For some reason, the posts Fifty Children’s Picture Books with Interesting Heroines and Twenty Chapter Book Series with Interesting Heroines for Early Readers, 6-8, are experiencing a resurgence in popularity—maybe holiday shopping? So here’s yet another, looking backwards to classic children’s novels which are either part of a series, or have a sequel. Maybe you’ll be awash with nostalgia remembering Pippi lifting her horse one-handed, the antics of Henry Huggins, or tea with Mr. Tummus. If they are completely unfamiliar, and you’re thinking about acquiring or gifting them, they’ve all been reviewed online—and most, if not all, have entries on the omnipresent Wikipedia.
All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor)
Set in New York just before WWI, the series features an immigrant Jewish family with five daughters. People adore these books. It’s up in the air whether girls who saw Twilight far too young will get as excited about characters finding hidden buttons during household chores, but that’s neither here nor there.
Anne of Green Gables (L. M. Montgomery)
The earlier books are better-suited to younger readers—though I’m not sure the drunken raspberry cordial scene would make it by a contemporary editor. Regardless, all those PEI tourists can’t be wrong.
Betsy-Tacy (Maud Hart Lovelace)
Featuring two best friends in Minnesota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this series is so popular it has an active contemporary fan club and an annual homecoming.
The Borrowers (Mary Norton)
Children remain fascinated by the miniature people and their attempts to evade—or in Arrietty’s case befriend—the “human beans.” The first book won the 1952 Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature.
The Box Car Children (Gertrude Chandler Warner)
As we know, killing off the parents in children’s books is a time-honored plot device. Here, four orphaned siblings make a home in a boxcar, before being reunited with their grandfather (he lets them keep the boxcar). The following novels are predominantly mysteries.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl)
Anything by Dahl, really, but this has a sequel (SCRAM!), so I can sneak it onto this list.
The Children of Green Knowe (Lucy Boston)
In the first book of this magical British series the protagonist is sent to his grandmother’s for the holiday term, where he encounters the children who lived in her house in previous eras. One novel won the Carnegie Medal; another was short-listed. The Chimneys of Green Knowe (the source for the 2009 film From Time to Time) has some issues with dialect and race.
Children of Noisy Village (Astrid Lindgren)
Set in a village in 1930s Sweden, the series features the adventures of six children. As with anything by Lindgren, it is suitable for age eight and up, but also as a read-aloud with six and up.
Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf (Catherine Storr)
There are only two of these novels, but they are full of such sly humour. The wolf devises various schemes to eat Polly, but is always outwitted. It also works well to read aloud to younger children. My five-year-old was hooked, though another friend’s child was less thrilled.
Emil of Lönneberga (Astrid Lindgren)
Good-natured Emil is always in trouble; he is that little tornado which tears through everything. But his trouble is tremendously entertaining and ridiculous. This series is so popular in Sweden there is a television show.
Famous Five (Enid Blyton)
Five children go romping through rural England, exploring old castles, smugglers’ caves, and the like, while solving mysteries. Blyton turned out books at an unbelievable pace, and children remain captivated.
Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary)
The much-beloved Cleary series about the humorous scrapes of a young boy. Cleary wrote them in response to boys who came into her library complaining they couldn’t find books featuring ordinary boys.
Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
Another book series with its own fan club, as well as an annual pageant where children dress up like the characters. There are some conversations that need to be had around the representations of native peoples, not to mention the minstrel show. For books about First Nations children, see here. http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.ca/p/best-books.html.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
Children remain mesmerized; Edward Said would have a great deal to say about The Horse and His Boy. Not raised Christian, I wasn’t even aware there were allegorical elements until years after I first read the books.
Mary Poppins (P. L. Travers)
So far my six-year boy old isn’t impressed, but then we haven’t gotten to the book where ladies snap their fingers off and feed them to the children as cookies. (Chapter six of the first book has some racial caricatures worth editing.)
The Melendys (Elizabeth Enright)
Set between the wars, the quartet features four siblings whose father is a widower. As contemporary author Marisa de los Santos writes, “Enright, the author of The Four Story Mistake, is a writer who gives you an entire, flesh-and-blood person in two sentences. Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver are utterly alive, and are complicated, but they are uncomplicatedly happy.”
The Moffats (Eleanor Estes)
A working-class family of four lively children whose mother is a widow. They struggle, but also make friends, have fun, and entertain readers.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (Betty MacDonald)
This is a series about a woman with magical spells who lives in an upside house. Her spells are intended to correct the behavior of children with bad habits, but the books are far less didactic than it might seem, and much more riotously funny (Wikipedia charts them if you’re interested).
My Father’s Dragon (Ruth Stiles Gannett)
Over and over this series appears on lists of classics. A boy rescues a dragon and adventures ensue. It’s gentle, with short chapters.
Nurse Matilda (Christianna Brand)
The source material for the Nancy McPhee movies. It is hard not to admire children who are so creative in thinking of ways to appear bad.
Paddington (Michael Bond)
Marmalade. Darkest Peru. The insufferable Mr. Curry. Elevenses. Everyone should read Paddington.
Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)
“She had no mother and no father, and that was of course very nice because there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having the most fun.” She’s illiterate, irreverent, and a source of fascination and fun for the children next door. (Though you might want to skip the South Seas book, and gloss the cannibals generally.)
Ramona Quimby (Beverly Cleary)
Rambunctious and imaginative, Ramona holds her own.
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
Children on holiday explore by boat. It’s the book series that launched a thousand camping trips and pilgrimages to the Lake District of England. The Arthur Ransome Society also has suggestions for children’s activities to accompany your reading.
Wolves Chronicles (Joan Aiken)
As author Julia Lee writes in The Guardian: “Set in a parallel nineteenth century, these books have such energy and invention that you never know where you are going to end up next: in a hot-air balloon, a Nantucket whaling ship, or down the sewers with the ‘tosh-boys’? Yet you’re grounded in the real world. You can taste and smell it, rub it between your fingers and feel it beneath your feet. It can be rich and luxurious, but often it’s harsh and cold and cruel. Her baddies are truly bad – though they have their reasons – but her goodies are, above all, resourceful. Sometimes just surviving to see a new day and a new beginning is the best happy ending there is.”
A caveat: there’s some regional and ethnic diversity on this list, but reflecting the history of children’s book publishing before 1970—when these were all written—there’s a definite lack of racial diversity. More recently we have award-winning books with historical settings (examples include Bud, Not Buddy, Esperanza Rising, etc.). But I’m stumped on classic children’s series pre-1970 with leading non-white characters. For contemporary multicultural chapter books, see here.