Selecting BookTrust’s 100 Best Books
Published on: 07 October 2013
Take a peep behind the scenes and find out how BookTrust's children's books experts went about the difficult task of selecting our 100 best books for Children's Book Week.
One warm summer's day, a group of children's book experts drawn from across BookTrust came together for a more than usually challenging task. Our mission for the day was surely an (almost) impossible one: to select a list of books that we believed were the 100 best books for children published in the last 100 years, for Children's Book Week 2013.
Work to inform this selection had already been going on for some weeks. Looking at everything from sales figures to award-winners, by way of surveys of the general publics and previous lists of children's classics put together by experts in the field, the team had pulled together an immense master-list of possible titles to consider. Needless to say this included the many books we had ourselves recommended over the years, in publications such as the Book Trust Best Book Guide, and through our programmes and prizes. Now, our daunting task was to whittle this list down to a mere 100 titles that we believed represented the very best in children's publishing.
All the books on our list were of high quality, so we knew we needed some robust parameters in place to help us decide which would make the final cut. As well as having decided that our 100 books would include only books that had been first published in the last 100 years (and as such, would exclude some of the best-loved classics of children's literature - The Secret Garden, Treasure Island, The Railway Children, Alice In Wonderland, Little Women and The Wind in the Willows to name but a few) we decided to focus specifically on fiction. Had we included other areas such as poetry and non-fiction, the list of titles to consider would have been unmanageable. We also agreed that we would automatically include only the first book published in any given series – so in the case of J K Rowling's Harry Potter series, it would only be the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, that would make it onto our list.
But even with this framework in place, we still had over 500 books on our list – how would we choose the best? We knew we wanted great stories – but what else should we be looking for? Was it simply about the highest quality of writing and illustration? Should we be focusing on the books that were the most popular with children and their families – the books that we knew engaged children and that they loved best? Should we be looking for the stories that had something valuable to say to young readers, offering them the chance to learn about the world and to broaden their horizons? Should we be looking for the most innovative and original titles – or was it simply about those iconic books that had proved they could stand the test of time? In the end, we knew we needed to look at all of these factors when selecting our 100 best – and that we wanted to create a list that reflected the fantastic range and diversity of publishing for children over the last 100 years.
But even with clear criteria to guide us, actually making the decisions still proved an enormous challenge. Tough questions like which Julia Donaldson book should make it onto our list (we controversially chose Room on the Broom over The Gruffalo) or which Janet and Allan Ahlberg title we would include (in the end we included both Each Peach Pear Plum and The Jolly Postman) soon divided the group. How could we ever choose between Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and St Clare's stories (in the end neither made our final list, although Five on a Treasure Island and The Enchanted Wood did)? And worst of all, how would we ever agree on our best Roald Dahl books? As the conversation went on, with arguments for Fantastic Mr Fox versus The Twits, The Enormous Crocodile versus James and the Giant Peach, Matilda versus Charlie, what soon became clear to us that when it comes to 'the best' children's books, there are no simple answers.
In the end, however objective we aimed to be in our selection, there's no doubt that any list of best books is by its very definition, a subjective one. When we talk about children's books, it is difficult not to bring to mind our own early experiences of reading: throughout our discussions, childhood memories and reminiscences came to light as we talked about discovering the magic of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or being captivated by Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. And a whole series of interesting conversations arose as we considered the newer titles on our list, which we felt had the potential to become future classics, casting the same spell of enchantment over new generations of children.
At the end of the day, and after much debate, Booktrust's 100 best books are simply that – our favourites. Although it may have some controversial omissions and inclusions, we hope that by sharing our list with you, we'll get people all around the country having the same kinds of conversations during Children's Book Week, and debating their own favourites. We hope it will provide inspiration to everyone to read and revisit the children's books that they love best, as well as hopefully discovering some new ones – and voting for the titles on our list that they would most like to see crowned as the nation's favourites.
Happy Children's Book Week – and happy reading!