Top 10 Underappreciated Children’s Books 2/3May 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.
7. The Trumpet of the Swan, by E.B. White
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
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
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
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: