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Librarians Recommend: 8 Classic Children’s Books That Stand The Test Of Time

May 17, 2019

Books aimed at school-aged readers can be literary classics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they age well in all aspects. They’re a product of their authors — and their authors tend to be a product of their time. In other words, a book written decades ago (or more) can be wonderfully plotted with colourful language and exciting characters, but super problematic when it comes to how some people are depicted or what ideas are shared.

Here are recommendations from librarians across the country of classics that still hold up, with a more modern perspective. These are older books that remain great reads for elementary-school-aged kids. They offered up a range of suggestions, from middle-school staples and poetry collections to novels that wound up as movies. Do you remember reading any of the books below? What other older books have you passed along to your kids? Are there other titles you’d recommend?

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings (Shel Silverstein)

Recommended by Alison Creech, librarian, Halifax Public Libraries

Written and illustrated by Silverstein, who was a cartoonist before he was a poet, the drawings and poems complement each other perfectly. As fresh and funny as when they were first published in 1974, his poetry is perfect as a read-aloud or a read-alone.

Silverstein teaches us that poetry can be outrageous, profound, hilarious and even a little bit naughty. His writing will have kids giggling for the sheer joy of words. Nobody can resist poems like Boa Constrictor ("Well, what do you know?/ It’s nibblin’ my toe/ Oh, gee/ It’s up to my knee/ Oh my/ It’s up to my thigh").

But there are also deep and meaningful messages that readers will remember long after they’ve closed the book: “Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child/ Listen to the DON’TS/ Listen to the SHOULDN’TS/ The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS/ Listen to the NEVER HAVES/ Then listen close to me —/ Anything can happen, child/ ANYTHING can be.” Ages 4 to 8.

More Great Reads: 10 Beautiful Indigenous Children’s Books To Add To Your Library

Ramona the Pest (Beverly Cleary)

Recommended by Suzy Arbor, children’s librarian, Vancouver Public Library

Ramona the pest

Ramona first appeared in Beezus and Ramona in 1955. But, 13 years later, Ramona the Pest became the first book told from her point of view — and Ramona’s point of view is fantastic! It’s hilarious and insightful and just so much fun. The story opens with Ramona getting ready for her first day of kindergarten. After years of watching her older sister and the other neighbourhood kids go off to school without her, she is finally old enough to join them. When she gets there, she finds out that it’s not quite what she expected.

Ramona is a deeply creative kid who sees the world a little differently and can’t seem to stop getting into trouble. Kids who are as spirited as Ramona will appreciate how her good intentions always seem to go awry. While a lot has changed since the book was published in 1968, adjusting to a new experience like starting school is much the same. Ramona the Pest is a wonderful introduction to a character who was truly ahead of her time. Ages 8 to 12.

The Borrowers series (Mary Norton)

Recommended by Ann Foster, selection librarian, Saskatoon Public Library

the borrowers

I loved this book as a child and, to me, it still holds up today though it came out in 1952. The story is about a family of very tiny people who live in the walls and floors of a normal-sized house, borrowing items from the bigger people, whom they call "human beans." The teenaged daughter, Arietty, will often befriend the humans, which leads to tension and drama. There are four sequels to this one. Ages 8 to 12.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (John Bellairs)

Recommended by Scott Robins, children’s services specialist, Toronto Public Library

the house with a clock in its walls

Originally published in 1973, this book about a young warlock coming into his own magical abilities and working with his uncle and next-door neighbour to prevent the end of the world is definitely worth a second look. At a time when there was very little published for kids in the horror genre, Bellairs crafts a story perfect for fans of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, as well as the middle-grade novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

When you read this book, you surprisingly can’t help but feel the sense of familiarity about a boy losing his parents, learning magic and battling evil (many have said that this book likely influenced and inspired the Harry Potter series). Bellairs definitely veers on the creepier, occult-inspired tone in this book, but the end-of-the-world plot will appeal to kids who are used to higher stakes in their novels. Lewis’ journey, reluctant at first and embraced fully later, will continue to captivate today’s young readers. Ages 8 to 12.

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Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce)

Recommended by Suzy Arbor, children’s librarian, Vancouver Public Library

Tom's midnight garden

One summer, Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle in a small apartment with no garden or other children to play with. Tom’s initial heartbreak over his lost summer is quickly transformed into wonder when he hears an ancient grandfather clock strike 13 in the middle of the night. Tom ventures outside to investigate, discovering a lush and beautiful garden. Night after night, he returns to the garden, which does not exist during the day, and discovers more and more of its secrets.

At its core, this book is about having a small slice of freedom in which to explore and discover something amazing. That is as rare and enticing to kids today as it was when this was first published in 1958. There is also a lovely graphic novel adaptation of the book, which may be a more accessible starting point for some readers. Ages 8 to 12.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O'Brien)

Recommended by Alison Creech, librarian, Halifax Public Libraries

Mrs. Frisby and the rats of NIMH

Originally published in 1971, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was awarded the 1972 Newbery Medal for most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. This is the story of widowed field mouse Mrs. Frisby and her four children. Her youngest son, Timothy, is too ill to travel to their summer home, but spring is coming, and they need to leave before the farmer ploughs the fields where their winter home is located.

Kind-hearted and brave, Mrs. Frisby's good deed for a crow named Jeremy leads her to a wise old owl, and then to the rats who live under the rose bush near the farmhouse. But these are no ordinary rats, these are the rats of NIMH. Having escaped from a research laboratory, these rats are stronger and smarter, with unusual talents. How they help Mrs. Frisby, and how they in turn are helped by her, is a thrilling and fast-paced story that will have you cheering for creatures that many people usually think of as pests.

This book also has thoughtful lessons about kindness and how we treat others, as well as the role of humans in the interlocking web of life that makes up the ecosystem we all share. Ages 8 to 12.

Related Reading: In This House We Read Actual Books So Our Kids Don’t Become Screen Zombies

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

Recommended by Ann Foster, selection librarian, Saskatoon Public Library

the westing game

Published in 1978, this was my all-time favourite book growing up, and the mystery storyline still holds up now as an adult reader. A rich old man mysteriously dies, leaving a sort of treasure hunt in place of his will. A group of heirs — none of whom seem to be actually related to him — are thrown into a competition to solve his puzzles and win his inheritance.

The cast of characters is diverse, including several characters of colour. All of them begin the book with stereotypes, but Raskin uses her multiple points of view to gradually show nuance in each of them. As the characters clash against one another in the competition, they also come to learn more about one another. I find that Raskin subtly argues against racism, xenophobia and misogyny, showing her characters learning to look past their prejudices to work together. Ages 8 to 12.

The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien)

Recommended by Anthea Bailie, collections strategist, Markham Public Library

The hobbit

The Hobbit is a superbly written work of high fantasy. It has been enjoyed by readers for over 80 years now, and is still well loved by millions. There are many themes in the book that work well with today’s principles. Bilbo, the main character, does not match the stereotypes of the knight-in-shining-armour style of hero. He despairs at the pointlessness of war and the greed of his companions — in many ways, he’s a good antidote to toxic masculinity.

As with any book, however, it is still a product of its time. There are essentially no female characters in the story. (Some are mentioned, but they barely have a speaking role, never mind any agency.) Also, the book can be read with an imperialistic lens and the morality is quite black and white.

Despite that, Tolkien’s works laid a seemingly inescapable foundation for fantasy that we still see in almost every aspect of the genre today. The magical adventures and beautiful language of the book captivated me as a child and still do today. Ages 10 and up.

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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