Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes cover: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_Milk_for_Boston_Babes#/media/File:Spiritual_Milk_for_Boston_Babes.jpg
The Little Prince, narrated by Kenneth Branagh (1 hour 45 minutes, 1.4 million views): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APG1upS8LDw
The Very Hungry Caterpillar animation (7 minutes, 196 million views!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75NQK-Sm1YY
The first one was printed in the year 868… the first one just for kids not until the 1600s … and Bryce and I cannot agree on the best of all time. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut for Book Week—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.
And I’m Bryce Corbett.
Bryce, you’ve got kids – I don’t have to tell you that Book Week is a BIG deal. Kids might dress up as their favourite book characters … have an author visit their school… do writing workshops … and of course, do LOTS of reading.
Today, we’ll take you through WHEN the first ever books were published; WHO wrote the first book for kids; and WHAT are the best children’s books of all time.
Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!
Bryce, we’re obviously going to have to fire up the Squiz Kids Time Machine to go back to when the first books were printed – time machines, by the way, appearing in some terrific books over the years. We’ll first set the dial to take us back 5,500 years ago, to the first known time that anyone recorded anything in a way that it could be moved around.
Humans had been painting in caves, for example, but this was the first time that someone had recorded symbols on a clay tablet, in a place called Mesopotamia, which is occupied today by Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Kuwait.
It would take another 3,000 years until the Chinese invented paper, by pulping up mulberries, the hemp plant, old rags, and old fish nets to produce something that could be written on by hand. It took another 900 years or so until the Chinese came up with a way to carve characters into wood, and then use those wood blocks to mechanically print with ink onto the paper.
But the invention that most people think of when they think of printing books is something called the Gutenberg Press.
That was named for its inventor, a German by the name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg – sensibly shortened to Gutenberg. Gutenberg was a goldsmith, and he came up with a system of metal letters that could be moved around to create different words. In 1455, his press printed its first major book – the Bible.
As more people learned to read, other books started to be printed and sold. So, Amanda, WHO wrote the first book just for kids?
It took more than 200 years for anyone to think about using a printing press to make books just for kids … and even when they did, they were still religious. Most people think that the first book written exclusively for kids was called “Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes”, penned by the American church minister John Cotton. It was published in 1656 in the United States, and I’ve put a link to its cover in your episode notes.
It looks extremely different from modern children’s books – no pictures, no colour, no sense of humour… it’s a far cry from my kids’ favourite books.
And from mine! Which brings us to the big debate… WHAT are the greatest children’s books of all time?
Now Bryce, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and the mantra in my classroom was that you don’t yuck other people’s yums. So instead of debating, let’s count down the top 20 BEST-SELLING children’s books of all time. Are you ready?
At number 20, we have everyone’s favourite kid who sleeps with both sets of grandparents in one bed, Charlie Bucket … and his adventures at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl’s classic was published in 1964, has had multiple movies made from it, and has sold more than 20 million copies.
At number 19, with just a smidge more copies sold, is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. All about Max, a kid dressed up in a wolf suit, who gets in trouble at home and is then transported to a magical place where he becomes king of the wild things.
Number 18 is a book published way back in 1908 called Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame’s book about the animal characters Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger, explores what it means to be a good friend, and has sold more than 25 million copies.
I’d be shocked if anyone listening hadn’t read number 17… it’s about a character who ate one apple on Monday, two pears on Tuesday, three plums on Wednesday, four strawberries on Thursday, and five oranges on Friday. And then he really goes to town on Saturday. I’m talking, of course, about Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
There was a time I knew that off by heart, I read it so much to my kids! Moving on to number 16, this book is about a naughty little rabbit who keeps stealing a farmer’s veggies. That’s right, it’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. That’s another book written more than 100 years ago, and it’s sold a whopping 45 million copies, and inspired movies, plays, even a ballet.
It’s interesting how many of these books are about animals – numbers 15 and 14 are Charlotte’s Web, the E.B. White classic about a spider and a pig; and Black Beauty, about a horse.
And numbers 13 and 12 are about young people having to find their way in the world – Anne of Green Gables, about an orphaned girl sent to live on a farm, and Heidi, about an orphaned girl sent to live in the mountains with her rather grumpy grandfather.
Rather astonishingly, numbers 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, and 6 on the bestseller list are also about an orphan – this time, a young wizard.
That’s right, Harry Potter books 2 to 7 have sold at least 400 million copies. And, forgive me for jumping around a little bit, but the number two spot on our list is taken by the first of J.K. Rowling’s books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which sold 120 million copies all on its own. Incredible. But let’s go back to number 5, which was originally written in Italian back in 1881. It’s about a wooden puppet who wants to become a real boy.
Ah yes, is The Adventures of Pinnochio, by Carlo Collodi. It’s sold more than 80 million copies! Just in front of Pinnochio is one of my favourites, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis.
I don’t know about you, Bryce, but I still have a little flicker of hope when I open a wardrobe… just hoping there could be a magical world inside. And speaking of magical worlds, number 3 on our list is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, all about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole and into a whole new world.
We’ve already covered number 2, Amanda, so … drum roll please… what is number 1?
The best selling children’s book of all time, with an impressive 140 million copies sold, and counting, is … The Little Prince. Originally written in French, it’s a book about a little boy who travels from planet to planet, seeking wisdom and also discovering that adults can be unpredictable, and often downright unimaginative. There’s joy, friendship, understanding, but also sadness and loss. I’ve put a link in your episode notes to a video of it, as well as some of the others, being read aloud. But Bryce, there’s one thing I think it’s important to say.
The only books on this list that were written in the 21st century are the last four Harry Potter ones. Most of the books we’ve just discussed have been on sale for 50, 100, even more than 100 years—which does help to explain why they’ve sold so many copies. If your favourite book isn’t on this list, it may well show up in a few more decades.
In the meantime, though, it’s worth checking out some of those oldies. There’s a reason they’ve been bought, read, and loved by millions.
This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. Name one of the ingredients the Chinese used to make the first known paper.
2. What was the main purpose of the first children’s book?
3. What do you think is the best book of all time?