, yada, yada, yada.
I’m here to tell you that if the care and feeding of young minds is in your purview, if you are a fan of children’s literature, and if anyone (like me, for instance) suggests that you read this book, do it right away.
It looks for all the world like such an ordinary, if beautifully organized, book. A nice, neat 100 books. A nice, neat 100 mini-essays, all tidily the same length. And because this is a book to recommend children’ s books, and because no such list is ever complete, especially not at 100, there is even an appendix, “Beyond the 100 Best.”
Nice and neat, yes, but also bursting at the seams with all kinds of wonderful information, spilling over with literary deliciousness.
I feel about this book the way that I feel about any writing that ranks as excellent. It gives me a profound sense of satisfaction to read it.
Anita Sivley (bio here) worked as the editor of The Horn Book Magazine and as a publisher of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin, and her vast stores of knowledge encompass not only the authors and illustrators of children’s books, but their editors, too. Many of the essays include details about the role that an editor played in bringing a book to market and to the status of a classic.
The editor of The BFG, Stephen Roxburgh, proved to be one of [Roald] Dahl’s most exacting editors. He spent days drafting his editorial suggestions to Dahl, ten typed, single-spaced pages that commented on inconsistencies, cliches, and matters of taste. Dahl told Roxburgh that he was “absolutely swishboggled and sloshbunkled” by the trouble the editor had taken with his work. He accepted these criticisms, greatly improving the manuscript. The BFG remains Dahl’s most critically successful work, an example of the author’s broad genius and the editor’s insights combining felicitously to produce a classic. (87)
Then there are the anecdotes with which the book is stuffed. (Aspiring writers who are struggling to find a publisher, avert your eyes. This may sting a bit.)
Although [Sid] Fleischman pursued a successful career as an adult screenwriter in Hollywood, he began creating children’s books for his own three children. He sent his first book, Mr. Mysterious and Company, off to his agent, saying only, “I seem to have written a children’s book. If you don’t care to read it, I will understand. Drop it into the wastebasket.” Instead the agent sent it to the editor Emily McLeod, who made an offer the next morning, launching Fleishman’s new career. (92)
The mini-essays, then, don’t just give a dry account of plot, setting, etc. They add layers and layers of depth, remarkable in such a small space.
I find that I also have Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators on our shelves.
I’m off to read it. Right away.