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Fun Facts About the 11 "Greatest Books for Kids"

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Scholastic's Parent & Child magazine recently released a list of the 100 Greatest Books for Kids. Spanning a variety of genres and target ages, the editors made the selections from a population of around 500 submissions from literacy experts and "mommy bloggers." Here are the top 11 along with some flossy tidbits about each:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (#11)

The best-selling book in the top 11, Anne has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into 20 different languages. Only 16 single-volume works of fiction have sold more copies. Canadian journalist and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson credits Montgomery's novels with introducing her to Canadian customs and cultures when she was a nine-year-old immigrant from China.

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (#10)

Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel was married to a fellow children's book author, Anita Kempler. They had a daughter, Adrianne, and here's where stuff gets really awesome: Adrianne Lobel is married to actor Mark Linn-Baker. That's right, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers. If you don't walk around the rest of the day saying "Balki Bartokomous" in your head repeatedly (and occasionally out loud), that's just strange to me.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (#9)

For a book considered one of the top 10 greatest children's books of all time, The Giving Tree sure took a long time to be published. Its appeal to many levels of reader made it difficult to categorize and most publishers just went ahead and categorized it as "too sad." The most fun Shel Silverstein fact I know I recently learned on here: he wrote the lyrics to the Johnny Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue." Silverstein was really a rather prolific songwriter and even wrote a song version of The Giving Tree that was included on country singer Bobby Bare's 1974 album, Singin' In the Kitchen. The song is too sad, too.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (#8)

The inspirational diary of this teenaged Dutch girl written during the Nazi occupation has been translated into more than 60 languages. Can you identify the language of the titles of these translations? (Answers at the bottom of this post.)

a) Anne Frank’in Hatira Defteri
b) Ana Franks Togbukh: 12 Juni 1942 – 1 Oygust 1944
c) Das Tagebuch Der Anne Frank: 12 Juni 1942 – 1 August 1944
d) Ana Frank: Dienorastis
e) To Hemerologio Tes Annas
f) Nuoren Tyton Paivakirja
g) Ube-zisce Dnevnik v Pismach
h) Kan Thyg Khong Enn Frenhgk
i) Ena Phremkako Daeri
j) Dnevenik Ane Frank
k) Anna Franki Oragire
l) Het Achterhuis – Dagboekbrieven 14 juni 1942 – 1 augustus 1944

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (#7)

Have you ever noticed that Green Eggs and Ham only uses 50 words? Well, it does, and that fact put Dr. Seuss on the winning side of a $50 bet with his publisher, Bennett Cerf, who said that he could not do it. What's more, 49 of the 50 words used in Green Eggs are one-syllable words. The lone multi-syllable word is "anywhere." Trivia trivia: The fact about Seuss's bet with Cerf is the most-linked-to bit of trivia in our Amazing Fact Generator.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (#6)

There were some vocabulary changes from the original British English version of the book to the American English version. For one, the title was changed from the original Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because someone at Scholastic suggested that children would not be drawn to read something with the word "philosopher" in the title, and that the meaning of "philosopher" is slightly different in Britain and America. (J.K. Rowling is regretful of the change and says that, had she been in a better position at the time to make demands, she would have taken a stance on this one.) Other changes included "mum" to "mom," "motorbike" to "motorcycle," "jumper" to "sweater," "trainers" to "sneakers," "car park" to "parking lot," "jacket potato" to "baked potato," "chips" to "fries," and "crisp" to "chip."

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (#5)

Lots of people know that Spike Jonze directed a film version of Where the Wild Things Are that was released in 2009. But before that, the children's classic became an opera. Sendak himself wrote the libretto and the music was written by British composer Oliver Knussen, who conducted the first performance featuring the completed score in London in 1984. Roles in the opera include Max and Mama (of course) as well as Moishe (Wild Thing With Beard), Bruno (Wild Thing With Horns), Emile (Rooster Wild Thing), Bernard (Bull Wild Thing), and Tzippy (Female Wild Thing).

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (#4)

More than 20 years before releasing The Snowy Day, illustrator Ezra Jack Keats came across a series of images in a May 1940 issue of LIFE magazine depicting a young African-American boy about to go through a blood test. (See them here.) Even as he continued his career as an illustrator, the images wouldn't leave his mind and he began to recognize a lack of African-American protagonists in children's literature. But, more than filling that void, The Snowy Day was meant to express the universality of some childhood experiences. According to the author, "I wanted to convey the joy of being a little boy alive on a certain kind of day—of being for that moment."

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (#3)

This book actually begins, "It was a dark and stormy night..." The phrase, which was first infamously used by British author Edward Bulwar-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, has become synonymous with the overly flowery style of writing known as "purple prose." In fact, since 1982, San Jose State University has hosted an annual Bulwar-Lytton fiction contest in which its thousands of participants submit one-sentence entries in various categories, hoping to be deemed the purplest of the purple. The official deadline for submission is April 15 because, as the official contest website states, this is a date that "Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories."

We shouldn't be so hard on old Bulwar-Lytton, though; he did coin the phrase, "the pen is mightier than the sword." Have you ever wondered who coined the phrase "coin the phrase"?

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (#2)

A few things to notice the next time you read this classic:

Through the course of the book, the time on the clocks changes from 7:00 p.m. to 8:10 p.m.
*
The mouse can be found on every page that shows the room.
*
The book on the bedside table is Goodnight Moon.
*
The open book on the shelf is The Runaway Bunny and the painting of the fishing bunny is very similar to a picture in The Runaway Bunny.
*
The red balloon disappears and reappears at the end of the book.
*
On the last page of the book, the mouse has eaten the mush.

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (#1)

Of course, Charlotte's Web is an amazing book and Charlotte is one of the most wonderful characters in all fiction. But did you know that E.B. White is the "White" of "Strunk and White," who penned the classic 1918 style guide, The Elements of Style? (Strunk was one of White's professors at Cornell.) Not at all too shabby for Mr. White, who finds himself at the top of this list with Charlotte's Web and on Time magazine's list of the 100 best and most influential books written in the English language since 1923 with Elements. White only wrote three children's books in his life but he believed strongly in the importance of the imagination, writing to one young reader, "In real life, a spider doesn't spin words in her web...But real life is only one kind of life—there is also the life of the imagination."

***

So, all in all, just a really fun list. How awesome would a baby shower gift of the top ten be? (Am I mommy blogging right now?) Additionally, there are some interesting choices and topics raised for discussion and debate among the prepubescent literati: "Why was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone only number six on the list?"; "Why was The Cat in the Hat not on the list at all?"; and "Why is A Wrinkle in Time still one of the best books I've ever read?" You can find the rest of the list here. Happy reading.

Answers to translation titles of Anne Frank's diary:
a) Turkish, b) Yiddish, c) German, d) Lithuanian, e) Greek, f) Finnish, g) Russian, h) Thai, i) Nepalese, j) Croatian, k) Armenian, l) Dutch (the language in which the diary was originally written)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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