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What Makes a Book a Classic?

I just finished reading the American classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

It didn't have a high-stakes plot, a big twist, a fantastical world, or an epic romance, yet I was totally enraptured with the everyday struggle of the impoverished Nolan family, particularly Francie.

In fact, after 500 pages, I found it hard to let it go. I bought copies for my shelves, chose it for the #24in2024BookChallenge Buddy Read, and still gush about it every chance I get.

So, this got me thinking, what makes a book a classic? Considering the 1,000s upon 1,000s of amazing stories we fall in love with, what catapults a select few to the esteemed classic status?

I scoured the classic lists to see if I could find any commonality between the books. To my surprise, professionals couldn't even agree on the list! Every list I could find had discrepancies (that's plural) with another's list. Very few titles made every list I checked. Other books, like Harry Potter, were surprising omissions, and I couldn't help but wonder (Yes, I'm a Carrie Bradshaw fan!), were these deletions based on literary merit or politics? Some titles I had never heard of before. But I must admit, if they sounded interesting, they were added to Mount Slushie. (That's my TBR list.) And a few books on the lists got this reaction, "Really? Uck!" which made me conjure up images of elitist snobs smoking pipes in a study debating if they should deem the book in question "a necessary addition for the good of the common folk."

But most shocking of all... I agreed with so, soooo many of their selections. Titles like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little House in the Big Woods, Charlotte's Web, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory filled the page. And let's be honest, if you don't find Anne of Green Gables to be a little slice of Heaven, do you even deserve a bookish opinion? (Just kidding! Of course, you do!)

I was back to square one. What made a book a classic?

I went down a rabbit hole for you, and here's what I came up with- a top ten kind of list. According to the experts, the esteemed classic classification boils down to these criteria:

  1. The work represents the period in which it was written.

  2. The story is so good that it touches readers from a variety of backgrounds to their very core. This is mostly due to universal themes, like love, faith, and loss, woven throughout the story causing an emotional reaction.

  3. It is written in such a way that readers can't deny its artistic quality.

  4. They are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm rereading…', or never 'I'm reading….' (This was my favorite descriptor.) In other words, people have strong opinions about them.

  5. The story leaves a lasting impression on the reader, often described as unforgettable. Sometimes, they become part of the unconscious of the collective. (That's powerful!)

  6. A classic not only begs to be reread but is enjoyed just as much the 2nd, 3rd, 4th (you get the idea) time because more and more layers unfold as if the story never exhausts all it has to say to us.

  7. On the other hand, a classic also gives us the sense we've read it before. (I guess this is one of those reasons that make defining a classic so difficult.)

  8. A classic is surrounded by and in the center of controversy but manages to endure.

  9. And with that endurance, it brings all its interpretations to a new generation of readers with which to absorb and reflect.

  10. Perhaps, most mysteriously, a classic reveals a bit of ourselves to our inner being leading to a deeper understanding of our human experiences.

That's what the experts say anyhow. However, I've simplified the criteria because expert lists are great, but it's perhaps more important to think about what makes a story a classic in your heart. Without further ado, here's my must-have criteria for deeming a book "Must-Read" material:

  1. A memorable story that evokes feelings. The book should stay with me long after the cover is closed, and it should call me to open the pages again and again for a visit and possibly read every book in the author’s backlist (which, unfortunately, often leads to disappointment).

  2. The writing must be excellent. Pictures should be painted; experiences should be felt.

  3. The character(s) must resonate with me. After all, readers put themselves into the protagonist's story. I want to go to fantastical worlds, travel to distant lands, or capture a piece of nostalgia for a time past, but away I want to go. I want to experience life through another’s eyes.

  4. It has to stand the test of time. Books I read as a child must hold up to the writing standard I enjoy as an adult.

  5. It has a theme that speaks to my heart. So underneath the humdrum of everyday life or the thrills of mind-blowing adventures, there must lie a truth to be discovered, mulled over, and imprinted on the heart.

With these criteria in mind, I decided to take this exercise a little further and create my own list of 50 Must-Read Middle School Books (because middle school is my jam). I hesitate to use the word classic because although many of the titles are classics, some of them fall just short of my classic criteria.

And P.S., I had compiled this list two years prior, and already there was a struggle as to what titles needed to be added and what precious books needed the old heave-ho. But isn't that the beauty of our book hobby? We never know when we're going to be blown away by a story so powerful it expands our lists to new numbers. I'll probably have a top 100 by my next edit.

Check out my list and tell me what you think. Did I leave out one of your favorites? Is there a title on the list that makes you think I've done lost my mind and have no literary taste whatsoever?

(Refer to my notes at the end of this post to discover which titles were bumped & the reasoning behind a few omissions.)

Favorite 50
Download PDF • 476KB

So, now it's your turn! Make your Top Whatever Number and send them out into the world to declare their greatness. Sure, you’ll have naysayers, but you just might help someone fall in love with a story that won't let them go.

Happy Reading,

Stacey Faubion

My Notes:

Titles I bumped:

  1. Serafina's Promise

  2. The Secret Hum of Daisies

  3. Pax

  4. Mario & the Stones

  5. Freak the Mighty

  6. The BFG

  7. Alone by Megan Freeman

  8. Amari & the Night Brothers

  9. Everything, Everything

  10. Speak

A bit of my reasoning behind the bumps:

  1. Speak & Everything, Everything are too mature for a middle grade list.

  2. I can't honestly remember Pax or The Secret Hum of Daisies so they didn't pass the memorable test.

  3. I feel like I put Freak the Mighty on the list because of peer pressure! (I was being a snooty, pipe smoker.)

  4. Amari & the Night Brothers feels very Harry Potter-y so I stuck with the OG.

  5. The rest were hard bumps!

Glaring Omissions:

  1. Alice in Wonderland (It's just not my jam)

  2. Percy Jackson (I've yet to read it!)



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