It is the sign of a really good book for children that adults can enjoy it at three distinct points in their life. First, of course, when they are themselves young, and can appreciate the story and characters for what they are. Secondly, when they have children in turn, and once again return to the much-loved narrative as if it’s an old friend. And third, and perhaps most importantly, when there are no children to be read to, the book can instead be enjoyed on its own merits as a marvellously inventive and rich tale.
Of course, these things can be cyclical. Once-classic books such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter series have fallen out of fashion, and there are books in the shops today that I would be amazed if they endured more than a decade or so, despite the enormous fame of their writers. But the very greatest children’s books are wise, witty and wonderful. As we head into winter, and another lockdown, here are half a dozen of the best, for all members of the family.
His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman’s original trilogy of books has expanded over the years into a quintet (with a sixth novel planned), and numerous spin-offs, most recently the novella Serpentine. But it’s the power and brilliance of the first three books that are likely to endure for readers for the foreseeable future, as Pullman manages something virtually impossible: he creates a gripping and surprising narrative, full of invention and incident, while simultaneously offering a deeply imagined philosophical argument that nods to John Milton and William Blake, but remains entirely its own beast. As we await the second series of the BBC’s excellent adaptation, it will never be a chore to revisit these sensationally entertaining and peerlessly written novels.
There are some children’s classics that, in spite of their iconic status, haven’t aged particularly well – on second reading, the prose is just too turgid and sluggish for today’s generation. But Dodie Smith’s page-turning classic is no less gripping now than when it was published in 1956. Adults can swoon over a nostalgic vision of London with its town houses, lively park life and aristocratic eccentrics (step forward Cruella). In a world where people are pets and dogs call the shots, this tale will win over its young readers in no time at all. Cruella DeVil with her love of fur coats, red rooms and pepper, remains one of the most iconic villains ever created on the page.
Katherine Rundell might be the cleverest children’s writer working today, as you’d expect from someone who is an All Souls College, Oxford fellow and whose doctorate was on the metaphysical poet John Donne. This doesn’t mean, however, that she’s a head-in-the-clouds academic. Not only has she written an excellent short book about the need for adults to rediscover their inner child, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old And Wise, but her novel about Sophie, an orphaned girl who finds herself part of a pack of children who climb the rooftops and buildings of Paris draws on Rundell’s own experiences of scaling the dreaming spires of Oxford, and does so with whimsicality, wit and a thrilling sense of adventure.
Goodnight Mister Tom
For many, John Thaw’s signature role was not Inspector Morse, Kavanagh QC or even DI Regan from The Sweeney, but the curmudgeonly widower Tom Oakley in the TV adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom, whose broken heart is eventually mended by his friendship with a young lonely evacuee, William Beech. If it sounds remotely sentimental, it’s a tribute to Magorian that she balances a genuinely heartwarming story of an evolving relationship between surrogate father and son with some grimly disturbing depictions of both child abuse and familial loss. Yet the novel is ultimately uplifting and deeply affecting, and richly deserves its status as a modern classic.
Picture books have often been regarded as the preserve of very young children, which is nonsense, as those who have enjoyed Where The Wild Things Are or Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s work already know. But Sophie Blackall’s Caldecott-winning picture book is something quite extraordinary. Conceived in the aftermath of the ‘most turbulent times’ of the 2016 Presidential election – nothing much changes – Blackall’s beautiful and affecting book follows the life of a lighthouse keeper and his family. While many tales have used the lighthouse as a metaphor for emotional or literal isolation, Hello Lighthouse is cheerful and uplifting, not least in its repeated catchphrase of ‘Hello…hello…hello’.
The Paddington films, especially the second one, are some of the finest family entertainment ever made, but they would never have existed had it not been for the author Michael Bond’s fertile imagination. Everyone knows the story of the indomitable bear from Peru with a penchant for marmalade sandwiches, who ends up being adopted by the Brown family when he arrives at Paddington station, but Bond’s series of books, beginning with 1958’s A Bear Called Paddington and concluding with 2018’s Paddington at St Paul’s, are hugely enjoyable masterpieces of heart and humour. No wonder that they have sold 35 million copies worldwide.
The Wind in the Willows
Everyone has their favourite character, moment or line in Kenneth Grahame’s richly rewarding and ceaselessly entertaining classic novel. For me, like so many, it is the adventures of the bumptious Mr Toad that never fail to enthrall. Whether it’s his Falstaffian tendency to exaggerate his valour and prowess in moments of conflict, his lovingly described gluttony and lust for life or simply his verbal inventiveness, which at times comes close to Wildean levels of sophistication and wit, there is no doubt that he is an outsized and irrepressible comic character who enthralls children and adults alike. There have been many spin-offs revolving around him and Ratty, Badger, Mole and the rest, but the original book remains the best, and a perennial favourite in my house.
Five Children and It
E.Nesbit has always quietly held her place in the canon of children’s classics and yet somehow the writer has never courted the legions of fans that surround the likes of C.S. Lewis or Enid Blyton. J.K Rowling cites her as an inspiration and for good reason. Like Rowling, Nesbit understood that the most engrossing tales of magic always incorporate elements of the familiar. Five Children and It strikes the perfect balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary as a family of five siblings meet a magical but cantankerous creature called a ‘psammiad’ who can grant wishes. The humour is as fresh today as the year it was written and Nesbit deserves to rediscovered by a new generation of young readers.
A Wrinkle in Time
American author Madeleine L’Engle’s space adventure manages an unusual feat: it combines a page-turning plot with profound questions about the meaning of life, and even throws some astrophysics in for good measure. Although feted at the time of publication, it’s a relatively unknown classic that adults will love introducing to their brood.
Shirley Hughes’ Out and About
This book of seasonal poems is an absolute must for children under 7. Not only are the illustrations sumptuous but the words are perfect for instilling an early sense of rhythm and rhyme in young listeners. Hughes has a knack for seeing the world from a child’s perspective, whether it’s writing about rolling down a hill or the joy of a cold hose pipe in the summer.