Top 10 Underappreciated Children’s Books 1/3

May 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)

Yes, this is a terrible cover.

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)


Not a great cover either, but this is what my copy looks like. Actually, I think you'll find that the number of good children's book covers to come out of the '90s was startlingly small.

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)

This one, I like

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.




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  1. YES on An Old-Fashioned Girl. My mother’s copy (which was lost by the time I was old enough to read) had “This is the best book ever.” with a date and then “This is still the best book ever.” with a later date and so forth, and I agree it is the best Alcott.

    • Yeah, I like the Rose Campbell books too, but An Old-Fashioned Girl is easily the best. Come to think of it, I haven’t reread it yet this year. I should do that.

  2. The only one of those I’ve read is Pollyanna, and that wasn’t until I was an adult. I liked it a lot and have been meaning to read the sequels.

    I remember reading Castaways in Liliput but have never heard of Detectives in Togas (I probably wouldn’t have read it because it was about boys and I would only read books that had girls in them).

    I have to confess I’ve never read Little Women. I started it many times and just couldn’t get into it. I do like Alcott’s adult short stories.

    • My impression is that most of the Pollyanna sequels aren’t worthwhile. But I absolutely recommend Pollyanna Grows Up, mostly because it’s the Eleannor H. Porter-iest book Eleanor H. Porter ever wrote.

      You missed out on a lot by not reading boys books! I actually was a lot more interested in books about boys than books about girls when I was little, probably because the boys tended to have all the best advenures. It was only when I got a little biit older that I started to really appreciate girl heroines.

      The thing about Little Women is that it is a book about how much Louisa May Alcott hated herself. I don’t think I realized that when I was little (although I was always kind of uncomfortable with the book) but ow the more I think about it, the angrier I get.

  3. That Dilly McBean is way after my time as I was in college in 1986. That is always a problem with children’s books, you can have lots of good stuff come out between then and now. It is also a bit embarrasing to check out the children’s section at the library when you are a lot older! Libraries are increasingly allowing online book reservations for you to pick up at the check out desk so that is one solution. You can’t scan the shelves to see if anything interesting comes up though. I haven’t done this method yet.

    What I have done is simply use the Kindle shop to preview and buy the books outright if available. I’ve done this for one of the Mary Poppins titles and The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

    It’s amazing how some children books stay with you over the years. I’ve had dreams of discovering new Three Investigators books that I never read.

    It will be interesting to read the responses to Pollyanna. I didn’t have a problem with Little Women and An Old Fasioned Girl was rather fun in thinking what would be a comparable girl today. It rightly stresses the importance of character over style.

    It was interesting to see that the Detectives in Togas made your list. I know I checked it out many times in the library. One book that would probably make my list is “The Lion’s Paw”, it made me wish I was an orphan too and have the same adventures. I’m not sure if it is still in school libraries as it was out of print for many years with an estate reprint only recently. While I have the paperback in storage, I requested a Kindle version so it may come down the road.

    • When I was in junior high and high school and wanted a children’s book, I would make my mom go check it out for me–I was so afraid one of my friends would see me in the children’s room!

      I had forgotten all about The Lion’s Paw! That was a great book. And I’ve just started rereading Pollyanna so I can read Pollyanna Grows Up.

    • The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of my favorites! Mary Poppins, on the other hand — I don’t know, I guess I just always wanted those books to be a little bit better than they were, although I think there’s a pretty good bit that takes place in a zoo in one of them? It is kind of embarrassing to be seen reading children’s books as an adult. I used to sit on the floor in Barnes & Noble reading kids’ books, but now I feel awkward even browsing.

      I’ve never read The Lion’s Paw, but the descriptions I’ve read of it look like fun. Are you familiar with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books? I think those are the classic children’s sailing stories.

      • I have not read any of the Swallows and Amazons series of books but did come across a mention of them while looking up British children’s stories a few months back. There doesn’t seem to be a legit ebook version of those with the possible exception of googlebooks offering a version for 10.99 or 11.99. It might be cloud based only.

        I know what you mean by wanting something to be better than it actually was. Mary Poppins was pretty great for me as a kid because of all the wild stuff that went on. I liked the Pippi Longstocking books even more though. Unfortunately there is no Kindle version yet. The Mixed Up Files was great fun because of being pretty close to the same time period and age of the characters getting to hide out in such a cool place. The illustrations were great as well.

        Quite a bit different were the All-of-a-Kind Family books which I eagerly read at the library. They deal with a Jewish family of girls in the early 1900s. I’m not sure exactly why they clicked with me in elementary school as a boy even though girls were probably the audience for these books. My school was next door to a Jewish synagogue so that probably played a role in that. I think I was really interested in all of the cultural holidays in the book. I’ve been thinking of buying them recently even though they aren’t in digital format yet.

        • I just noticed they added the first All-of-a-Kind Family book to the Kindle so I’m getting that. I’ll let you know if it is as good as I remember, I haven’t read them since the mid 1970s.

          • I finished the first All-Of-A-Kind Family book yesterday. I only remembered a few things but it was a very nice read and I noticed more of the background details this time such as clothing, transportation and so on. My grandparents lived in about the same time frame but certainly not the same environment! It is really quite interesting when you compare it with some of the historical photos of the same locations at the same time as seen at the shorpy website. The drawings in the book are fantastic and detailed. If more become available for the Kindle I plan to get them but if it takes too long I may get the paper books.

            After I finished it, one of the suggestions was Betsy-Tacy which I never read or heard of. I took a chance and bought it. It was a lot better than I thought it would be and apparently the reading level increases in later books in the series so this is on my radar for future purchases and for reading aloud to my niece who is at the right age to start them. Any one read them as a kid?

            • Not only as a kid, but I still read them at least once a year!

            • I’ve read a lot about the Betsy-Tacy books — both reviews and scholarly articles — and I keep wanting to read them, but I haven’t come across any copies of the books.

        • I’m pretty sure I read the All-of-a-Kind Family books too, only in the mid 1990s. Thanks for the reminder about them, I think I’ll try to find them again!

        • The Swallows and Amazons books are, I think, generally agreed to be the best children’s sailing adventures out there. They’re a lot bigger in the UK than the US, though, and I got my copies of the books in used bookstores in the UK. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a normal (not super upscale or dedicated to a particualr kind of book) used bookstore in England and not seen at least one copy of Swallows and Amazons.

          I liked Pippi Longstocking a lot, although I’m not sure if I ever read more than the one book. I’m pretty sure I read at least one of the All-of-a-Kind Family books, but I suspect I read it too young, because I don’t remember it well, and, as a Jewish girl who used to live on the Lower East Side, I probably should. Also, my fifth and sixth grade teacher mentioned her daughter being really into them last time I talked to her.

  4. I love Pollyanna, but have never read any of the sequels. I agree with you about Alcott–I always try Little Women again, but I end up feeling like I’m making myself get through to the end. I love Eight Cousins (better than Rose in Bloom, but you can’t read one without the other), and An Old-Fashioned Girl is my fave, too, although it flip-flops with Jack and Jill. I recently added Under the Lilacs to my collection, but having only read it through once, I haven’t made up my mind where it fits in my hierarchy of likes. I like Alcott’s short stories–I have a couple of collections of them. I can’t wait to see what’s next on your list of underappreciated children’s books and whether more of mine are on your list, too.

    • I keep meaning to read Jack and Jill, butsomehow I never get around to it. What is it about?

      And Eight Cousins is wonderful, although I actually prefer Rose in Bloom, at least up until the last few chapters. I ahaven’t read many of the shorts stories, but the ones I have read are great, and somehow they seem to me to be more closely related to An Old-Fashioned Girl than to the other novels.

      • Jack and Jill are two friends who have an accident while sledding. Jack breaks his leg, but Jill is more severely injured (her back). The story revolves around their friendshp and the lives of their friends–boys and girls–and how they come to learn more about themselves through their trials and good times. That sounds way more didactic and preachy than it is. The characters are people you genuinely like and the things they do always make me want to join in the fun (a wonderful Christmas tree, Washington’s birthday tableaux, debating society, making and hanging baskets of flowers for May Day, etc.). The “young folks” range in age from about 12 to 16 or 17.

        • That sounds excellent — like a cross between the usual LMA stuff and Carolyn Wells.

  5. I have that same copy of Pollyanna, and the cover is horrid! I’ve seen Detectives in Togas before I always confused it with a very similar book I’d already read (Google now tells me that that was The Silver Pigs). I’ll have to pick up this one next time I come across it.
    I have to second the love for All-Of-A-Kind Family and Betsy-Tacy, though I don’t the latter is as unappreciated anymore. I loved watching the characters grow and change over the books.

    • Yeah, a lot of people have been trumpeting their love for Betsy-Tacy in recent years. I feel like I missed out on something by not reading them as a kid. I still want to read them, but I don’t think it will be quite the same thing.

      • I didn’t hear about Betsy-Tacy either until I saw them mentioned on a blog when I was about twenty. The first books are very young and short, but Betsy’s voice matures as the series goes on. My favorite thing about the books is the amount of detail, and you know it’s all accurate. At the back of each one there are pictures of the people the characters are based on and items from the author’s old scrapbooks.

        • I coincidentally managed to pick up the first book at a book sale last weekend, and I enjoyed it. I don’t know that I’ll go looking for them specifically, but I’ll definitely keep an eye out. Do you think reading them in order is important?

  6. I didn’t see Freddie, The Pig on your top ten.

    • It is true that Freddy the Pig is not on my personal list of ten books I loved and read repeatedly as a kid. You know why? Because I didn’t love it or read it repeatedly as a kid.

  7. Well, what we read as kids depends a lot upon what we’re exposed to. I read several of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, as well as The Bobbsey Twins, and Tom Swift Jr. But those are all well-known series, and probably over-appreciated at that. I was also very fond of the Encyclopedia Brown books. One book I liked so much I had to re-read it every summer was Henry Reed’s Baby-Sitting Service, by Keith Robertson. I just found it hilarious. Henry Reed spends the summers with his aunt and uncle in Grovers Corner, New Jersey, and manages to get into various unintentional funny situations. Like how he ends up running a baby-sitting service in the first place. There’s a series of Henry Reed books, five in all. The first three are all quite good, but the fourth and fifth are little more lackluster, with the fifth one really being a kind of reboot of the series that made the two main kids, Henry and Midge, younger than they were in the first four books. Keith Robertson also apparently wrote a few mysteries, but I’ve been unable to track any down to see what they were like.

    And speaking of reading what one is exposed to, I also read my mother’s copy of Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints as a kid and loved it. But of course, that was never intended to be a kid’s book, so wouldn’t really belong here!

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