Top 10 Underappreciated Children’s Books 2/3

May 17, 2011

Here’s part two. You may notice that the formatting is unbelieveably horrible. I tried to fix it, but I’ve given up now.

Part 1/3

7. The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White

The dust jacket on my copy is long since lost.

So, here’s an unpopular opinion for you: this is the best E.B. White book. Charlotte’s Web is pretty good. I like it a lot. Stuart Little coasts on the fact that tiny things are cute. The Trumpet of the Swan is better than either of them. When I was little, I also thought it was completely hilarious — I would reread bits and sit there giggling to myself — but it’s probably only moderately funny. That’s okay, though, because it’s clever and thoughtful and enormously weird, and when it comes to children’s books, that’s what I want most.

The Trumpet of the Swan, for those of you unlucky enough not to have read it, is about a mute trumpeter swan named Louis. He can’t attract a mate without being able to make trumpet-y noises at her, so his father goes off and steals him a trumpet, and the rest of the book is all about people being wowed by his excellent trumpet-playing skills, which makes me happy because one of my favorite things in books is characters who are really good at what they do (cf. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, two of the three books in the final section of this list, and that post I will someday write on Trustee from the Toolrom). Anyway, it’s a wonderful book all around, and a deeply satisfying one. Most books that I like leave me wanting to know more, but I think it’s actually better when a book gives you exactly as much as you need, and this is one of those.


6. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham

I think this cover is gorgeous.

Okay, here’s one I read several times when I was, oh, maybe twelve? I ran across it at a used bookstore last summer, and thought, “I adored that book. Why haven’t I thought about it for the last dozen years?” And then I reread it, and, as it turns out, I still adore it.

This is a fictional take on the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, who revolutionized navigation in the late 18th century. Latham introduces us to Nat as a kid about to be apprenticed to a ship chandlery in Salem in the 1770s, and from there we follow his struggles to educate himself and others. It’s a sad book, because massive numbers of people die, but it helps to know that they’re real people who died, rather than characters the author is gratuitously killing off. And also, it’s an incredibly moving book, and I think it owes some of that to the historical environment. Nat’s family is very poor, and a career at sea includes the possibility of death, and Latham doesn’t minimize those things.

And then there’s the people-being-really-good-at-what-they-do thing. It’s fun to see Nat surprising people with his surreptitiously acquired book-learning, and it’s even better to see him winning over his shipmates with his expertise on practical matters. Especially when they really don’t want to be won over. It’s just — Nathaniel Bowditch, as portrayed by Jean Lee Latham, is incredibly cool. You get to know him pretty well over the course of the book, and that is an excellent thing.

Just keep the tissues handy.


5. The Otterbury Incident, by Cecil Day-Lewis

This is the original cover, by Edward Ardizzone. He did the illustrations inside, too, and they're excellent.

This isn't the original cover -- the original cover is better. But this is the one I've got, so I'm obliged to like it best.

We’ve been over this one already. But wasn’t it inevitable that it would be on this list? I love every bit of it, from the tank to Johnny Sharp’s pathetic attempts at flirting with Ted’s sister Rose. But especially the tank. And Nick and Ted and Toppy and George. And Charlie Musgrove.


4. Move Over, Twerp, by Martha Alexander

I apologize profusely for my terrible cellphone pictures, and also for the formatting in this section of the post, which WordPress has forced upon me. Seriously, WordPress, multiple line breaks are handy sometimes.

This is the only picture book on the list, but it’s the coolest picture book ever, and I sincerely regret scribbling on some of the pages in pencil when I was too young to know better. It’s about this kid named Jeffrey who starts taking the bus to school, and has to contend with a — I sort of want to say bully, but he’s not, really, he’s just a older kid who figures that, since he’s big enough to physically remove Jeffrey from his favorite seat, he might as well. He ignores him the rest of the time, at least until Jeffrey figures out how to convey to him and the other kids on the bus that he’s much too cool to be ignored.

Also too cool to be ignored:

Jeffrey’s sister Katie:

When I was little, I wanted to be her.

Also I want her dress.

Everyone’s clothes:

I worry that this book had more of an effect on my sense of style than I ever realized.


Part 3/3



  1. My younger sister and I got the boxset of three E.B. White books, all of which you mention in your post. My favorite was always Charlotte’s Web. The Trumpet of the Swan was the least read. I think it was because the animals didn’t talk in that one if I remember right.

    I never read the Carry On, Mr Bowditch book but did get another Newberry book that sounds somewhat similar in Johnny Tremain. That one dealt with a young silversmith in training who gets caught up in the war for independence from England.

    I somehow missed The Otterbury Incident in the school library. It sounds exactly like the kind of book I would have checked out multiple times. The library system for my county does not list a copy so I’ll have to buy it online or use an interlibrary loan to get it from a library that has a copy. The old jacket looks absolutely charming.

    • There is a lot less cutesy talking animal stuff in Trumpet of the Swan, but paradoxically it’s really strong on themes of communication. It also has the happiest ending of the three.

      I read and liked Johnny Tremain, and I think it’s great as a historical novel, but it’s much less emotionally engaging than Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.

      I think the Otterbury Incident, like the Ransome books, was/is much better known in the UK, and I think I got my copy on a trip to London when I was a kid. It really is great, though: the perfect mix of kids being independent and kids being kids.

  2. I have not read Carry on, Mr. Bowditch in years, and I forgot how much I enjoyed it.

    Like James, we had the E.B.White boxed set and my mom read them all to us. Trumpet of the Swan is the only one I never went back and reread on my own.

    • I think most people prefer Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web to Trumpet of the Swan, and I don’t really know why. It’s a little less cutesy, I guess, and more low-key, but I genuinely like it best. I mean, Charlotte’s Web is great, too, but I really do think Trumpet of the Swan is better. I don’t know that I ever liked Stuart Little at all, though.

      • Unsurprisingly, Trumpet of the Swan is totally my favorite as well. I used to spend uncounted hours in childhood pretending to be a swan and building my nest (out of pillows and blankets and jump ropes) as per the instructional guide therein. I think Charlotte’s Web is my least favorite, because I liked the old New York City and odd ending of Stuart Little quite a lot. And I like things that are miniature.

        • There is something pretty great about White’s description of nest-building. I never tried it out myself (although I kind of want to now) but it’s an image that’s stuck with me.

          I love miniature things, and I love New York, but I conceived a deep and violent dislike of Stuart Little for some reason I can’t actually remember. I sort of know it’s me at fault and not the book, but you will never hear me admit that out loud.

  3. The Tank, The Tank, I used to dream of building one myself. The first illustration of the tank rumbling down the hill to battle had me mesmerised.

    The Otterbury Incident was in my junior school library and was an original hardback – I had it on loan constantly aged 12, no one else was interested but me and my name was on the loan card a dozen times.

    • SAME, re: building your own tank. And I also had books where the loan card was just my name over and over.

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