Does it exist? Should he?

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Canon is defined as “a set of rules or texts considered authoritative” or “a set of works considered to be of high quality and representative of a domain”. When you think of the canon of children’s literature, which books do you think of? Do you think of the books of your childhood, or do you have a mix of these and newer ones that have been released since?

There isn’t really an official canon of children’s literature. There are laureates like the famous Newbery and Caldecott laureates, the Coretta Scott King Prize and the Belpré Medal. Then there are the “classics”, books like The Velveteen Rabbit and The Wizard of Oz. But to my knowledge, there is no widely accepted canon of children’s literature. If you ask 20 people what books they would put in a children’s literature canon, I think you would get 20 different lists.

NEH and MENSA playlists: a canon for today?

A homeschooler colleague posted about the Mensa For Kids Excellence in Reading program, and it immediately caught my attention because my son and I read all the time. The program is open to all children under the age of 18. It’s a year round challenge with playlists, and if you fill it out and send it in, you get a T-shirt. Who doesn’t like T-shirts? The lists are based on the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Favorites and Non-Fictional Literature Favorites playlists, but with some modifications.

When I heard about this it struck me as the closest thing to a potential canon, perhaps because of the weight these two organizations carry.

According to the NEH website, the first Summertime Favorites list was published in 1988. The books on the list were chosen by an informal survey of 60 public and private schools across the United States (Oh, how I’d love to know which schools and how diverse the list of schools was). All of the books on the list had been published before 1960. The NEH website says this showed the books “have stood the test of time of at least a generation.”

The website admits that the list has only been updated occasionally afterwards, and the NEH has asked the American Library Association (ALA) to reconsider the selections. The purpose of the annual lists was to “recommend children’s books that meet the standard of” enduring value. ” They want to have a selection of books that children will want to continue reading with their own children. NEH staff read all of the titles on offer and on the website recognize that the effort will “grow and evolve” over time and ask for suggestions via email. When you click on the lists, there is no quote as to when the list was last updated, so it is not clear when the list “last evolved”. (at least I haven’t seen any).

The Nonfiction Favorites list was born because they realized that the Summertime Favorites list lacked books called “information texts”. So they looked at non-fiction award lists and crowdsourcing recommendations, as well as consulted a panel of education and library professionals. There is also this phrase on the website: “After extensive review and consultation, we have compiled a list of books covering most of the many projects we have funded over the past half century. ” What does it mean? Is this list chosen only from the projects funded by the NEH? If so, would this list not be highly biased? For this list, the age range starts between 5 and 8 years old. I will say this list is better than Summertime Favorites, with varying subjects and authors.

Explore the lists

I love a good reading list, so I was delighted to see the Reading for Excellence list. My son is in kindergarten, so I looked at the K-3 reading list. While I was delighted to see Judy Blume, Chinua Achebe, Beverly Cleary, and Kate DiCamillo on the list, there were others I was appalled to see (Dr Seuss and Laura Ingalls Wilder were the first who jumped out at me). But more so was the fact that the list seemed somehow… heavy. Of course, I understand that personal preferences come into play. Someone else might like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel. I couldn’t help but think that there are so many new and wonderful books that could more accurately reflect today’s world.

What about books like We Are Water Protectors, with Indigenous representation and the topic of the importance of water and social activism? Or Julián at the wedding, with his joyful representations of love and gender expression? Or The Proudest Blue, about wearing the hijab and being proud of who you are? Or finally, one of my personal favorites, I Talk Like a River, about stuttering and finding new ways to reframe what people see as different?

I emailed Mensa for Kids asking why some books were still on the list, like Little house in the meadow, when he has derogatory comments and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and people of color. This is perhaps the most obvious example – it could easily be replaced by Louise Erdrich’s. The birch house. We could also have a lot of talk about Dr Seuss, who is also on the list, as well as Georges curious. (This isn’t the happy story you think you remember – and good luck trying to explain to your young child why George smokes a pipe at one point). Pippi Longstocking is also included, and it should be noted that the book has been criticized for its racist stereotypes.

The response from one of the Gifted Youth Programs was that they “also recognize that the list is not as comprehensive as it could be. That’s why we worked on the list and started adding more diverse titles… ”I was told that they accepted suggestions on updates to the book lists, so I responded with some of my favourites. (I’ll say the list includes William’s Doll, by Charlotte Zolotow, which was one of the first children’s books to address gender stereotypes – but I think there are better and more inclusive books out there to do so. ). I did not have any answer. When I subsequently emailed them letting them know I was working on this article and had questions about specific, concrete things they were doing to make sure their lists are diverse and how they might see this reading schedule change over time, again I didn’t get an answer.

two boys writing on a book
Photo by Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash
Louise Erdrich's La Maison de Bouleau blanket

I liked NEH Nonfiction’s favorites, but as mentioned before, their summer favorites list left a lot to be desired. The website asks, “Are there enough that appeal to girls and boys?” Are some works no longer classic but simply old? Books are books – I urge the NEH to move away from the binary thinking of “books for girls” and “books for boys”. And yes, there are many who are “just old”. (I’ll give them credit for putting The birch house on their list, although they also put Small house. Maybe they hope parents will use this to discuss the two books together, but how many families will? Given that the NEH listed both, it is even more interesting that Mensa chose only Small house).

In response to their statement asking readers to email them with their comments, I did. I explained that I was working on this article and asked how they determine the “enduring value” of a book and what steps they take to ensure that these lists are diverse and inclusive. I received a response form that directed me to a new email address – different from their website because they no longer verify that email – and I never received a response after I got sent an email to the new address.

Moving forward in children’s literature

In the end, is it really question if there is a children’s gun? I am not sure. For me personally, no. I don’t pick my son’s books or the books we read together just from academic or recommended reading lists. My interest was piqued when I heard about these lists because I wanted a fun activity for us to do. I don’t consider the “classics” to be the only books of value. I do not consider such lists to be the gospel. But a lot of people do. Parents who want guidance and don’t know where to start may adhere to some lists of “okay” books and miss out on other great stories. Children might not see themselves represented much – or not at all – in some recommended playlists. There are homeschooling approaches and educational styles that deride the “twaddle” or what they consider to be trivial books. Parents and teachers who strictly adhere to these lists can never deviate from high-profile and accepted lists like these.

I would love to see these lists updated every year, with the pillars of the lists alongside books that reflect hot topics and new and recent books that have made an impression on the community at large. I wonder what would happen if the NEH today investigated 60 different schools, from a wide range of communities, on ‘summer favorites’. It is a list that I would love to see, compared to the original list and the current lists on their website.

I think a lot of people have an idea of ​​children’s classics from their own childhood and what is considered “enriching” for their own children. Perhaps the real question is whether our own personal understanding of a possible children’s canon should evolve and be a constant work in progress. After all, language, writing, and ideas evolve. Childhood evolves; the childhood of today is not the childhood of 50-60 years ago. It’s not even the childhood I had 30-35 years ago. We change and evolve. Shouldn’t the canon also evolve?


If you want to check out some of the children’s books rioters love, check out the Best Children’s Books of 2020 and 31 of the Best Children’s Books.

If you want to diversify your children’s reading, try diversity children’s books that celebrate our differences and challenge the suffocating homogeneity of bestselling children’s books.

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