Top 10 Underappreciated Children’s Books 1/3May 6, 2011
Okay, so the thing about this list? It’s going to be incredibly subjective. I’ve limited it to books I own, and to books I first read when I was the appropriate age for them. So, a) there are things that I haven’t included because I haven’t read them since I was in sixth grade, and I’ve never been able to track them down, and b) these are the books I grew up on, and my love for them isn’t always rational. I mean, I’m trying — Patty’s Summer Days isn’t on here because I know that not many people really go for that sort of thing. And there are books I loved as much as these that aren’t under-appreciated by any definition. I would like to note, however, that Little Women is not one of them. It is over-appreciated, and — okay, I can’t say I don’t like it at all. But I don’t like it very much, and I have lots of unpopular opinions about it. My best-loved Louisa May Alcott book is and always will be An Old-Fashioned Girl.
10. The Secret Life of Dilly McBean, by Dorothy Haas (1986)
When I was in elementary school, my grandfather used to take me to the library on a regularly basis. And I read — oh, I don’t even know. A lot of stuff. Every Encyclopedia Brown book they had, probably, and kind of a lot of Sweet Valley High. And I read The Secret Life of Dilly McBean. Over and over again. I’m not sure how many times I borrowed this, or how many times I remembered it fondly in later years. And then, a few years ago, I tracked down a copy, and knowing I own it gives me the same happy glow as knowing I own a copy of Walter Sherwood’s Probation, Horatio Alger Jr.’s paean to gullibility. I’m not sure if this book is any good, really, but I love it to bits. I think it’s the kind of children’s book that only appeals to kids. Most of the children’s books I love best are worthwhile no matter what age you are, but I think you have to be, say, under the age of thirteen for this one to work its magic on you.
Dilly McBean is an orphan. In the absence of his proper guardian, Mr. Orbed, he’s being raised by a bank, which sends him off to boarding schools during the school year and sleep-away camps during the summer. Also, he’s fabulously wealthy. And magnetic. Metal things are attracted to his hands. Yeah.
Eventually Mr. Orbed returns from studying penguins at the South Pole and decides that what Dilly needs is a real home, so he sets him up in a cute house with a couple named Blackpool to watch over him. I like to think that they’re purposely reminiscent of the Barrymores in Hound of the Baskervilles. Anyway, for the rest of the book there are three separate things going on: Dilly’s new life with his dog and his bike and his new friends, Dilly learning to fine-tune his superpowers, and some kind of moderately incompetent criminal organization trying to kidnap him.
It’s all perfectly satisfactory. But everything comes back to the first two lines of the book: “Dilly McBean was being raised by a bank. And Dilly McBean was magnetic.” And somehow those things make the book indescribably wonderful.
9. Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter (1913)
Pollyanna is rightfully considered a classic, but I believe it’s also unappreciated: people hate this book. They say it’s blandly optimistic and sickeningly sweet. It’s neither.
Everyone’s read this, right? Pollyanna Whittier comes to live with her aunt Polly Harrington and shows everyone within walking distance the power of positive thinking?
Pollyanna is a cheerful kid, and while her life hasn’t been great, it’s been okay. And her father has trained her into looking at the bright side of things from a pretty young age, so she’s got in the habit of it. But when something really bad happens to her, she can’t do it anymore. And I think that’s fantastic. This book isn’t saying that as long as you look on the bright side you’ll be happy, and that’s good, because the danger of saying that positive thinking works all the time is that when you feel bad you might blame yourself, and the worst possible thing to think when you’re feeling bad is that it’s your own fault. Eleanor Porter sometimes gets dangerously close to that kind of territory, but what she is saying, mostly, is that positive thinking helps. And probably she’s right.
The other think about Pollyanna is that it’s part of that tradition of innocent children softening the hearts of cranky older people which began (I think) with Susan Warner and The Wide, Wide World in 1850, and which had a pretty good run in the decade or two preceding Pollyanna with The Little Colonel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Anne of Green Gables. Oh, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, if we’re counting boys as well as girls. But none of them do it better than Pollyanna. I mean, Probably Anne of Green Gables is a better book, and cases can be made for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Wide, Wide World, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. But none of them beat Pollyanna at that small-child-curing-crankiness thing. Eleanor H. Porter owns this trope now.
8. Detectives in Togas, by Henry Winterfeld (1953)
Henry Winterfeld was a German writer who wrote a number of children’s books. I knew of two: Castaways in Liliput, which I remember enjoying, and Detectives in Togas, which I kind of fell in love with. It’s one of those books where a bunch of kids runs around town solving a mystery — it’s got a lot in common with The Otterbury Incident, actually — but it’s set in ancient Rome. I think the historical setting is really well done, too. There’s lots of detail, but it’s all relevant, and it never feels stuffily educational.
The other thing about Detectives in Togas is that it’s a really well-plotted mystery novel. I mean, it’s hard to tell, because I read this over and over as a kid, so there’s no way I’ll ever forget the solution, but I think that the mystery is clever, not obvious, and completely reasonable in context. And there are lots of fairly subtle clues. It just works really, really well. And Charlotte Kleinert’s illustrations are adorable.