Earlier this week, USA Today and Scholastic’s Parent & Child Magazine released their picks for the 100 Greatest Books for Kids – a list that they’ve been counting down to since last December and that, in a few short days, has already inspired some pretty heated feedback on the internet. The “100 Greatest” list found its ways onto my radar after Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief of the Horn Book, posted a link to the list on Twitter accompanied by the comment “this is a very strange list.” Sutton followed up with a question on his blog – “Does anyone know how this list was put together?” – which, frankly, is what I think ANYONE would immediately ask after reading the list.
You can check out the list for yourself HERE.
I dug around Parent & Child‘s press materials and got a better idea of the “how” and the “why” the list was created. First, let’s look at the “why.” The list was ostensibly created to mark the various BIG reading events that will be taking place during March this year, including the 15th anniversary of the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (March 2nd, which also happens to be Dr. Seuss’ birthday) AND March just happens to be National Reading Month. (We just received our March calendar from my daughter’s kindergarten class and they’ve got multiple “National Reading Month” events planned for every week.)
To create our list, we asked several highly respected literacy experts, educators, and parents for suggestions. They came through in a big way — nearly 500 books were in the running. We used a variety of criteria to narrow down to 100 and then rank our titles, including diversity of genre, topic, format, ages and stages, authorship, and cultural representation. Factors such as literary and/or illustration excellence, popularity, and longevity or innovative freshness were all qualities of books in the final round.
So, on the surface, I can generally understand how and why they decided to take on this project. I can. But here’s the thing – Sutton is right. Dead right. It is a strange list. All of these kinds of lists are STRANGE lists.
Whenever someone takes it upon themselves to assemble a list of “The 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” or “The 10 Books That Will Change Your Life” or any of those huge, declarative “I am OBJECTIVELY ranking things that are inherently SUBJECTIVE and you will shut up and like it” lists, I don’t think it is ever, EVER a good idea.
Granted, the lists’ authors might disagree. Chances are, one of their main aims with this list was to stir controversy, get some publicity, and sell some newspapers and magazines – and, in that sense, by writing about the list on my blog, I’m giving them EXACTLY what they want. (Dammit.) BUT, beyond naked attention grabbing, I don’t think anyone can prove that lists like this one provide much positive value to the general public.
That’s one of my biggest issues with reading lists like this one – they are designed to be confrontational and inspire arguments, even though those arguments provide NO benefit to their target audience. When Parent & Child declares “these are the 100 GREATEST kids’ books“, they are blatantly implying that these titles are superior to EVERY other title that didn’t make this list. So, if Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is my favorite kids’ book and it didn’t make this list (it didn’t), by saying these books are the “100 Greatest”, it is, in effect, telling me that, “Your favorite book isn’t even good enough to crack our top 100. You are WRONG.”
The editors of Parent & Child might debate that reading, but any good journalist or writer knows the seductive appeal of throwing around phrases like “the greatest”, “the best,” or “the___ of all time.” Phrases like that challenge readers. They get the blood boiling. People see that on the internet and think, “You claim THAT is the funniest Lipdub of all time? Well, let me click on that and see how wrong you are, Huffington Post!” (The HuffPo abuses those phrases worse than almost ANY site on the web.)
YES, by declaring that these books are the “100 GREATEST” of all time, Parent & Child is going to spark debate, but HOW does that debate benefit anyone (aside from Parent & Child)? It hurts readers’ feelings, it makes people mad, and it makes a person question the relative value of one book over another – which is a useless argument. There’s no value in trying to objectively say “A Wrinkle in Time is a BETTER book than Harriet the Spy.” That is pure subjectivity. There is nothing quantifiable in that debate – it’s just comes down to how a person feels.
If Parent & Child had just said “Here are our picks for 100 GREAT Books That Any Kid Should Read”, the list would’ve been much more positive and constructive and much, much less confrontational. (And, I’ll admit, much less newsworthy, which is probably what inspired the decision.).
A list titled “100 GREAT Books That Any Kid Should Read” isn’t about judging, it’s about highlighting recommendations. It says “Here are 100 titles worth reading. Give them a look.” A list titled “The 100 Greatest Books” is all about judging value and ranking. And I could respect that – IF the Parent & Child contributors were prepared and ready for that debate.
Yes, they have a Facebook album where you can comment on their selections, but that’s a very one-sided, one way conversation. If the editors defended their picks and were willing to interact with their readers to answer questions about their criteria, defend their omissions, and argue in favor of their selections, I might not agree with every point they made, but I’d respect them for taking responsibility for so blatantly trolling their readers. (There are various definitions of “trolling” on the internet, but, essentially, it’s the art of saying something provocative and frustrating just to be provocative and frustrating.)
I think all a list like this does is inspire angry rhetoric like “They picked Anne of Green Gables over Little House on the Prairie?! FAIL!” or “Haha, they picked Harry Potter over Twilight! Suck it, Team Edward!” By giving into the sensational, I think Parent & Child robbed this list of a lot of its inherent value.
Because, as I’ve stated before, I LOVE getting reading suggestions and there are many titles on this list that I’ve never heard of or read. And, while this list has given me that – it has put some allegedly “great” books onto my radar – the value of those suggestions are definitely overshadowed by the irrational anger and incredulity I feel every time I realize that Sylvester and the Magic Pebble or Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day DID NOT make this list. It makes me annoyed at the list’s organizers and it makes me doubt their judgment. (And it also makes me want to openly declare that I’m on “Team Sylvester” or “Team Alexander”, which is just embarrassing.)
And, here we are, THAT is the number one MOST frustrating aspect of the 100 Greatest Books for Kids list. (I can oversell just as well as they can.)
The most frustrating aspect is that, in my heart, I know that these are probably 100 really, really amazing books, but, thanks to its sensationalistic presentation, pointless ranking system, and the lack of any kind of constructive debate surrounding it, when I look at this list, my instinctive response is to roll my eyes and say “whatever.” And these books – most of them anyway – deserve better.
(Postscript – Oh, and did I mention that they left off Sylvester and the Magic Pebble? EPIC FAIL.)