Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Children and Youth Literature

Curious George

Curious George
H.A. (and Margret) Rey

Curious George – that crazy little monkey whose ADD-like hijinks always got him into trouble. There’s alot of them, and as a kid I loved them all, and still can’t stop myself from flipping through when I come across one. But, as with many such series, it’s the first one that is the stand-out for our purposes here, that introduces the character that becomes iconic, the idea that lasts. The original Curious George – the one in which George comes to live with his great friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. It’s quite the story to reflect upon and reconsider so many years later.

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The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit
Margery Williams

Pinocchio wants to be a real boy; the Velveteen Rabbit wants to be real, too.  Margery Williams’ first book for children is her best-known, still selling huge and seeing adaptation after adaption almost 100 years after its initial publication.

He’s not the most exciting of toys to appear on Christmas morning, and initially not paid a whole lot of attention. But over time he becomes the constant companion of his young owner, until the boy is diagnosed with scarlet fever and all his toys are marked for burning to eliminate further spread of the disease. Tears for the plush rabbit, a new stuffed friend for the boy, a magic fairy, and… A children’s classic.

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The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
Frank L. Baum

OK, it’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s Dorothy and little Toto, Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Woodsman, witches good and bad. It’s one of the best known children’s books, the inspiration for countless re-tellings, and the source material for Gregory McGuire’s Wicked series – which is, I gotta say, one of the greatest adult variations on an old standard I’ve read, and one that each and every one of you should read, too. I don’t need to tell anyone why this book is culturally important, or how it continues to shape us. So instead, I’ll focus on something else about Frank L. Baum’s fairytale. Continue reading “The Wizard of Oz”

Little Women

Little Women
Louisa M. Alcott

Louisa May Alcott never wanted to write the book that she’s known for. She wrote semi-erotic stories to pay the bills, more politically-charged, reflective pieces for herself and the world she wanted to make, and Little Women…well, she wrote that cause a publisher who liked her writing style asked to her to. There could be big sales in a mass-market book about girls for girls, so maybe she oughta take a break from the work inspired by and engaged with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and give this other project a try. Continue reading “Little Women”

Green Eggs and Ham

Green Eggs and Ham
Dr. Seuss

Oh yeah, baby. This is the real deal. There’s so much Seuss to choose from, but this was the one that I went for again and again when I was first learning to read. Sam I Am’s ‘Would you could you’ and the always-ready ‘would not could not’ response have taught a whole lot of kids to read, and are contenders for any list of the most recognized lines in the English language today. Using only 50 different words and told entirely through illustration and dialogue, it’s the fourth-best-selling kids book of all time. 50 words – that ain’t many; The Cat In the Hat, for example, uses over 200 words. But Seuss was on a mission in this regard – the book arose out of a bet between the author and his publisher-friend who thought it impossible to write a coherent book using no more than 50 words.

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Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Judy Blume

Kids books were never the same after Judy Blume. Blubber, Deenie, Then Again Maybe I Won’t – books for kids and teenagers that were about something more than adventure or moralizing. These were kids who were scared and confused and absolutely perfectly normal, kids who hurt each other and felt hurt, kids who masturbated and fantasized, kids who wouldn’t think about talking to their parents about what was really happening in their lives and in their bodies. These were kids exactly like me and exactly like every one in my class, and these were books that brought a new level of honesty, education and emotional support to the generation of kids born in the wake of the feminist revolution and each generation since. I could write at length about each and every book and what I felt in its pages. Better, though, to just watch and listen to this, from Amanda Palmer:

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Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales
Brothers Grimm

Jacob and Wilhelm called their collection Children’s and Household Tales when it first appeared in Germany in 1812. We know it, of course, as just Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything on this list that requires less of an introduction or justification. “Hansel and Gretel”, “Cinderella”, “Iron John”, “Rapunzel”, “The Brennan Town Musicians” – they are all in here, along with countless others less well known.

The Grimm boys collected and revised a wide array of stories, tales, myths, and folklore, essentially translating a whole lot of central Europe’s oral tradition to the page. And in doing so, they – with Charles Perrault – preserved much of the region’s cultural foundation that may very likely have otherwise been lost. Continue reading “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”

The Outsiders

The Outsiders
S.E. Hinton

Socs (short for ‘socials’ ) against greasers in 1965 Tulsa, Oklahoma. Urban teen gang culture in the years before gangs were organized crime. Struggles of class and status in the self-definition of adolescent America. S.E. Hinton was 15 when she started writing The Outsiders, the first of a series of books that captured the public imagination when first published and continue to be a staple of teen literature coming on 50 years later. Poor kids vs rich kids, street toughs vs socio-economic power, cars and girls and violence as the currency by which young men are measured and in which they trade – it’s a classic set-up, but a story which explores all of this with far more depth, far more complexity than its many imitators.

Hinton wrote the book as a reflection on the real-world gangs of her high school at the time, and her desire to explain and to defend the poor kids, the rough kids, the greasers. In doing so, though, she did so much more, capturing what is unique about American adolescence, what is common about the transition to adulthood, what class looks like in high school, what a conflicted and broken thing is masculinity. Takes a teenage girl, perhaps, to get what lurks hidden in teenage boys – to get what is beautiful and frightening and sad in them, and how they struggle to learn what manhood means in a world without mentors, without models, without anything to believe in except your place in the world and the friends who share that place.

Old Yeller

Old Yeller
Fred Gipson

A boy and his dog. When we think Old Yeller, we often think of the movie, but it’s on this list because before and since the book has had a life and an impact of its own. There’s no especially great commentary to come up with for this one – stray dog wanders into the farm life of a hard-working family; dog loves boy, boy grows to love dog; dog puts its own life at risk to defend the family; tragic ending – we all know it, but I am loathe to give it away just in case. A boy’s love, a good dog, growing up and the hard hard beauty of the world. That’s Old Yeller.

Gipson sets Old Yeller in Texas at the end of the American civil war, but it could be anywhere, anytime. One of those standard, timeless stories that no one ever forgets, just enough hardship and emotional strife to make the perfect Disney film. And a reminder that the most simple stories are often the most lasting.

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