What Makes a Modern Classic?

Josie Leavitt -- July 5th, 2012

Every once in a while as I’m shelving new books, I think about what books will become new classics. We all know not every new book that is published is great, in fact it seems like half the books I buy won’t make it three seasons before they’re declared out of print. But every now and again a book comes along and you just know it’s going to be around forever.

There are books that resonate with readers for a variety of reasons; I’ve been wondering what makes a classic. Is it just great writing? Or is it a book that captured a generation of readers? Is a story that works for any era?

I look back on the books I loved as a kid: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, The Great Brain, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Maurice Sendak and the Little Bear series, almost every Dr. Seuss book, and I could go on. These were great books and most could arguably be classics. What makes them work for me is the story holds up after repeated readings and the scrutiny that a close reading can bring.

I see kids reading dystopian novels and wonder if any of these are destined to be classics. Sometimes, there can be so many entries in a genre that the genre itself starts to feel diluted. Because there are so many, you run the risk of saying,  “It’s a great dystopian book,” sort how we treated vampire books two years ago; they’ve almost ghettoized themselves. There is a glut of YA novels out there where the Mom is gone, the Dad is doing his alcoholic best and the anorexic sister pulls you out of the story and the narrator sounds like a clever, slightly smart-alecky kid who’s doing his or her best in the face of such family travails. While these books might be passing fun to read, they don’t stick with you; nothing is remembered a month after you’ve read the book. I once read an entire Gossip Girl book on a plane to Kentucky. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, but when my father asked me at baggage claim if I’d read anything on the plane down, I couldn’t remember a single fact about the book. A classic book fuels you when you think about it. You remember things about it because it stays with you.

And what of picture books? There are the books that people clamor for, but often these feel like “what’s hot now.” It’s hard to know what’s driving picture book sales sometimes. Often it’s nostalgia and some of the illustrators now haven’t been around long enough for kids who read them, to be buying them for their own kids. David Wiesner, Jerry Pinkney, Chris Van Allsburg all seem destined to have several books land in the classics. These are books you pore over. I think the easiest way to see what picture books are going to be classics is to see what people are giving as baby shower gifts to build libraries. The flavor of the month does not often get chosen, but Sandra Boynton books are happily given. A staff favorite, Good Night, Gorilla feels like a classic, as does Guess How Much I Love You, All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee, and Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary, to name a few.

My store has been open 16 years and that’s just about a generation. I’m wondering what books from 1996 on will be considered classics in 2046. I can think that Kate DiCamillo will surely be on the list. M.T. Anderson seems a likely contender as well. J.K. Rowling will be even though there will be some who think the enormous popularity of Harry Potter somehow will have tainted it. Philip Pullman, Shannon Hale, and Grace Lin’s simply perfect Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, just about anything by Christopher Paul Curtis.

So readers, what books are turning into your modern classics?