An Epic Post About Children’s Books

Children’s books are probably my favourite type of book to read.  When I was a kid my mum read a lot of children’s fiction and I thought this was really odd.  Why would you want to read children’s books when there were so many interesting looking adult books to read?  At the time I was about ten and moseying my way through Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and Alistair Maclean, along with four hundred million Mills and Boon books that my best friend’s mother used to bring home from work in carrier bags.


That’s not to say that I didn’t read age appropriate books as well, I did.  But let’s face it, ‘Five on Kirrin Island’ pales into insignificance next to ‘The Guns of Navarone’.


As I grew older I began to come round to her way of thinking and widened my repertoire somewhat.  Now I think that children’s publishing is one of the most interesting areas of literature and there are some fantastic things being written which are just too good for children, frankly.


At the weekend Amazon Vine, the review programme I write for, sent me a book called: The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties’ by a Dutch Author called Toon Tellegen.  It is a tiny, flimsy thing full of exquisite short stories with the most delightful illustrations by Jessica Ahlberg.  It is a jewel of a book.  The stories are whimsical and slightly melancholic, but with a real air of magic about them.  Not wizardy type magic you understand, although there’s nothing wrong with that, just an aura of the fantastic that makes reading them feel like eating syllabub.  They kind of melt on your tongue and remind you of wonderful meals you’ve eaten before.


There is something about the stories that reminds me of Tove Jansson’s writing in The Winter Book, which I also love dearly.  Anyway, if you like that kind of writing I highly recommend it, and it would make an exquisite gift for a grown up or a child.  It’s just lovely and I am now in eager anticipation of more of his stuff in translation.


It made me think that it’s time for a list.  A list of some of the best children’s books I have read, old and new, that work for me as a grown up.  Whether they’d have spoken to me when I was a child in the same way I don’t know, but if you fancy a cracking good read then this is what I recommend.  This is not an exhaustive list by the way.  It might seem like it, but I bet there’s some absolute belters I’ve forgotten.  I may update it later.


I will start by briefly mentioning the two behemoths of kid’s publishing who were responsible for the explosion in the children’s book market, J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman.  Everyone recommends them.  They’re a marmite thing. You either love them or hate them.  I love them both.  Rowling is vastly underrated by ‘serious’ people in my opinion.  Her books are well crafted, her stories are superbly told, and she deserves every last drop of success.  Pullman is for my money, the better of the two writers.  His Dark Materials is superb, although I thought The Amber Spyglass was a little uneven.  His series of books about the Victorian detective Sally Lockhart are also brilliant.  My only complaint is that he writes too slowly.


Oh yeah. And if you like those you should definitely read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, because they’re what I used to read before Rowling and Pullman came along.


Right, that’s them out of the way.  Now to my other picks:

Skellig by David Almond – Not just one of my favourite children’s books, one of my favourite books full stop.  Almond is a powerful and inventive writer who has a wonderful sparseness to his prose that is almost poetic. He writes about the big stuff, life, death, birth, violence, religion, magic and love.  I love all his stuff, but this is the one that gets me every time.  Hankies at the ready. It is about a young Geordie boy whose parents are spending most of their time in the hospital because they’ve just had a premature baby.  The boy hooks up with a girl whose mother home schools her, and in this temporary family the children discover a man who claims to be an angel living in their garage. I haven’t done this book justice. Just trust me, and read it.


Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce – Cottrell Boyce is a genius.  All his books are fantastic and I was hard pushed to choose between them, but this is the first one of his I read and it blew me away so much that I just had to pick it.  Millions is the story of two young brothers who have just lost their mother to cancer.  They live with their dad who is doing his best to cope, but the boys find their own ways to deal with grief.  The oldest becomes obsessed by becoming a millionaire.  The youngest turns to God and develops an obsession with saints, particularly martyred ones.  He sets up a hermitage in the bottom of the garden so he can become more saintly.  One night when he is down there, a huge bag full of money falls through the roof of the hermitage.  The book concerns what the children then do with the money.  This book is hilarious and heart breaking.  Another one where I found myself crying, but with both laughter and sadness.


Love That Dog by Sharon Creech – This is a slim volume that is a kind of poem story. Don’t let that put you off.  It’s another absolute heart breaker of a book. I have bought so many copies of this book because it never comes back when it gets borrowed, and everyone, but everyone I have ever recommended it to comes back to me to tell me a) how much they loved it, and b) how much it made them cry.  It will take you less than an hour to read and stay with you for the rest of your life.  It is all about a young boy at school learning to appreciate poetry and writing about his experiences with his dog.  It’s genius.


Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo – I have now come to the realisation that there is a theme running through my choices here, heart break.  If you follow my recommendations, do not crack the spines of any of these books open without a box of Man Size Kleenex handy.  This too is devastating.  This is the story of two brothers torn apart by the First World War, one staying at home to look after the farm, and one sent off to fight in the trenches.  It tells what happens when the soldier refuses to follow orders and is court martialled.  If you like this you should also read The War of Jenkins Ear, also by Morpurgo, which tells the story of the friendship of two boys at a harsh boarding school, and what happens when one of them declares that he is in fact, Jesus.


Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White – Any book which starts with the words: ‘Maria was ten years old. She had dark hair in two pigtails and brown eyes the colour of marmite, but more shiny.’ Is always going to be a winner in my book.  This is a fantastically funny adventure story about an orphan girl, an evil villain and a bunch of Lilliputians. 


All About The Bullerby Children by Astrid Lindgren – Lindgren is most famous for creating Pippi Longstocking, but she was a prolific writer, and as well as creating a flying boy called Karlsson and Emil the naughty boy who got his head stuck in the soup tureen, she wrote a series of books about some Swedish farm children who lived in a hamlet called Bullerby.  The book takes you through the year with the main character Lisa, who describes the exciting events in a child’s life like getting a dog, having a tooth pulled, celebrating Christmas and all kinds of pastoral events. I loved this book as a child. My copy is second hand from the library and is falling apart at the seams because I have read it so much. I still love it now and read it to my kids who also love it, even though it is hugely old fashioned.  It’s out of print and I pray that eventually someone will get around to reprinting them before my copy falls apart properly.


Five Dolls in a House and other stories by Helen Clare – This is another ex-library book which I had as a child and is also out of print.  I cherish my copy because these are as rare as hen’s teeth. I really do not understand why it is out of print, because it is so funny and imaginative and just wonderful.  It is all about a young girl called Elizabeth who believes that when the front on her dolls house is shut, that the dolls come alive. One day the toy monkey that lives on the roof of the dolls house tells her that if she wants to go and see the dolls all she has to do is walk down the path, wishing herself small, and when she knocks on the door she will be.  She does, and the door is opened by Vanessa, the head of the household who believes that she is the landlady who has come to collect the rent.  The stories about Elizabeth and the dolls are so funny and the dolls have such fantastic characters.  Lupin is stuffed with cheap material and not very good at standing up. She spends a lot of time slumped over the piano in a blue wool vest.  Vanessa is an old wooden doll with a feather in her bonnet. When she is cross her feather bobs up and down very violently.  Amanda is very naughty, and when she runs off and marries the monkey who spends all his life shouting rude, cockney things down the chimney Vanessa is in uproar.


The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston – There are a lot of books in this series, although they can all be read out of turn.  This is the first one I read and my favourite, closely pipping The Chimney’s of Green Knowe to the post.  Boston wrote these as a series of children’s ghost stories.  They feature an ancient house called Green Knowe, which really was Boston’s own house and which people can still go and visit by appointment (I would love to go).  The stories are set in the 1950’s (I think) and involve the current children of the house meeting their ghostly contemporaries. Each book deals with a different period of the house’s history and usual has some kind of mystery attached.  They are gentle and old fashioned but also have a darkness which really makes your spine tingle.  In this book the hero is Tolly, who comes to Green Knowe for the first time in the school holidays when his parents are abroad to visit his great grandmother.  The house turns out to be a kind of castle and as Tolly explores he becomes aware of three children who are also in the house with him.  These books are dated but beautiful and a dream to read.


The House That Sailed Away by Pat Hutchins – Morgan’s granny has come to stay with the family in London after slipping on some soap flakes in a ball room dancing competition and having to give the first prize (tickets on a pleasure cruise) over to her friends.  The family are trapped in the house with granny one rainy day when they notice that the rain has got so intense that their house has broken away from the rest of the houses in their terrace and is floating down the road.  They eventually end up going to sea and meeting pirates and cannibals and having the most hysterical adventure.  This book used to make me cry with laughter and is still worth a read.


The Adventures of Nicholas and the Gang by Goscinny and Sempe – This series of stories about the naughty French school boy Nicholas and his gang of friends have recently been republished by Phaidon in some gorgeous cloth bound editions.  They’re not cheap but they’re worth it.  These short stories are hilarious and my children beg me to read them.  Nicholas is such a wonderful narrator, never quite understanding why all the adults are so exasperated with him, and the cartoons by Sempe are just the icing on the cake.


The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff – Sutcliff wrote historical novels for kids way before it was the fashionable thing to do.  This is the first in a trilogy of novels about the Roman Empire and its occupation of Britain and is a cracking adventure story about bravery, derring do and retrieving a lost Roman Legion Standard from the wilds of Scotland and its barbaric rebel tribes.


Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison – I bought this book for Tilly and read it to see if it was suitable.  I laughed my ass off and then bought all the others for myself.  Georgia Nicholson is a self obsessed teenage girl with an overactive diary.  Imagine Adrian Mole but more savvy and a girl.  She picks her way through the minefield of school, best mates and dating unsuitable boys whilst dealing with the horrors of being related to elderly people and having small siblings.  Very, very funny.  Mindless, but funny.


How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – This is a strange, unsettling and powerful book about a fifteen year old American girl sent to England to stay with relatives she has never met, just as global warfare breaks out and she and her new cousins have to learn to live in a brave new world.  Set in an unspecified future with an equally unspecified enemy it has echoes of 1984 but with more hope.  Beautifully written, very disturbing and another tear jerker.

So mail me. Tell me what I have forgotten and what your favourites are so I can go out and bankrupt myself immediately.  If it’s Horrid Henry or Jacqueline Wilson please spare me the anguish, otherwise knock yourself out.

19 responses to “An Epic Post About Children’s Books

  1. Thank you for giving me new ideas. I do love children’s lit. There are so very many books I loved in childhood, but to name a few, have you read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski or Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George? These are all staples in US schools, I think actually all might be Newberry Award winners, but they are all books I read as a girl and that stayed with me, so much that when I consider who I am, and who I might have been without books (I mostly consider this in the context of my two stepsons who can’t read well and therefore don’t read anything voluntarily and I am sad for what that means for them) I know I felt different for having read these three stories of girls who had to work damn hard just to live, and all are beautifully written. Oh, now you have me all excited for my girls being old enough to read!! Hooray!

  2. Oooh! The Children of Green Knowe! That was my first “big kid’s book” from the school library. The librarian and I had a bit of a tussle over whether I would be able to manage it, as I recall. I loved all of those books… so mysterious and so very satisfying!

    Just recently, to effectively further procrastinate regarding my dissertation, I read After by Francine Prose. Couldn’t put it down. Holes by Sachar, is also gripping. Apparently I’m all about the “evil adults outwitted by clever teens” genre. Who knew?

  3. You’ve probably read it already but, if not, you must read ‘Before I Die’ by Jenny Downham. Aimed at the teenage market, it’s about a 16-year old girl dying of cancer who devises a list of everything she wants to do before she does, and works her way through it. It’s heart-lifting and heart-breaking and you won’t be able to see the last 20 pages through the torrent of tears. Remarkable.

  4. I have all the Harry Potter books on my iPod and have just indulged in a mammoth Harry Potter fest.

    To have Stephen Fry whisper them straight into my ear whilst I’m ironing is totally blissful.

    Loved very second of reading the entire Famous Five books to my kid as bedtime stories donkey’s years ago.

    Every chapter ended on a cliff hanger designed to make all children desperate to read more and Alexander pleading for “just one more chapter”.


  5. Hi Katy, thanks for a great post with some suggested reads and re-reads (Susan Cooper would so hit the spot right now for me).

    I love children’s books too. The best part of my uni education was getting to spend a whole module reading and discussing them.

    Some of my favourite writers for grown ups also write books for slightly less grown ups and I usally think those are better.

    So I recommend The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I am a big fan of his, so suitably biased, but other people seem to think it’s wonderful and gave it an award recently. It’s brilliant and funny and sad and real. It has scary bits and adventure bits and thinking bits and beautiful, beautiful language bits (which I know you will like).

    And if you can’t be bothered to read it, stick your headphones in and listen to him read it to you here for free – beware, he’s deliciously addictive:

    Another grown up/not so grown up writer is Terry Pratchett. Try the Tiffany Aching books – I think your girls would like them. Tiffany’s a witch just discovering what witching’s all about (and it’s not much to do with occult jewellery and hats). She’s helped and hindered by some small blue men and an ability to make excellent cheese . My favourite of the series is A Hat Full of Sky – but all of them are great reads.

    Last one before I go for some lunch. This sometimes gets classed as a children’s book, sometimes not. It’s the Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s the tale of a Jewish girl in Germany during WW2 and is narrated by Death. Box full of man-size required.

  6. Oh my God…. Five Dolls in a House!! I read that at school and LOVED it. Have been trying to remember what it was called for years and years so I could buy a copy!
    Also love the Angus, Thongs series but I think I’ve told you that before.
    I haven’t read Eagle of the Ninth but loved Rosemary Sutcliffe’s King Arthur trilogy.

    If you haven’t already read it I recommend When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson. It’s about Anna, a lonely foster-child who is sent to Norfolk. She meets a girl called Marnie there and finally learns to make friends. There’s a twist at the end as well when she finally finds out who Marnie is.

    Then there’s Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, about a girl who travels back in time to 1918, swapping places with another girl. This was my favourite books for years and years. My copy’s gone missing though. I really must buy it again!

  7. Ginger
    Thanks for those recommendations. I haven’t read any of them. I will look out for them, although I have noticed in my trips across the pond that the biggest gap between what we read here and in the US seems to show in the children’s literature sections. I usually come home with several ‘new’ things or things which are out of print here but easily available there.

    I loved Holes too. Read it for a book club I was in once and thought it was excellent. I haven’t read After. I will look out for it.

    Mrs Jones
    Ooooh! Nope. Not read it. Sounds like my sorta book though.

    I inherited a lot of the ‘five’ books from my dad and read them endlessly. I always thought they were way cooler than Secret Seven, who were wimps in a shed! I also loved The Five Find Outers by EB.

    Jason has all the Harry Potters on CD and listens to them on long car journeys. He loves them and knows big chunks of them off by heart. Fry is a genius narrator.

    That’s great news. I bought Tilly The Graveyard Book for Christmas. I’m going to make her lend it to me now! I love Gaiman’s writing. He’s a superstar. Will definitely go and listen as well.

    We love Pratchett and have them all. I prefer the Tiffany Aching series to the grown up Disc World books and Hat Full of Sky is one of my all time favourite books.

    I have The Book Thief somewhere I’m sure. Haven’t read it yet though.

    Five Dolls is fabulous. There are others in the series which I never knew about. They’re hideously expensive though. I saved up for one and can’t afford the others yet.

    Joan G Robinson I know from the very excellent Teddy Robinson and Mary Mary books. I have one Mary Mary book. The others are out of print and about thirty quid each. I have never heard of the Marnie book. I will look it out.

    Charlotte Sometimes is excellent. I have my copy from when I was a kid. It is wonderful isn’t it? I recently bought Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time which has been reprinted and sounds like it may be similar. I’ll let you know.

  8. “Before I Die” is as unputdownable as the Stieg Larssons and it only took me 2 days to read it. You’ll probably get through it in a morning. Have tissues handy.

  9. Oh man, the house that sailed away. I loved it.

    The first ‘grown-up’ book I remember is the Princess and the Goblin, which my dad read to me, and I read over and over after that to prove I was big enough…

  10. Jones!
    You are a bad influence. I have ordered it and it’s all your fault! 🙂

    I’m sure I’ve read it. Did he write The Princess and the Curdie too?

  11. I thought for sure you were going to mention Winnie the Pooh. If I recall, you are a fan, but perhaps they just don’t quite make it on your list? No problem 🙂 but they make it on mine. I love children’s books that can be enjoyed on one level by a child and on another by an adult. I just think A.A. Milne’s books have so many truths about life tucked in them. They are so very sweet.

    A book that I read multiple times growing up (which was not common for me) was Amy’s Eyes by Richard Kennedy. I don’t imagine it’s considered any great piece of literature, but it is a wonderful book. There are many lovely parts to the story, but one of my favorites is the frog falling in love with the gruff cook. He serenades her with Greensleeves, and she in turn whomps him on the head with a ladle.

  12. Donia
    No. You’re right. I love Winnie The Pooh. I was choosing stuff that I hoped was a little bit more unusual, that maybe people wouldn’t have already read. I have also decided that this will be the first of several posts on kid’s books. I just love them too much!

    I am off to look up Amy’s Eyes. It sounds very, very intriguing!

  13. there were very few children’s books that i read as a child. most of them i didn’t discover until my youngest sister came along and i spent many a long night reading to her to soothe her croupe. then when my boys were small, we read them all again:

    there are the usual suspects — Pippi Longstocking, Heidi, Charlotte’s Web, the Phantom Tollbooth, Babar, Madeleine, etc.

    but there are also some that still are rarities, or uniquely american, i fear:
    *The All of a Kind Family series (except for the very last book, which was a disappointment),
    *the Gone Away Lake series,
    *Have Space Suit, Will Travel,
    *St. George and The Dragon
    *Fuzzy Rabbit
    *Tisch, Tosch, Heronymous Bosch

    and i think Sharon Creech writes some great books too. i agree completely about Pullman (what a great bunch of subversive books those are) and Rowling really doesn’t get the credit she deserves for dealing with dark subject matter — i also like that the books kind of grow along with their audience, as well as their protagonist.

  14. late though it is, I have to add the fabulous Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation- read it when I was 9- brilliant, brilliant book. Sadly tis impossible to get a copy for less than the combined debt of several African nations. But I keep looking, in hope that a copy will turn up for 50p at the local Oxfam shop…

  15. I thought you’d have read at least one of them – I’m impressed I managed to suggest one you didn’t know! Definitely let me know about a Traveller in Time – it’s on my list so it would be useful to know whether it actually is as good as it sounds before I spend any money on it.

    I’ve just thought of another one… January’s Child by Jenny Oldfield. About a girl who is sent to live with foster parents after being sexually abused by her step-father, but then when the foster parents are told there’s to be no more long term fostering they decide to only adopt her brother and send her back to the children’s home… which she then runs away from. I still cry my eyes out every time I read it.

  16. Bronx Bee
    I am going to write them all down and look them up. I’ve read most of the classic ones you mention but am intrigued by the others.

    Oh! I’ve never heard of it. My wish list is growing more insane by the second.

    God. Even your description is making me feel weepy.

  17. Great post Katyboo. I’m now a Grandmother of six, the eldest of whom is five – so I’m back to the beginning again! The little ones are enjoying Ping, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, A Pair of Red Clogs, Papa Piccolo, Madeline, Katy and the Big Snow at the moment… When my own three children were small, they read the usual classics but in my memories two books stand out. The first is The Never Ending Story. I just couldn’t get my son to read for enjoyment and this book was the first that hooked him. He loved the fact that each chapter started with the next letter in the alphabet and I think it may have been his first fantasy book. All three also loved Goodnight Mr Tom. I have written down most of your titles and am going to look them up and add to my library here at home – for me and the grandchildren! Thanks Katy.

  18. Connie
    I’ve never read The Neverending Story, I am going to get it for one of the kids next time there’s a gift giving and make them listen to me read it!

  19. Pingback: I love children’s literature « Confuzzledom

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