Challenges / Children and YA / Classic Literature

Reading Children’s Classics by Women Authors

women's classicsI haven’t done anything this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, which is hosted by the Classics Club, but since it’s September and it’s Back to School time, I was thinking about re-reading favorite classics by women authors. I’m looking specifically at books published before 1950 and in about the 8-10 age range.

When I thought about this challenge months ago, the authors who came to mind were P.L. Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins series, Astrid Lindgren, who wrote Pippi Longstocking, and E. Nesbit, who wrote Five Children and It and The Railway Children.

I also thought about classic non-fantasy authors like my favorite, Frances Hodgson Burnett.  But then if we’re going down the realistic fiction route (a whole different banana from fantasy) there’s plenty to choose from.  There are the American authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Lenski, Carol Ryrie Brink, and Louisa May Alcott. Although I have to admit I never warmed to Little Women.

There’s Maud Hart Lovelace, who wrote the Betsy-Tacy series, Noel Streatfeild who wrote Ballet Shoes, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling, a book I’ve never read.  As a child, I liked the All-of-a-Kind-Family because it was about a Jewish family.  I also loved Heidi.  Hiking in the Alps, tending goats, and eating bread and cheese always struck me as terribly romantic for some reason.

I’ve read Anne of Green Gables, but as an adult, not as a child, and only the first one.  I’ve never read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and I’m curious how those two books differ.

A favorite of mine was Betty Macdonald, who wrote Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, but I decided she doesn’t rise to the level of classic literature (sorry Ms. Macdonald).  Same with Carolyn Haywood, who wrote a series called B is for Betsy, which I adored for its simplicity, even though it wasn’t great literature (it was my version of Pleasantville; I think there are times if I could have stepped into that world I would have).

Which makes me realize how hard it is to separate my personal feelings about what I loved as a child from what makes children’s books great.  Some children’s books grab you and never let you go.  Others (and for me those include Narnia, Little Women, and Little House) may have great literary merit, but you just never see yourself inside their pages.

I had a great time talking about this project in my favorite children’s bookstore, Hooray for Books!  A very helpful staff person pointed out a few things I should think about.  One is the fact that a lot of these classic novels have problematic racial issues, particularly the American “frontier” novels like Little House and Caddie Woodlawn, in their treatment of Native Americans, and Pippi Longstocking in its treatment of Pacific Islanders.  In fact, they only carry the first Pippi Longstocking book because the later ones (Pippi in the South Seas) are considered too problematic.  And those are just a few examples.  Of course, classic literature is full of racist and other (such as anti-Semitic) references.  It’s important, I think, to read these works considering the times in which they were written, but also to be thoughtful about what they are saying and how they could have said it better.  Thoughts?

20160910_124450_resizedAfter my trip to the bookstore, here’s what I ended up with (plus I have Anne of Avonlea on my Kindle).  Some of this is based on what I loved as a child, some of it based on what the bookstore had in stock, and some on what I was curious about and have never read before (The Railway Children). I plan to pick up a few more as a I go and I plan to read through December.

I know I’m missing plenty of great writers.  Which are your favorites?  Which would you read for a challenge like this?  Feel free to join in!

18 thoughts on “Reading Children’s Classics by Women Authors

  1. You’ve certainly covered a lot of my childhood favorites, as well as some I only encountered in adulthood. I can’t think of much to add — maybe My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Gannett (also notable for the illustrations by her sister), Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter (which I just read this year for Reading New England), and Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (ditto). Oh, and how about Elizabeth Enright? I loved her books about the Melendy family.

  2. The Railway Children always makes me sob, so I would say that’s a good ‘un! I loved Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, as well as the Little House on the Prairie books (sorry!) and Edward Eager’s books starting with Half Magic. Swallows and Amazons (and any of the books in that series) by Arthur Ransome are also a good bet, and how about Roald Dahl? The Witches, Matilda, The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were perennial favourites at our house.

    • I loved Harriet the Spy too! The books you suggest are great, but I’m looking for books written by women and also written before the 50’s. Half Magic was one of my favorites though!

      • Whoops – didn’t pay enough attention, did I! But it’s nice that someone else read Edward Eager. My dad bought me all of those books and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who knew about them!

  3. What a great idea and you have a fun list. Some of them I have not read, because I was not a big reader as a girl. I loved The Secret Garden as a girl though and I remember reading Harriet the Spy and liking it. I enjoy re-reading children’s books as an adult and the best experience for me was reading the entire series (including the ones written by different authors) of the Little House books to my son at night, starting when he was in 1st grade. It took us a couple years to get through them, since we only read a chapter at a time. That was 7 years ago and we still talk about them!

  4. I’ve just started a university module on children’s literature which has raised questions I never thought about before. You might use them to frame your thinking about the novels you choose to read for your project. One iquestion is about the purpose of children’s literature – is it to entertain or to instruct? Every novel you read will have a mix of these but it’s surprising how much didactic content gets in. Second question is about how childhood is represented amd that will vary according to the view of the author. Some novels will have you believe it is a glorious innocent time while others will make it darker (like the Narnia books)

    • Your class sounds wonderful, thank you for the discussion topics. I find some of the best children’s literature is pretty dark, or at least what I gravitate towards. I’ve always thought one of the functions of children’s literature is to help children cope with difficult topics and situations. I hope you’ll continue to share what you’re learning! I would love to be in a children’s literature class.

  5. Selma Lagerlof, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature wrote some children’s books. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is one of the 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, if you pay attention to that list. I haven’t read anything by her, but have the book on my phone.

  6. Women authors of classic children’s books is a genre near to my heart. Yes, some of the frontier classics are problematic, but I still love the Little House books, as well as Caddie Woodlawn. I only ever read Little Women as an adult and I liked it, but found myself more interested in LMA as an author than LW as a novel. I love the AOGG series and read it multiple times through my 20s, but haven’t reread the lot in years. I think the books you read and love and reread as a child become hardwired into your psyche–I think I am who am I today because Laura and Anne in particular were my close childhood friends 🙂

    • I definitely agree! I’m reading Anne of Avonlea now but I wish I’d discovered these books when I was young, because I know how much people love Anne, and the experience of reading them in my 40s can’t be the same.

      I grew up watching the Little House TV series, and I think that impacted my read of the books.

  7. Margaret Sidney wrote the Five Little Pepper books and Alice Hegan wrote Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (a slightly more realistic look at a poor family than the Peppers) and, although they aren’t children’s books, the same woman who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm wrote a series of books about Penelope that I loved. Most of the others I think of right off hand are from the 60s and maybe 50s. There are classics like Black Beauty, too.

    • Thanks, those are great suggestions. I don’t know about Mrs. Wiggs, I’ll check that out. I read Five Little Peppers as a chid, although maybe an abridged version. There seems to be a lot of these “family” books written in the first half of the century, that was probably a very acceptable genre for women to write about. Black Beauty is a great suggestion, I didn’t realize how old that book was (published in 1877).

  8. Pingback: My September Reading Wrap-Up | The Book Stop

  9. Pingback: Exploring Classic Children’s Series: Betsy-Tacy and Anne of Green Gables | The Book Stop

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