Susan Orlean has a blog post up at the New Yorker where she solicited recommendations for books via Twitter with the tag #booksthatchangedkidsworlds. Her explanation was that she essentially wanted the hive mind of her followers to nominate books to help her refresh her bookshelves for her and her five year old son.
On its own it’s not a bad, if passive, way for a parent to gather suggestions via a social network without constantly burdening librarians and booksellers, though I couldn’t help but instantly ask: whose world got changed by some of these books? Children certainly weren’t the majority of suggesters – kids and teen are barely active on Twitter at all – so these would have to be books put forth either by parents or adults.
As expected, the list includes generally-considered classics and a good smattering of newer titles, and Orelan freely noted in a follow-up Tweet that the list was not final and could be adjusted over time.
This list will never be finished to everyone’s satisfaction, I can tell you that.
But I was thinking about the books that have changed my own girl’s world, as recently as this past month, and those books do not appear on the list. My older daughter’s fondness for dystopias was sparked with Susan Beth Pfeifer’s Life As We Knew It, then onto Neal Shusterman’s Unwind and continued through Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Susan Collins’ The Hunger Games series. Her world has been forever changed by the way these books have forced her to view any number of issues, from abortion to ethics of survival to human rights. These books have changed her view of the world immeasurably. None of them on the list.
My younger daughter elected to be a vegetarian five years ago for personal reason (she doesn’t like the taste or texture of meat) but had her decision solidified when she read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (not the version that came out kids later called Chew On This, though she read that as well). In fiction The London Eye Mystery fascinated her with its mystery solved by a main character with Aspergers, and word came while I was away a few weeks back that her new favorite book is The Book Thief. I have yet to talk to her about that book, but I can tell from early reports that this is a book that will change her world going forward. Again, none of these titles are on the list as well.
These are contemporary titles, though my contemporary girls have also read a fair number of the books on the list Orlean has compiled; but few, if any, of those books changed their world the way these newer books have. To be fair, a number of the books that did make the list are books that changed my world, when I was a kid, and I suspect that is how those titles made the list with multiple nominations – as books put forth by adults who remember their own world-changers.
But Orlean set out to build a library for her son, of books to read to and with him, and while it’s always good to have the foundation of the past to work on I think a more fitting list would be those books that kids today found world-changing. If they happened to find Go Ask Alice or Lord of the Flies to be particularly brain shattering, so be it. But a list like the one Orlean put together seems little more than a popularity contest among adults divided between their own cherished childhood memories and titles they believe move worlds. Books like Platt’s The Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear or DiCamilo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.
As raw data, the lists does say quite a bit about the generally accepted canon of children’s literature, a sort of parallel course to American Literature and one full of titles that are not read or studied in school. They have been assumed into the cultural literacy of childhood, the foundation of reading we come to expect most children to be aware of, if not know first hand.
I know, I know, it’s picking nits to accept one definition of the list over another. But I really would love to see a list made by kids of the books they felt changed their worlds. I think we’d see some overlap, but otherwise it’d be quite a different list.