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Children’s Classics are Not Universal: Some Differences Between American, Australian, and British Classics

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Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

I moved to America from Australia almost three years ago. My daughter was born here about a year ago. I know her childhood is going to be different to mine, not only because of the decades that separate us (what do you mean, Mummy, that phones used to be attached to cords?) but because she will be raised in a country that is different to the one where I spent my childhood. She will most likely have a different accent to me. She will be eating different foods (I doubt I’ll be sending her to school with Vegemite and cheese sandwiches but hey, never say never), watching different TV shows, and reading different books.

The books thing came as a bit of a surprise when I moved here. I knew that there are authors and publishers from countries all around the globe, and that some of the Australian authors I knew and loved as a child probably weren’t as big here. But I didn’t realise that a lot of British authors didn’t make it either. Australia was lucky enough to be kind of like the lovechild of America and Britain, so we were getting books from both countries as well as our own.

I assumed that the British books that made it to Australia also made it to America, so imagine my surprise when I found out that not many Americans read Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton was a staple of my childhood reading: The Magic Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven. All wonderful escapist reads with great characters who became friends, children who went on wild adventures I could only dream about from my suburban Sydney bedroom.

The Gruffalo is another great British book that doesn’t seem to have made it big across the pond. Aimed at a slightly younger age group than Enid Blyton’s books, it’s a wonderful picture book by Julia Donaldson, a Scottish author. In the UK, you can get Gruffalo merchandise as easily as you can find The Very Hungry Caterpillar stuff here. But in the U.S., not as many parents seem to know the book.

The reverse is also true: there are many American children’s classics that I had never heard of until I had a baby. When I was young, I read a lot of Judy Blume books, the books by Beverly Cleary, the Anastasia series by Lois Lowry. And, of course, the Baby-Sitters Club. But there are a lot of children’s classics that never crossed my radar until recently, particularly picture books.

Below are some of the books that I loved as a child that don’t seem to be as well-known here, and some American books that I did not read or hear about until having a child here. These lists are by no means scientific or exhaustive, and there may be American children out there who are reading The Gruffalo every night and Australian children who did in fact learn the alphabet from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. The books I knew and loved as a child are probably also reflective of when I was a child as well as where.

The Rainbow Serpent book coverAustralian kids’ books/authors that didn’t seem to make it (as) big in the U.S.

  1. The Penny Pollard series by Robin Klein (start with Penny Pollard’s Diary and the rest of the books are also brilliant)
  2. The Selby series by Duncan Ball (Selby, the only talking dog in Australia and perhaps even the world, first makes his appearance in Selby’s Secret)
  3. Mem Fox’s books (Possum Magic is great for slightly older readers; Where is the Green Sheep? and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes are great baby bedtime books)
  • The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey
  • How the Birds Got Their Colours compiled by Pamela Lofts

    British kids’ books/authors that didn’t seem to make it (as) big in the U.S.

    1. Enid Blyton’s books (The Magic Faraway Tree remains one of my favourites)
    2. The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
    3. Mr Men and Little Miss series by Roger Hargreaves (Mr Bump and Mr Funny are two favourites of mine)
    4. Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham
    5. Old Bear by Jane Hissey

    North American children’s classics that aren’t as widely read in Australia

    1. Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
    2. Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault
    3. Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
    4. Stevie by John Steptoe
    5. Go, Dog, Go! By P.D. Eastman
    6. Sandra Boynton’s books

    Note: The books and authors mentioned in this post are not a particularly diverse lot. This is partly because children’s publishing in these countries is still not very diverse (though this is getting better), and partly because the books mentioned here reflect a certain period, and if 2018 isn’t fantastic for diversity in children’s publishing, the 1990s were even worse.