The best books about beloved children’s books

Melanie Rehak Author Of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
By Melanie Rehak

Who am I?

I spent my childhood reading for pleasure, for escapism, for humor, for reassurance, for different views of the world, and even out of sheer boredom sometimes when there was nothing else to do. I have no doubt it’s what made me into a writer. In retrospect, it makes total sense that my first book was about the history and power of a children’s series. When I found myself immersed in not just my old Nancy Drews but the fascinating stories of the people and times that produced her, it was like being back in my childhood bedroom again, only this time with the experience to understand how what I read fit into the larger story of America, feminism, and literature. I hope the books I’ve recommended will inspire you to revisit your old favorites with a new eye.

I wrote...

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

By Melanie Rehak,

Book cover of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

What is my book about?

A plucky “titian-haired” sleuth solved her first mystery in 1930. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women’s libbers) to enter the pantheon of American girlhood. As beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers, Nancy Drew has both inspired and reflected the changes in her readers’ lives. Here, in a narrative with all the vivid energy and page-turning pace of Nancy’s adventures, Melanie Rehak solves an enduring literary mystery: Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to icon?  
The brainchild of children’s book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was brought to life by two women: Mildred Wirt Benson, a pioneering journalist from Iowa, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a well-bred wife and mother who took over as CEO after her father died. In this century-spanning story, Rehak traces their roles—and Nancy’s—in forging the modern American woman.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

Why did I love this book?

As a native New Yorker and lifelong fan of Harriet the Spy (one among legions) reading the product of Leslie Brody’s detective work into the life of her creator is a special pleasure. Born in 1928, Fitzhugh was the product of a high society Memphis marriage that ended in scandal. She went on to live a vibrant, turbulent life in the queer artist and writers scene in New York. It makes total sense that someone who straddled so many different worlds had such a deep understanding of the multiple lives we all lead, and such a keen ability to perceive other people, all of which she poured into her characters. I also recommend her other incredible YA novel, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, which tackles race, children’s rights, and the profound beauty of tap dancing.

By Leslie Brody,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sometimes You Have to Lie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The protagonist and anti-heroine of Louise Fitzhugh's masterpiece Harriet the Spy, first published first in 1964, continues to mesmerize generation after generation of readers. Harriet is an erratic, unsentimental, and endearing prototype--someone very like the woman who dreamed her up, author and artist Louise Fitzhugh.

Born in 1928, Fitzhugh was raised in a wealthy home in segregated Memphis, and she escaped her cloistered world and made a beeline for New York as soon as she could. Her expanded milieu stretched from the lesbian bars of Greenwich Village to the dance clubs of Harlem, on to the resurgent artist studios of…

Book cover of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Why did I love this book?

I read the Little House on the Prairie books obsessively as a kid, and could still recall whole passages and every illustration when I read them to my sons decades later. But the history behind them, both the period of America's development they depict and the story of how they came to be, is full of complications and attitudes the series elides or outrightly ignores. I treasure this book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, for the deep context it gives about the political and social context surrounding these stories and the true history of the Ingalls and Wilder families. Meeting them in full provides a chance to think about the series with a different perspective.

By Caroline Fraser,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Prairie Fires as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Just as gripping as the original novels . . . As pacy and vivid as one of Wilder's own narratives' Sunday Times

Millions of readers of Little House on the Prairie believe they know Laura Ingalls - the pioneer girl who survived blizzards and near-starvation on the Great Plains where 'as far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses'. Her books are beloved around the world.

But the true story of her life has never been fully told. The Little…

Book cover of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Why did I love this book?

I love letter collections and this one is among my very favorites. From 1940 to 1973, Ursula Nordstrom was the director of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harpers, one of New York’s biggest publishing houses. Her letters to the authors she worked with are so funny, sharp, and wise that I always wish I’d had a chance to work with her. Even if I had, though, the competition was stiff as her authors included pretty much every single person who wrote and/or illustrated what we now think of as a children’s classic. To name just a few: Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; Where the Wild Things Are; Goodnight Moon; The Little House on the Prairie Books, and many, many more. You’ll learn how they all came to be and also close the book feeling like you had a great, gossipy publishing lunch in mid-20th century New York City. Mad Men, but for children’s books.

By Leonard S. Marcus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dear Genius as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

She trusted her immense intuition and generous heart--and published the most. Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children's book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her unorthodox vision helped create such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte's Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Giving Tree.

Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here…

Book cover of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography

Why did I love this book?

I truly can’t imagine what my life would have been like with Peanuts, so it was no surprise to learn that the man who created it was a complex, flawed person—just like all of us. For me, Peanuts was the gateway not just to comics and independent kids whose parents never seemed to be around, but to jazz through the TV shows. This is also a model biography, and a pleasure to read on that count.

By David Michaelis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Schulz and Peanuts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Charles Schulz, the most widely syndicated and beloved cartoonist of all time, is also one of the most misunderstood figures in popular culture. Now, acclaimed biographer David Michaelis gives us the first full-length biography of Schulz: at once a creation story, a portrait of a hidden genius, and a chronicle contrasting the private man with the central role he played in shaping the imagination of a generation and beyond. The son of a barber, Schulz was born in Minnesota to modest, working class roots.In 1943, just three days after his mother's tragic death from cancer, Schulz, a private in the…

Book cover of Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story

Why did I love this book?

Though I love The Wizard of Oz, I’ve always thought the best book in the series is Ozma of Oz (close second: TikTok of Oz). Still, this book shows where the book most people think of as Baum’s masterpiece came from and how his imagination was fueled by the trends, triumphs, and politics of 19th century America. His personal life was far from the fantasy depicted in Oz, which is perhaps why so many of his characters find themselves in great peril.

By Evan I. Schwartz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Finding Oz as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A groundbreaking new look at an American icon, THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Finding Oz tells the remarkable tale behind one of the world's most enduring and best loved stories. Offering profound new insights into the true origins and meaning of L. Frank Baum's 1900 masterwork, it delves into the personal turmoil and spiritual transformation that fueled Baum's fantastical parable of the American Dream. Prior to becoming an impresario of children's adventure tales--the J. K. Rowling of his age--Baum failed at a series of careers and nearly lost his soul before setting out on a journey of discovery that would lead…

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