Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Old School Kidlit Favorites Through the Decades

Today, Top Ten Tuesday's theme is a "throwback" freebie. Since I review primarily older children's books, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to highlight some of my favorites. To ensure variety amongst the titles, I have divided the 20th century into decades and chosen one favorite per decade. This is not to say that each book mentioned is my absolute favorite book of its given decade - that would be impossible for me to narrow down! Instead, each book is merely one favorite of many. (Note: because I haven't read that many books published before 1920, I chose only one title to represent the years 1900-1919. Links are to my reviews.)


The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906)
This family story follows the lives of Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis (Phil) while their father is away from home doing something the kids are purposely told nothing about. In their new home, a smaller house in the country than they have previously owned, the three siblings have many adventures: making friends with Perks the porter, waving to a particular old gentleman who rides the train past their station every day, and even saving a train from a very bad accident! For being so old, this book felt really modern to me when I first read it, and though it has been several years, I still think of scenes from it now and then.


The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (1928)
This historical fiction novel was the winner of the 1929 Newbery Medal. I read it a couple of years ago when I challenged myself to read 52 children's historical fiction novels in one year. At the time, I never could have guessed that a novel about the Middle Ages in Poland would become such a favorite, but it turned out to be one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. In the story, a new trumpeter, Pan Andrew Charnetski, has come to Krakow to stay with relatives while he waits to deliver a valuable object to the king. When he learns that his relatives have been killed, Pan Andrew and his wife and son, Joseph must conceal their identities. Pan Andrew's role as the night trumpeter is meant to keep him out of harm's way but it is only a matter of time before his enemies catch up to him. The story as a whole is a struggle between good and evil, which favors humility, hard work, and honesty over pride, instant gratification, and deceit. Truly, this is a book with "authentic value." 


Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (1933)
This is the fourth of the Swallows & Amazons books, a series of adventure novels by British author Arthur Ransome. I love the entire series, but even after having read all 12 books, this one is still my favorite. Dick and Dorothea Callum arrive in the Lake District for a visit over their winter holiday from school, and they meet the Walkers and the Blacketts, two families of kids who have had several adventures together in the past. As the Walkers and Blacketts reinvent their make-believe world to suit the wintry weather, the Ds, as the Callum kids are called, get their first experience playing independently in the great outdoors. This would be a perfect snow day read.


The Open Gate by Kate Seredy (1943)
This realistic fiction novel takes place during World War II in the town next to the one I grew up in. Though some of my love for the book is clearly based in my personal connection to the locations named in it, it is also just a wonderfully written story about the Prestons, a family of city slickers who buy a farm and learn to take care of it from their new neighbors, Mr. Van Keuran, and his cold, stern wife, who are raising their artistic grandson, Andy, after the tragic death of his parents, and Mike and his wife, Linka, Slovakian immigrants whose son has gone into the military in anticipation of the United States entering the war. All Kate Seredy books are favorites of mine, but this one is at the top of the list!


Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)
Like The Trumpeter of Krakow, this 1958 Carnegie Medal winning novel is not a book I would ever have imagined myself loving so much until I challenged myself to read more books outside my favorite genres. Described as a "low fantasy novel," this is a time slip story in which Tom, who is visiting his aunt and uncle, discovers that a mysterious clock in the hallway at their house (owned by an elderly woman named Mrs. Bartholomew) stops for an hour each night, during which a garden magically appears outside the back door. In the garden, Tom meets Hatty, who is living at some point in the house's history. The two form a friendship which becomes important to both of them and remains so even as Hatty ages and outgrows Tom as a playmate. The book culminates in the most perfectly emotional ending I have ever read.


The Moon By Night by Madeleine L'Engle (1963)
I like most of L'Engle's Austins books, but this, the second, is the one I would have enjoyed most if I'd read it as a kid. A family road trip story, it follows Vicky Austin and her family as they travel from their childhood home in Thornhill to Laguna Beach, California, where their aunt and uncle will soon live. On the way, the Austins visit well-known attractions like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, make the acquaintance of a snide and sickly young man named Zachary Gray who does his best to woo Vicky, and share in surprising adventures involving everything from bears to flash floods. Vicky also makes her own internal, spiritual journey, as she begins to come of age.  This is the exact kind of book I loved to read when I was in middle school, and it hit a definite sweet spot when I first discovered it five years ago.


The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978)
I put off reading this 1979 Newbery Medal book until adulthood, which was probably a mistake, considering how much I enjoyed it. Not only is it a compelling mystery, but each of the characters involved in the strange plot is a believable and interesting individual complete with flaws and quirks. I said in my original review that I wanted to read it again - it may be time to get around to doing that soon!


The Fledgling by Jane Langton (1980)
This 1981 Newbery Honor book is the fourth in a series that was published over a 40-year timespan. The main character, Georgie, lives in Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Walden Pond, and the aunt and uncle with whom she lives run a transcendentalist school. When Georgie befriends a mysterious bird called the Goose Prince, she attracts the attention of her nosy and vindictive neighbors, who plan to kill the bird during hunting season. This is a multi-layered and sophisticated story with references to many things that ordinarily are not mentioned in children's books. Not all of the books of the series live up to the standard set by this title, but this is a really different and wonderful story.


Strider by Beverly Cleary (1991)
I remember reading and enjoying Dear Mr. Henshaw as a kid, but when I read this sequel a few years back, I loved it so much more. Now that Leigh Botts is about to enter high school, he no longer writes to his favorite author, but instead he keeps a diary of the important things that happen to him. As high school begins, these events include finding a running dog named Strider, custody of whom he shares with his best friend, Barry, trying to hide Strider from his landlady whose opinion on pets is unknown, reconnecting with his dad, who has fallen into some bad luck, practicing for the track team, and working up the nerve to speak to Geneva, a fellow runner who has beautiful red hair. What is impressive about this book is how well Cleary writes from the teen male point of view. In my review, I likened this book to contemporary titles by Gary Paulsen and James Patterson, and I think that comparison still holds true.

Do you read vintage children's books? What are some of your favorite titles?


  1. If by vintage you mean old favorites from my childhood (so like Beverly Cleary) then yes. Otherwise not so much, although some of these books sound very interesting. I'm definitely going to check out The Trumpeter of Krakow. - Katie

  2. I loved The Westing Game when I read it as a child. I don't remember much about it though. I think a reread is definitely in order. Great list; happy reading!

    Here's my Top Ten Tuesday!

  3. I'm so glad I got to read through your list. I loved Trumpeter of Krakow and Westing Game, which I read when I was doing the Newbery Challenge. I read one of the Swallows books in my 1001 Children's Books group, and it was wonderful. I've never read anything other than Wrinkle in Time by L'Engle, but now I think I might look this one up. And Fledgeling sounds very different from most children's books. Thanks for this list.

  4. I recently just read The Westing Game for the first time-- I read it to my kid as we like to read books together before he goes to sleep. I was kind of like "what took me so long??". It was super intricate and fun. My son really liked it, so it definitely stood the test of time :)

  5. I keep meaning to read the Swallows & Amazons series, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. I read Dear Mr. Henshaw and Strider with my fourth graders when I taught, and they always enjoyed it. A lot of the students could relate to Leigh, especially those in divorce situations.