Thursday, January 24, 2008

Favorite Children's Books - UK and USA

I am an inveterate collector of lists. With something as contextual and subtle as favorite children's books, it is really mostly an indulgence but sometimes there are glimmerings of insight that you can discern in the sludge.

In the past year, two major papers in the US and UK (The New York Times in the US and The Daily Telegraph in the UK) have run a question soliciting their readers feedback on favorite children's books. I recognize that there are all sorts of drawbacks to using this information - 1) they were run six months apart, 2) the questions were slightly different (Telegraph - Which books should every child read? versus the New York Times' - What was Your Harry Potter?), 3) the population of respondents was self-selected, 4) the number of commenters differed (Telegraph, 189 and NYT 1031) before being cut off, 5) there were no formats or standards for commenting so that some commenters might mention a single book, others a couple of dozen, some commenters would also suggest "All of author X", etc. and 6) often the commenters comments need interpreting (title not quite right, or a right title and wrong author, or an unidentifiable title), and so on.

Still, it is kind of interesting to compare the results. 189 commenters made suggestions in the UK and 1,031 in the US. The UK list had a total of 430 books mentioned, 110 of those being mentioned by at least two or more commenters. The corresponding numbers for the US list were 977 and 352. I documented all titles and authors in the commenters sections, making corrections as necessary. Here is what I found.

Top Twenty Titles

The Chronicles of NarniaNancy Drew
Swallows and AmazonsLord of the Rings
Alice in WonderlandThe Chronicles of Narnia
Peter RabbitThe Little House on the Prairie
Treasure IslandThe Hardy Boys
The HobbitA Wrinkle in Time
Lord of the RingsAnne of Green Gables
Wind in the WillowsLittle Women
Black BeautyTom Swift
Winnie The PoohThe Hobbit
The Magic Faraway TreeThe Wizard of Oz
Robinson CrusoeThe Phantom Tollbooth
Famous FiveCharlotte's Web
The Silver SwordThe Bobbsey Twins
Harry PotterBlack Stallion
BigglesThe Secret Garden
Lord of the FliesThe Dark is Rising
Aesop's FablesThe Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler
The Diary of a Young GirlThe Boxcar Children
>Charlotte's WebDr. Dolittle

Top Twenty Authors

Enid BlytonJudy Blume
C.S. LewisRoald Dahl
Arthur RansomeBeverly Cleary
Beatrix PotterRobert Heinlein
Roald DahlIsaac Asimov
AesopJules Verne
Rudyard KiplingDr. Seuss
Willard PriceRay Bradbury
William ShakespeareEnid Blyton
Charles DickensJack London
E. NesbitLouisa May Alcott
Hans Christian AndersonMark Twain
Malcolm SavilleAlbert Payson Terhune
R.L. StevensonMadeline L'Engle
Captain MarryatEdward Eager
Dr. SeussLucy Maude Montgomery
G.A. HentyA.A. Milne
H. Rider Haggard Agatha Christie
Isaac AsimovEdgar Allan Poe
Jacqueline Wilson John Bellairs

Only four titles were common across the top twenty from each country, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Lord of The Rings and Charlotte's Web.

Despite the top twenty list having only four in common, the total list of titles were relatively well known to the two different groups of commenters.

All the top twenty titles from the UK list were mentioned among the US commenters at least once, except for one with which I was also not familiar, The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailier. Even the very distinctly British series, Biggles, received a couple of votes from the NYT commenters (perhaps some Canadian readers commenting in the NYTs?).

However, among the US top twenty, including the top scoring US book, the Nancy Drew series, fully 25% of the titles were not mentioned at all in the UK. These US favorites not recognized in the UK were; Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, The Black Stallion, and The Boxcar Children.

A more widely read US group perhaps, or maybe simply a function of a larger commenting population.

Classes of favorites differed between the two countries, with series making up 65% of the titles in the US list versus only 40% in the UK. In fact it is even a little more differentiated than that if you distinguish between formulaic series (UK - Faraway Tree series, Famous Five, and Biggles; US - Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Boxcar Children) from literary series (UK - Chronicles of Narnia, Swallows and Amazons, Peter Rabbit, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter; US - Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Black Stallion). The formulaic series represent only 15% of the top twenty in the UK whereas they are 35% of the US list.

If we turn to the top twenty authors, the differences become more pronounced. In part this is possibly due to lack of guidelines in commenting. I am focusing here on those authors where multiple commenters explicitly indicated that the entire body of the author's work was read or ought to be read.

Four authors make both lists, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Isaac Assimov.

The British list is much more explicitly classical canon with most the usual suspects including Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Ransome, Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Andersn, E. Nesbit, etc. In fact there are only four authors that would probably not fall into the classical canon: Willard Price, Jacqueline Wilson, Malcolm Saville (another one that I have never come across but was mentioned several times in the UK list) and possibly G.A. Henty.

The US top twenty list was much more heterogeneous with mystery writers (Agatha Christy), science fiction authors (Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury), early independent reader authors (Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume) and a couple of niche authors (John Bellairs and Albert Payson Terhune) leavening the classics (Mark Twain, Jack London, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allan Poe, Madeleine L'Engle, Jules Verne and L.M. Montgomery).

So - Any conclusions? No, not really. Still, pretty interesting to mull it over.

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