What children should read

    3 September 2020

    What you read when you’re young stays with you, tucked away in hidden places in your mind. The other day I found my Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, arranged by Lorna North and illustrated by Christopher Sanders, and, whoosh, I was back in my five-year-old self. But first you have to read books. Or be read to. Here is an arbitrary, subjective selection. Some are out of print (and shouldn’t be). They’re given with suggested ages, but if they’re good, you can read them any time. Actually, Daisy Ashford’s sublime The Young Visiters about a young lady and her adventures, written when she was nine, is even better when you’re grown up.

    AGES 0-3

    Young children need picture books. Allan and Janet Ahlberg’s Peepo!, with cut-out circles showing a wartime baby’s cheerful day, is a delight.

    Flap books are easily torn. Still, try the ever-brilliant Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell. ‘I wrote to the Zoo to send me a pet…’ Cue for a succession of animals…elephant, lion et al.


    It’s a mistake to think that small children don’t have a diabolical sense of humour. Which is why Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat are so good. Sound innocuous? Hah.

    William Nicholson is best known as the illustrator of the poignant Velveteen Rabbit but he also wrote children’s books. My favourite is the The Pirate Twins, about a girl called Mary who picks up two badly behaved pirate babies and raises them properly.

    H.A. Rey, a German refugee to the US, was a terrific children’s writer: his Curious George stories, about a naughty monkey, are based on an exploitative American kidnapping an African monkey, but if you can get over that, his adventures in America are addictive and subversively illustrated. Avoid the spin-offs.

    Alice in Wonderland is a difficult book for modern children; try Lewis Carroll’s simplified little version. The Nursery Alice has all the best bits.

    Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a must, but also In The Night Kitchen, an anarchic story with a picture of the hero in the nude in a milk bottle.

    For children with horrible siblings, try Judith Viorst’s I’ll Fix Anthony, in which a put-upon boy fantasises about the revenge he will wreak on his brother for bashing him, once he’s six.

    As for Bible stories — the ones everyone should know — you can’t do better than Jan Pienkowski’s In the Beginning, which combines his funny illustrations with bits from the Authorised Version. A must.


    No childhood should be without Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children. I’d add Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes to make for a thoroughly subversive world view in verse.

    One of the most engaging picture books is Graham Oakley’s The Church Mice series, about a group of mice who run the church, the vicar and Samson, the church cat. Illustrated in fabulous detail. Rumer Godden is a wonderful writer: one for younger children is The Story of Holly and Ivy, about a little girl’s quest for a grandmother, and a doll’s for a little girl.

    My favourite children’s book is Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, about a button-nosed tortoise and a floating island that is never in the same place twice. Get the unshortened version.

    The Irish writer Patricia Lynch should be far better known in Britain. She is a wonderful storyteller, with intensely engaging characters and bravura fantastical elements. Try King of the Tinkers.

    Clive King’s Stig of the Dump and Cecil Day-Lewis’s The Otterbury Incident are still excellent reads about kindness and courage rewarded. In the same vein, look beyond Britain, to Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives and to the less well-known The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnar, set in Budapest. Don’t forget René Goscinny’s (of Asterix fame) Nicholas series of short stories, hilariously illustrated by himself. Geoffrey Williams’s and Ronald Searle’s Down with Skool is dated but still makes you laugh.


    Michelle Paver is a cracking storyteller who effortlessly inhabits the world of prehistory. Her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, about a boy and his wolf, is a feat.

    Sometimes, what poetry needs is presentation. Alfred Noyes’s The Highwayman, illustrated by Charles Keeping, makes the poem even more haunting. He does a scary Beowulf too.

    Fantasy novels get to parts other fiction doesn’t reach. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy is a completely credible and self-contained world of magic and islands. Alan Garner’s Elidor, the first of a series, is intelligent and terrifying. And Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series suggests the world isn’t as it seems, but altogether more frightening.

    The Puffin imprint’s backlist is full of wonderful things. I loved Christopher Webb’s Eusebius, the Phoenician about a sage who travels with marauding Vikings to the ageing King Arthur; and Peter Dickinson’s The Dancing Bear, about a slave boy, an aristocratic girl, a bear and a hermit who escape from marauders in Byzantium to the barbarian court.

    Tonke Dragt’s The Letter For the King, a story of a young squire sent by a stranger on a mysterious quest with a letter, is in translation but weirdly compelling. Love it.