Monday, 24 April 2017

What Makes a Classic? • Lynne Garner

You know you're a classic when you become a statue
I was recently asked what was on my bucket list. This bucket list could include anything including being an author. After pondering for some time, I finally came to the conclusion I'd like to write a picture book that was classed as a classic. The conversation continued onto what I considered to be a classic. My first step to answering this question was to consider what my classics are, and they included:  

  • Going on a Bear Hunt 
  • The Hungry Caterpillar 
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea 
  • A Bear Called Paddington 
  • Make Way for Ducklings  
  • Where the Wild Things Are 
  • Elma The Patchwork Elephant 

I was then asked, "So what makes these classic?" I began to break down what I thought made a classic picture book and this is what I came up with:  

A good story
I suppose that's obvious but also very subjective. I think it can be said that a good story is one that resonates with a huge number of people from diverse backgrounds. Something that entertains the reader regardless of who they are. I'm not sure if there's a common thread in any of the titles I've listed as they're all different, with a different voice and feel. But they all have that certain something, whatever that is. 

To become a classic I felt it safe to assume it would have to be around for a long time. Not knowing the original publication date of my classics, I did a little research and discovered: 

  • Going on a Bear Hunt - 1989
  • The Hungry Caterpillar - 1969
  • The Tiger Who Came to Tea - 1968
  • A Bear Called Paddington - 1958
  • Make Way for Ducklings - 1941 
  • Where the Wild Things Are - 1963
  • Elma The Patchwork Elephant – 1968

So, the oldest has been around for 76 years (Make Way For Ducklings) whilst the youngest is Going on a Bear Hunt, a mere 28 years old. 

So, longevity can't be the only thing.

From the publisher’s point of view, it must be sales. They're not going to keep a book in print if it doesn't sell reasonably well on a continuous basis. So, who are buying these books and why do they continue to sell? Obviously, marketing. Thinking about it I don't think I've been in a book shop in the last few years and not seen copies of Going on a Bear Hunt, The Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came to Tea for sale. These books also have merchandise attached to them and it's not uncommon for an entire table to be filled with the books and the merchandise. This makes purchasing them a no-brainer.

However, people are creatures of habit and if you're going to buy a book as a present then rather than take the chance you're going to purchase one you enjoyed as a child. So, the longer a book stays in print the wider audience it's going to reach.

Some books don't age well
I've tried to discover what the average shelf life for a picture book is and have been unsuccessful. However, I remember an editor telling me not to expect my how-to craft book to in print after five years. I asked why and the reply was, "They just don't age well." I believe this is true of some of the picture books I read as a child. I'd never buy them today, they contain views, beliefs, actions etc. that just no longer acceptable. So are never going to make the classic list. 

So, what does make a classic a classic? 

I wish I knew. I'd then be able to use that knowledge to write my own and tick that box on my bucket list "write a classic."

Any suggestions would be welcome.



Last but not least whilst researching this topic I rediscovered this fab post asking the question "why do some picture books stay in print?" If you've stuck with us from the start then you may have read it because it appeared on this very blog in February 2014 and was written by our very own Paeony Lewis. If you have the time simply click on the link above and have a read.


  1. I love your list, especially 'Make Way for Ducklings'. I wish I knew what made a classic a classic! I think some of it is the magic that goes on between words, pictures, page and reader that you can't quite put your finger on.

  2. Ha ha, what about 'The Gruffalo'?! Of is it simply not on your personal 'classic' list? My personal list would include 'Owl Babies'. I hadn't heard of the American 'Make Way for Ducklings' and I've just listened to some of it on YouTube. Great to discover a 'new' one (even if it's 1941!). Lovely to see a link to one of my old blog posts, Lynne. Many thanks and good luck with your 'classic' - it's elusive but I'd love that too.

  3. Michelle - You're so right about the 'magic' that goes on in a classic.

    Paeony - Yep should have included the Owl Babies, it's a lovely book. The really like The Gruffalo, it's a very clever story but doesn't quite make it as a classic for me. Not sure why, but I'm sure my list isn't what someone else would pick. That's the great thing about books there's always something for someone.

  4. Looking at your list, I'd say that really top quality artwork is certainly one thing that gives a book sticking power. And then there's that 'something' indefinable in the story that touches the reader personally in some way. And they're all BIG topics. Will we get caught by a bear? Will those ducklings cross the road safely and live? Will Elmer who is unhappy with himself find acceptance of himself? The caterpillar is changing into something quite different. Oh, and only one of your examples includes human characters. Interesting!

  5. Gosh, it would be lovely to write or illustrate a classic wouldn't it? Good luck, Lynne. I'm still living in hope...