What Makes A Classic Children’s Book?

David Beagley in interview with Matt Smith, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

The word ‘classic’ is an overused term. Popularity doesn’t necessarily make something a classic. Twilight is popular but probably won’t have longevity and therefore wouldn’t count as a classic.

Having said that, an adult who reads a book they really like probably has a lot of years of adult reading available to them but a child has only about five or ten years of being a child. So a children’s book needs only last ten years to reach a new generation of children. Harry Potter is probably already considered a classic because the original readers are about 30 years old, but the series is popular still, with people who are children now.

A classic also needs to have ‘something to say’.

Fantasy is a fascinating genre in children’s literature, because it’s only in the past 30 or 40 years that adults have become interested in reading fantasy for children. Fantasy has been considered a ‘childish’ pursuit.

Adults read to confirm what they know already. Children read to explore what they haven’t discovered yet. Fantasy offers a lot of scope to explore what’s happening in the world without worrying about realistic details. Even stories set in fantasy worlds are about our own world.

But there are also classics which are realist. Blue Fin from Australia, Bridge to Terabithia from America.

Historical stories such as Seven Little Australians are almost fantasies now, also the Enid Blyton ones. They represent a society which is as far from us now as Narnia or Hogwarts. Treasure Island is now effectively a fantasy, whereas when it was written it was meant to be more or less present day. Dickens’ Oliver Twist is another example.

What about when you read something as an adult and find it not as good? We do change as we age, even though the book doesn’t. The visual world of the 20th Century is quite different from the literate world of 150 years ago. The nature of the reading changes accordingly. Treasure Island and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland are often read by adults who are ticking them off on a list of books they feel they need to read in their lifetime. You now require an adult vocabulary in order to read them. Good child readers will persevere with dated and therefore difficult language. Some children forever have their nose in a book. These children are very often serial readers, reading the same book or the same type of book over and over again.

How do movie adaptations of classics influence popular modern opinions of these stories? Disney has done a wonderful job getting stories to people who wouldn’t come across them otherwise but has also effected a sort of ownership of them. Some people think Peter Pan was created by Disney. Disney did a poor job of Winnie The Pooh, and changed the main character focus to Tigger. But none of this stops people from going to read the originals.

Why are sequels rarely classics? Why do we only remember the first in the Wizard of Oz series? It actually depends on the story. Harry Potter is a good case — the last in the series has sold more than the first. People tend to conflate different books in a series. Some sequels aren’t as good as originals, but so many of them end up being just one big thing (e.g. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia)

Is it harder to write a classic these days, or does a book simply need time to become a classic? Both. Reading is evolving. Movies and TV have changed reading hugely because they’re such a passive medium. But lately, things such as interactive gaming has enabled the audience to become an active participant. We may not define such things as reading, but it’s still ‘storytelling’. So many popular games are based on the sword and sorcery fantasy of popular books. Just when we say reading is dying, up jumps Harry Potter, a series which has probably done more for reading this century than any other series. Harry Potter links to other media forms. It does say something — there is a huge critical response, and not just from an educational point of view, but from a purely aesthetic one, looking at things such as how the wizards enslave the other magical creatures from a sociological, serious, grown up point of view.

How do adult classics differ from children’s classics? The aim of the book and the audience of the book. Children’s books are created by adults, so they reflect what adults think children ought to do/be/think. The first of the Eragon books was written when the author was 18, so the author was still thinking like an 18 year old boy when he wrote that book. These books are not necessarily ‘good’ books, but immensely popular because they speak to a certain audience. Certain other adults have that ear. Andy Griffiths, A.A. Milne. Children don’t like to be taught about issues — they want to be entertained. The issues books tend to disappear off the shelves after six months. Adult classic books tend to live a lot longer and go back centuries, simply because people are adults for a lot longer than we are children. The world is changing so much it’s hard to predict what will be classics in 20 years’ time.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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