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?

22 thoughts on “What Makes a Modern Classic?

  1. Steve

    Definitely “Darkness at Noon” from Arthur Koestler. I feel it was one of the greatest novels of all time. Koestler’s writing style in this book is unlike any other I have read. Somehow the author, in very few words, creates an atmosphere that completely pulls you in to the story. I feel it is as close to a perfectly written novel as there is.

  2. John

    I want to suggest a non fiction title for consideration as a modern classic: “An Army At Dawn, The War In North Africa 1942 to 1943”, by Rick Atkinson. This book earned the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for history and is part of what he labels “The Liberation Trilogy The Day of Battle: “The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944”, second book in the trilogy and coming out May 14, 2013 “The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe,
    1944-1945″ the final book in the trilogy . This first book grabbed me from the Prologue and did not let go.

    This quote from the Prologue: The authors task is to authenticate: to warrant that history and memory give integrity to the story, to aver that all this really happened. But the final few steps must be the reader’s. For among mortal powers, only imagination can bring back the dead.”

  3. Alex

    The book is 25 years old and it’s been fifteen years since I read it at the age of eight, but I still have fond memories of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Perhaps it’s worth re-reading to see how it holds up, but when I thought of YA ‘modern classics’, that was the first to mind.

  4. Dyan

    Roll of Thunder Hear my cry – the first american book I read as a child – it has stayed with me for a very long time. I read it to each of my children, to ever class I taught and lent it to many friends. surely a classic.

  5. sue carita

    I think the Penderwicks books by Jeanne Birdsall will prove to be enduring family stories for all ages. Readers identify with the characters, laugh and cry with them, admire them, and want to be with them long after the story ends!

  6. Elisabeth

    What a fun thing to think about! In addition to what has been mentioned above, I believe these titles will be read by future generations: Pete the Cat by Litwin/Dean, Frindle by Clements, Princess Academy by Hale, The Penderwicks by Birdsall and The Thief by Turner.

    In the YA world Laurie Halse Anderson has a number of books (Speak, Fever) that I see having appeal for years to come.

    And I can’t believe no one has mentioned Mo Willems yet!

  7. Shelver506

    I’ve talked about this before on my own blog, and I guess the closest I’ve gotten to nailing down a definition is to say that it’s a book that sticks with you and often has a deeper sort of meaning. That is, it’s not just fluff. Or maybe it is. I don’t know.

    But when I think “modern classic,” I think of BOOK THIEF, HUNGER GAMES, and CODE NAME VERITY. Gripping story, extremely well-written, and poignant. That’s not to say classics can’t be funny, but to me the word “classic” has always been saddled with gravitas.

  8. Bethany Hegedus

    Undoubtedly, the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Marla Fraze will be around in 2046. Funny, spunky Clementine and her parents and urban Boston setting deserve to be around for a long, long time.

    I also second anything by Christopher Paul Curtis–including his first MG from a girl’s POV. I loved every word of The Mighty Miss Malone.

    And I hope A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead will be on shelves and with its Caldecott sticker, no doubt it will be.

  9. Carol Chittenden

    I’m always amazed at how the fashions come and go on “classics”, and how often my “classic” is somebody else’s “Meh,” and vice versa. Perhaps staying in print is as good a criterion as any: if enough people have kept on telling each other about a given title over time, it must be one that speaks to a depth and breadth of human experience. Of course the one I loved at first sight — and still DO love — is Sharon Creech and Chris Raczka’s Fishing in the Air. And pretty much nobody else resonates to it. So what do I know…

    Back to Waldo.

  10. Susan L Jerez

    The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley, illustrated by Roberta Macdonald. Each chapter is headed by a verse: Wordsworth, Spenser, Coleridge, Longfellow. The illustrations are more than charming. I got it for my 8th birthday, and it still has a place on my bookshelf. Looking into it again brings back the wonderful atmosphere of its first reading, more than 50 years ago.

  11. Christine

    I agree many of Kate Dicamillo’s books felt like classics when I read them. A recent read that also feels classic is Nicholas St. North and the nightmare king by William Joyce, Rise of the Guardians series.

  12. Ellie Miller

    I wonder if truly classic (especially YA) novels aren’t those books that we can point to years afterwards and say, YES! This really IS how it was! Truth as a kind of absolute about people and feelings and experiencing – at any given point – in a time capsule as it were but, in another sense, somehow timeless. I’d have to exclude fantasies in this context which, if they’re to endure (such as books by Diana Wynne Jones…Susan Cooper…Philip Pullman) have a different kind of universal appeal. I’m thinking of three books that have always moved me on the above basis…primarily, Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” but also Maureen Daly’s “Seventeenth Summer” and a relatively and regrettably (!) unknown novel by Ruth Doan MacDougall “The Cheerleader”.

    1. Lia Keyes

      I must protest. Fantasy (and speculative fiction in general) can be as truthful as any other genre! It’s not the set dressing that makes a story truthful, but the predicaments the characters face, and how they overcome them. In some cases allegory is the most powerful way to illustrate a point (ie. Animal Farm).

      1. Radcliffe

        I agree Lia, fantasy is often the most powerful way to illustrate a simple truth and those stories stay with me a very long time.

  13. Amanda D

    I’m a huge fan of Diana Wynne Jones. I think her Chrestomancy books have the best chance of standing the test of time, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

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