Booklists always stir up controversy. Serious readers justifiably hate to see masterpieces overlooked or substandard writing overrated. Uneasy in their embrace of classic titles, they want to see them neither abandoned nor overrepresented. Justifiably, they expect booklists to include diverse perspectives.
A Lifetime of Fiction: The 500 Most Recommended Reads for Ages 2 to 102 achieves a novel resolution in the perennial search for the ideal booklist. It stakes out new common ground by creating a composite based on all the major booklists, creating reading lists not just for adults, but for different age groups. The idea behind this new approach is that the natural quirks and biases of reading lists and book award lists would be offset and ameliorated by the collective wisdom of the whole. Lifetime attempts to inform the literary canon by widely surveying the most recognized reading lists from education, journalism, library science, and book award organizations.
A Lifetime of Fiction took about two years to research and write. Its booklists were generated from a database with over 23,000 book entries culled from 139 of the most reliable authorities, such as the New York Times Notable Books, the Newbery Medals, Stonewall Book Awards,Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels, Radcliffe’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, the Pura Belpré Awards, and School Library Journal Best Books Lists. The books that made it to Lifetime’s lists were the ones on which most booklists agree.
This best-of-the-best book guide is organized into five annotated age group lists of 100 books each for preschoolers, early readers, middle readers, young adults, and adults. A Lifetime ofFiction is uniquely authoritative because it expresses the opinion of not just one critic, but the aggregated opinions of an army of critics.
Here are the top two titles for each of the five age groups.
Preschoolers (Ages 2-5)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Written and illustrated by Eric Carle. (World Publishing, 1969) A caterpillar goes from egg to chrysalis to beautiful butterfly, devouring many different foods along the way.
City Dog, Country Frog. Written by Mo Willems. Illustrated by Jon J. Muth. (Hyperion Books for Children, 2010) The picture book features two improbable friends who teach each other new games against the backdrop of changing seasons.
Early Readers (Ages 4-8)
Madeline. Written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans. (Simon & Shuster, 1939) Set in the 1930s, Madeline is a spunky redheaded child who attends a Paris school run by the orderly Miss Clavel.
Sleep Like a Tiger. Written by Mary Logue. Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012) This bedtime narrative deals with the perennial problem of a child not wanting to go to sleep at night.
Middle Readers (Ages 9-12)
Harry Potter (series). Written by J.K. Rowling. (Scholastic, 2007) These seven immensely popular novels chronicle the adventures of a young wizard, Harry Potter, and his friends Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger. Harry battles Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard, who wants to rule the wizard world.
Charlotte’s Web. Written by E.B. White. Illustrated by Garth Williams. (Harper & Row, 1952) When Wilbur the lovable pig learns he is to be slaughtered for a Christmas dinner, his true friend Charlotte, a barn spider, saves his life.
Young Adults (Ages 13-17)
The Giver. Written by Lois Lowry. (Houghton Mifflin, 1994) Jonas learns a horrible truth about his society, realizing that he is living in a world that has eliminated all pain, fear, war, hatred, and freedom.
Code Name Verity. Written by Elizabeth Wein. (Hyperion Books, 2012) A young female undercover agent, code name “Verity,” is captured by the Gestapo after her spy plane crashes on an unauthorized flight into France during World War II.
Adults (Ages 18+)
Rabbit (series). Written by John Updike. (Knopf, 1960-1990) Four novels follow the life of one-time high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over several decades, from young adulthood, through paunchy middle age, to his retirement and death.
Bring Up the Bodies. Written by Hilary Mantel. (Henry Holt, 2012) Set in 16th century England, the book deals with the downfall of King Henry VIII’s second wife, the audacious Anne Boleyn. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second part of a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, chief minister and henchman to King Henry VIII.