Until I turned twelve we lived in the middle of the countryside, where there was no library, no bookshop, and there were no other children within a few miles. Between games of imagination, I read whatever books were to hand, over and over and over. Some of these were contemporary children’s books which had been given to me for Christmases or birthdays, others were older books on the family bookshelves. So age eight I read Gone With the Wind because I liked the title, and I did find it a gripping tale though it probably wasn’t age appropriate. Most of the children’s books to hand were hardbacks, beautifully illustrated; many had colour plates in them, which inspired one of the middle grade books I’ve been writing myself: Green Eyed Monster. Those plates drew me back again, over and over, even if, as in Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, I found the story a bit weird and incomprehensible. (Although I did adore the idea of characters called Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid.) Anyway, despite the plates, that book has not made it into my top ten favourites, although some of the other books with colour plates have done so.
The retributive Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid in my edition of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies.
1. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll I honestly fail to see how anyone would not have this book in their top ten influential children’s books – unless they were unfortunate enough not to have read it but only having suffered the Walt Disney version. This book has everything. A feisty female main character who says what she thinks and does what she wants, a plethora of interesting and entertaining minor characters, none of whom are likeable but all of whom are highly memorable, an adventure, a dash of magic realism, and best of all, no improving moral message. And my 1933 edition had deliciously thick pages – almost cardboard – as well as colour plates.
My edition of Alice in Wonderland, with colour plates by A E Jackson
2. Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne. Much the same can be said for Winnie the Pooh – how can you not love these books? Great characters, interesting adventures, but also beautiful, memorable, funny writing. My 1930s editions don’t have colour plates but they do have those wonderful line drawings by EH Shepard. Also, his poems are brilliant. I don’t read much poetry but will always have time for AA Milne. I think he taught me to treasure the English language. When I was one I had just begun….
3. The 13 clocks and the Wonderful O by James Thurber. I see from my edition that these two tales were first published in 1951 and 1958 respectively, but my edition is a 1970 puffin which means it must’ve been bought for me. These two tales are strange and wonderful and again brought on my love of language. In The Wonderful O some pirates sail to the island of Coroo looking for treasure, and when they can’t find it, they punish the inhabitants by banning everything with an ‘O’ in it. There then follows this mad romp through language. Listen to this opening sentence: “Somewhere a ponderous tower clock slowly dropped a dozen strokes into the gloom.” And once the o has been banished, we have sentences like this: “We are begne and webegne. Life is bring and brush. Even schling is flish.” It was such fun to decipher (and so tricky, now, to type, as autocorrect does its best to help!) The Thirteen Clocks is described, in my introduction, as a mixture of fairy tale, parable, and poetry, and it certainly is all that. Both books were a joy to read, and the illustrations – by Ronald Searle no less! – add to the pleasure.
4. Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. First published in 1958, my copy is another puffin book, bought for me, and illustrated in black and white by Marjorie-Ann Watts. This was probably my favourite book ever, and the illustrations really enhanced it. It starts with a little girl discovering a pencil and finding herself in her own drawings whenever she sleeps. I mean, that’s a great concept for an only child – getting to create your own world. She draws, as we all did as children, a house with a four windows and a door, chimney, path and picket fence, and as always is ” feeling the usual pangs of disappointment at her own performance (at being unable to)… reproduce on paper the pictures she could see so clearly in her mind’s eye.” We’ve all been there, right? But as time goes on she adds detail, someone to play with, food to eat etc, but then in a fit of temper with the newly created companion, she draws bars on the window and evil watchers. She then has to rescue herself and the boy from the house and get them to safety.
Illustrations showing Marianne’s drawing of the house, and the house as it appears in her dream.
5. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I mentioned having no bookshop or library nearby; something I did have was a set of distant cousins in America who would send me a book for Christmas. They (or their mother I guess) always chose well. Harriet the Spy was a particular favourite. Harriet has a secret notebook in which she makes observations about the people around her. I rather liked this idea and decided to copy it myself – in Primary 7 9 (aged 10/11), I too got a notebook and began to jot down similar observations. Imagine my horror when the same fate befell me as did Harriet – the schoolmates found out. Telling them I was copying Harriet the Spy – even producing said book as proof! – didn’t cut the mustard. They were all furious. I cannot now remember how that was resolved, and actually couldn’t remember what happened to Harriet either, but today, looking at the book again, I realise that herein was the tale of a nascent writer. It’s not about spying at all, it’s about writing. Who knew?
6. The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I’m sorry, but it’s true that every child will, at some point, have an Enid Blyton phase. There was only one Enid Blyton book in our house so I was spared this obsession for a long time until we spent a year in Edinburgh while my mum trained to be a teacher, and every day after school I waited in the library on George IV bridge for her to finish her studies and collect me. And during that year, as I sat there waiting, I devoured these books, starting with the Adventure series (always the best), working through the Famous Five (not bad – but I was obviously already an aspiring feminist as I was deeply annoyed at the girl characters) and mostly skipping the Secret Seven. But that one EB book we had at home – The Enchanted Wood – I loved it. I didn’t discover it was part of a series until my own children came along, but this book sufficed. The land of birthdays! The land of take what you want! Mr Moon Face! My edition was from 1942 and unfortunately is blighted by illustrations, by DM Wheeler, of golliwogs (which I will not share – instead I offer you this picture of the children’s first meeting with Moon Face).
7. Paddington Bear by Michael Bond. Published in the late 1950s, early 1960s, again these young puffin editions illustrated by Peggy Fornum were probably a gift at some point, and I have the first six of the series. I tried reading them to my own children and there were many dated references which made comprehension tricky, but in the process of reading them out loud, I rediscovered the joy of the brilliant, understated and yet very funny writing. The recent films were such a joy, reminding us of the origins of this character, as a refugee asking a family to look kindly on him and take him in. What a premise.
8. Charlotte’s Web by EH White. Not sure where my hardback edition of this comes from, but I realise now it’s a first edition. And it’s still in brilliant condition even though I’ve read it a million times. And, oh wow… just spotted the prices first editions are commanding. Ok. Interesting. But not why I love it. Here is a children’s book about friendship, loyalty, life and – very prominently – death. I can always remember thinking why did we spend so long worrying about saving Wilbur the pig from death only to have Charlotte die without much fanfare? (sorry if that’s a spoiler). I guess that was the point of the story, and it didn’t put me off reading it again and again.
9. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. My edition was illustrated by EH Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame, which is so recognisable now, but it’s weird, as a child, I don’t think I realised this. Just loved those tiny pen and ink characters. So expressive. Am I beginning to see a theme here? Once again an anarchic, don’t give a damn character in Mr Toad, who was entertaining, criminal in fact, but you really hoped he’d get away with it. But my favourite character was Mole, the homesick, easily influenced, unworldly creature. And once again, the story telling, the language – it’s to die for. “Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.” Or my favourite: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
10. Peter Pan by JM Barrie. I’ll finish with another of those colour plate editions. I’m not sure the story was my favourite, but those thick, almost cardboard pages and those colour plates drew me back time and time again, this time illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell. I’m not sure when my edition was created but it was gifted to someone Christmas 1935 according to the inscription inside the cover. I wasn’t overfond of Peter, and Wendy was a bit wet for my liking, but I loved the danger and the crocodile and the idea of having a dog as a nanny.
I envy now those children who had access to libraries and bookshops and could curate their own bookshelves. My children learned early on that I would never say no to a bookshop. We visited the library every week. Having other people buy books for you can be a joy – I would never have discovered Harriet the Spy without my American cousins (who also introduced me to Isaac Asimov in my teenage years) but sometimes the choices are more theirs than yours. Dad was always trying to get me to enjoy Arthur Ransome because he hoped it would convert me to sailing, and it’s telling that I have only kept one of those books – We didn’t mean to go to sea – which is probably the one book to put you off the whole idea of sailing. Someone bought me the Midnight Folk by John Masefield, someone else got me Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams, and I can see that both of these books have been read copiously, but the stories did not stick in the same way as those I’ve chosen to be my top ten. I remember also enjoying the concepts of The Borrowers and loving the antics of Professor Brainstawm; however the stories are lost.
What conclusions can I draw from this? Characters are key, but story must also be standout memorable. But also language and the art of story telling is really important. Remember that if you’re writing for children. And if you’re simply trying to find books for children to read, it’s worth investing in a beautiful book.