The 1980s were my childhood decade. I went from infant to tween in the space of those ten years, and it seems obvious that the books of the decade would stick with me since I was both an early and indiscriminate reader.
Here’s a sampling of the historical events of which I was probably completely unaware while I was being a child:
1980–Pac-Man video game released
1981–First woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor, who spoke at my university years later!)
1983–Cabbage Patch Kids popular (now this I remember!)
1985–Titanic wreckage found
1989–Berlin Wall falls, World Wide Web invented
Newbery medalists of the decade include a number that I remember reading (but not all), and the honor books (some of which I’ll address later in the post) were also standard fare:
1980–A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-1832, by Joan W. Blos
1981–Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson
1982–A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by Nancy Willard
1983–Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voight
1984–Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary
1985–The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley
1986–Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan
1987–The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman
1988–Lincoln: A Photobiography, by Russell Freedman
1989–Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman
Caldecott medalists, including some of my most remembered illustrators (like Trina Schart Hyman, Stephen Gammell (whose more recent work I didn’t connect to these books), and Chris Van Allsburg):
1980–Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
1981–Fables, by Arnold Lobel
1982–Jumanji, by Chris Van Allsburg
1983–Shadow, translated and illustrated by Marcia Brown (French text by Blaise Cendrars)
1984–The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot, by Alice and Martin Provensen
1985–Saint George and the Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1986–The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
1987–Hey, Al, by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Richard Egielski
1988–Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr
1989–Song and Dance Man, by Karen Ackerman, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
While a number of the above titles have stood the test of time, my personal favorites will show up again in the reviews below!
Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever: New Revised Edition, by Richard Scarry (1980): Okay, I know that this was not published originally in the 1980s, but it was such a giant in my vocabulary development as a wee lass that I had to include it! My brother, born in the previous decade, had the 1963 version for his edification, but I learned about the bear twins’ clothing, shapes and colors, and parts of the body with a few more females in male-dominated fields and a few more gender-neutral job titles (fire fighter as opposed to fireman, for example). Love, love, love this book. My mom made sure to get each of her sets of grandchildren a copy so they, too, could examine each page diligently as they grew!
Fables, by Arnold Lobel (1980): This book of one-page original fables was a favorite of mine as a child. I’m not sure where I got my paperback copy–either a book fair or a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) give-away, I think–but I treasured it! It was a Caldecott Medal winner, and each fable has a large, detailed illustration to go with it. Each fable comes with its own explicitly stated moral, such as “Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves” and “Advice from friends is like the weather. Some of it is good; some of it is bad.” It would be a great mentor text for writing stories with a moral (or even just a message), and I might suggest covering the morals up, reading the fables aloud, and letting the class brainstorm what each moral might be. Because the animal characters are so silly, the fact that there is a message to each one won’t ruin the fun!
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond (1985): I apparently missed this as a kid, but the Kohl’s Cares reprints and accompanying toys were a big hit with my children when they were smaller! (In fact, this particular title was the one we didn’t own, and BoyChild–age 5–discovered how much he loves it when he found it sitting with our library books and made GirlChild read it to him!) It’s a cause-and-effect story that has just enough silliness to disguise the fact that it is a great literacy learning tool!
Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan (1985): This Newbery Medal book tells the story of a father and his children who are hoping that the father’s advertisement for a wife will bring songs back to their home and hearts. Sarah from Maine answers the letter and comes to the plains for a trial period. Anna and Caleb hope that Sarah, who describes herself as plain and tall, will learn to love their home and stop missing the sea. When she goes into town alone one day, the children are worried that she has decided against staying and is buying a train ticket home to Maine. However, Sarah returns with special gifts and tells them that although she misses the sea, she would miss them more. The book is a fast, simple read and would be a good choice for historical fiction for middle grade readers starting around third grade. I’m going to give it to GirlChild to try! (The book flap says the story is based on “a true event in [the author’s] family history”–always a great way to get story ideas!)
The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischman (1986): Our cat, a kitten we rescued from the storm sewer on our street, was named Jemmy after this book; it’s one of those that my mom read aloud to us in that memorable way (where she used different voices for different characters but didn’t even realize it) that made the book come alive! An orphan named Jemmy catches rats in the sewer to earn money. He is snatched from the streets to live in the castle as the whipping boy for Prince Brat (not his given name). When the prince tires of Jemmy’s stoic response to whippings and his father’s lack of attention, he makes Jemmy help him run away. There is a circus bear, a pair of kidnapping highwaymen, and a chase through a city sewer–all the ridiculousness and excitement a middle grade student needs! This historical fiction book (quite possibly more popular with boys but obviously something I quite enjoyed!) won the Newbery Medal.
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Dianna Wynne Jones (1986): I have to admit that I checked this book out and still didn’t get a chance to read it! So many of my fantasy-loving friends have mentioned it, however, that when I discovered it had been published in the ’80s, I had to include it. I have read another of her fantasy titles for young adults, The Dark Lord of Derkholm (which is not quite as dark as the title might imply!), and Wikipedia (that monolith of solid information!) says that she has been compared to Robin McKinley and Neil Gaiman, both authors whose books I have loved (although I can’t read Coraline and look at the illustrations at all!), so I am going to keep my borrowed copy of this book until I actually get it read! It was made into a movie in 2004, so we’ll see if I have to look that up, too, after I’ve finished!
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, by John Steptoe (1987): Steptoe retells a folktale first recorded in published form in 1895. The moral points out that being kind and caring is more important than being beautiful (and reaps better rewards), but the illustrations that earned it a Caldecott Honor are worth the purchase price of the book even without the story! Another positive aspect of the book is that the author clearly did research, not only citing the first printed version of the story that inspired his book but also the origins of the names he chose, the inspiration for the scenery in the illustrations, and the people (and related institutions) that assisted him in his research. Additionally, unlike many books where there is a king seeking a bride, there is actual mutual consent and respect shown between the king and the woman he asks (not just chooses!) to be his bride. Definitely a lasting title great for any home, school, or classroom library!
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen (1987): When I discovered many years ago that my husband had never read this Newbery Honor book, I actually read it aloud to him while we traveled! It’s the kind of book I can’t believe a boy in the ’80s would have missed! So many things from the book still linger with me, and the survivalism depicted–both his physical survival and emotional survival–could be empowering to modern readers as well. I’m sure some of the aspects of the story haven’t aged well–Brian would have had a cell phone handy, for one thing, although he might not have gotten a signal in the woods!–but the overall themes and internal struggles still ring true. Gary Paulsen is a master of realistic survival stories (and has lived a rather adventurous life to get the credibility and experience needed to do them real justice), and this is a classic. I think the youngest reader I’d suggest would be probably fifth grade, but the protagonist is thirteen, and there is real meat to the story, so middle and high school readers are likely to get the most out of it.
The Mitten, by Jan Brett (1989): I’ve blogged about Jan Brett’s books before, and part of it is because she has just written so very many! The exquisite detail in her illustrations, her lifelike but anthropomorphic animal characters, and her gravitation toward snowy scenes and retellings of traditional tales make her the quintessential author for a primary school library. Because of the way part of the story is told in words and part in pictures, (particularly the images featured around the borders of each page, in this case made to look like decorations pinned to a birch bark panel), readers get several layers of story when the story is read versus when they are able to spend time examining the illustrations. Another great thing about Ms. Brett is that her website contains links for pages to color among other things! The Mitten–the story of how a variety of cold animals squeeze into one lost mitten–is one of her most well-known and loved books.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith (1989): I’m not sure if I’ve said this before (I’ve said this before), but I love Jon Scieszka! While my first introduction to his work was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, this book was actually his first picture book! Fractured fairy tales are a genre I have always enjoyed, and this title is a great example. In it, Al Wolf (from his prison cell) defends himself against the claims that he cold-heartedly ate the first two little pigs when what he really did was have a sneezing fit while trying to ask to borrow a cup of sugar to make his granny’s birthday cake (and then eat the pigs when their homes fell down so as not to let them go to waste!). He has been framed! Like much of Scieszka’s work, young readers will need to have somewhat sophisticated reading skills to really get the story independently, but these books are also great to share and discuss with kids (and then let them explore them alone to see the nuances and clever details that might be missed in a first read-through)–great for discussing inference, voice, and point-of-view!
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry (1989): Set in Denmark in 1943, this Newbery Medal book tells how a young Danish girl helps her Jewish friend during the Nazi occupation of her country. The family’s determination, inventiveness, and bravery in spite of reasonable fear are clear throughout, and I know that my mother has used this book as a literature supplement to her history lessons in her sixth grade classroom. (Another World War II historical fiction book I can suggest for upper elementary and middle school aged readers would be Michael Morpurgo’s Waiting for Anya (1990).)
I obviously have quite a few favorites from the decade, and the bloggers over at What Do We Do All Day? had a list with even more forgotten favorites on it! (My kids just finished listening to the Wayside School books on audiobook during our summer travels this year!) I do notice a few common threads on both our lists: silly/slapstick, folktales, and historical fiction. I don’t know whether these things were just en vogue at that time and really dominated children’s literature or if we bloggers just have similar taste in our ’80s books!