What Makes a Classic?

I was talking to a friend recently who said the 1969 picture book “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” by Al Perkins was a favorite of her grandson when he was a young boy. He wanted to hear the book read aloud repeatedly and chose that book to buy as a gift for every friend’s birthday. Her grandson, now an adult, loves that book even to this day and will no doubt read it to his own children when he has a family.

Hand Hand Fingers Thumb

What makes a picture book a classic? How does a book become timeless and relevant to children over many generations?

There are a few qualities that classics share. At the core, the story has some ideas or actions by characters that are already part of a child’s life, and so are easily understood by a child. There are also some elements that are new, exciting, funny, curious, or sometimes even a little dangerous. That bit of the unknown makes the story memorable.

The familiar plus the new equals a classic story, especially if the theme is about a childhood issue such as conquering a fear, keeping hope, being accepted, knowing you are loved, or just having unrestricted fun! A classic story, even if published decades before, inspires a child to think bigger and imagine more.

Does your family already have children’s books that have become classics in your household? Here are some that have stood the test of time:

  • “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” by Al Perkins, illustrated by Eric Gurney. The characters of this book are all monkeys that act like children. They shake hands, sneeze, say hello and goodbye, and do everyday things (the familiar), all while they are drumming on drums (the unusual). The story is very simple with lots of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, so it is predictable and enjoyable to hear read aloud. These monkeys are all friends who have fun together–a reassuring theme for any child.
  • “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd. A young bunny goes through his bedtime ritual of saying goodnight to all the things in his room, including the paintings on the wall and even the air in the room. The story takes a familiar part of a child’s life and expands it to be magical.
  • “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. Ferdinand the bull is expected to be fierce and wild, but turns out to be peaceful and gentle. Every child can relate to wanting to be accepted for being himself and not what other’s think he should be.
  • “Curious George” by H. A. Rey. This is another monkey story about a curious little guy who unwittingly breaks all the rules, but is forgiven every time. Does that sound like any child you know?
  • “Corduroy” by Don Freeman. Similar to Curious George, Corduroy has an innocent, child-like curiosity that puts him into some predicaments that are a little scary for a small teddy bear. In the end he is always accepted and loved for who he is.
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2 Comments

Filed under classics, family book traditions, family reading

2 responses to “What Makes a Classic?

  1. I have often asked myself this question. I like your idea about the familiar plus the new components.

    Did you ever notice that the Man in the Yellow Hat is actually a poacher? I loved those books, but that realization sort of ruined them for me! He also gives George a pipe to smoke, and sticks him in a zoo (where he’s much happier than he was in the jungle). It’s interesting looking at old “classics” and realizing they’d never be published today!

    • Hi Cathy, Yes, It’s amazing to me that our thoughts about what is “PC” have changed so much since the Curious George books were written. When I come across attitudes or situations in a book that are different than our own family values, it’s an opportunity to talk about them. But maybe, as you say, there are just too many situations that Curious George faces that are against our current views of what is OK to warrant reading them. (sad to think!) I do love George’s unstoppable child-like curiosity though. That’s something that makes George so endearing to children and grown-ups alike!

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