Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Old favourites

All the coverage I've seen and heard about the Children's laureates' favourite books has mentioned the absence of Harry Potter. This is just lazy journalism. Why would four writers and one author-illustrator who are "not in the first bloom of youth" as Anne Fine described them on Radio 4 this morning, pick such a Johnny-come-lately as HP?

What the headlines should have been were: "No Alice, no Pooh, no Peter Pan, no Wind in the Willows, no Tolkien or C S Lewis." For that is the case. You can read the full list of 35 books at

It is a funny list, as all such lists must be, with some of the usual suspects, like Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, John Masefield's Box of Delights and so on. Some are not children's books at all, like Oliver Twist, or only arguably so, like Treasure Island. It takes more than a child protagonist to make a children's book. I hated the Diary of Anne Frank (one of Mike Rosen's choices) when I was a child and felt moved by it only as an adult.

So here's my list of seven:

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
OK, three books and not according to its author children's ones at that.

I read this as it came out, removing the volumes one by one from my older sister's hands as she finished them. And then I read them every year until I was 18 and doubts began to set in. I read them all to my three daughters in family reading and they loved them and we all, plus my sisiter, adored the Peter Jackson films.

But I can no longer read them as an adult with unalloyed pleasure. The storytelling, names and invented languages and cultures are superb but the language isn't good enough and the attitiudes to women and to "evil characters" totaly inadequate.

James Thurber's Thirteen Clocks
Many of the phrases from this are part of family vocabulary: "a blob of glup," "I'll slit you from your guggle to your zatch," plus the Gollux with his "perfectly indescribable hat" are just part of my mental furniture. The Wonderful O and The Great Quillow are equally good.

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It (one of Quentin Blake's choices)
One of the great classics. I loved the way the sand fairy was so grumpy. But I found I had to expurgate the appalling class attitudes towards the cook etc, when reading Nesbit aloud to my own children.

Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories (One of Michael Morpurgo's)
I adored these and so did the girls. My favourite is The Beginning of the Armadilloes

Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden
An almost perfect children's book. Other recent ones with this claim are Louis Sachar's Holes and Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic.

Lewis Carrol's Alice Through the Looking-Glass
I had Adventures in Wonderland as a child but prefer this one, discovered in adulthood. I especially love the White Knight.

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle
You need to be a 13-year-old girl for this, which I was when I read it first. And I thought the film, with Romola Garai and Bill Nighy, wasn't half bad either.

My omissions? Well I have never liked Peter Pan or Wind in the Willows. I read every word of Enid Blyton but can remember not one so haven't included anything of hers.(her husband did take my appendix out, though).

And CS Lewis is a mystery to me. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a wonderful title and Narnia a magical invention but I find the books such a sloppy unsatisfactory mishmash that they could never be a favourite.


Liz L said...

I somehow managed to miss reading I Capture the Castle as a child, and read it eventually in my twenties at Rhiannon's insistence. I've since mentally re-written my history to cast it as one of my formative childhood books as it clearly should have been ;-)

bookwitch said...

Great book bloggers think alike!

I don't think I can come up with a list of this kind, but it's always good to find that someone else read/hated the same books as I did.

Stroppy Author said...

They clearly *don't* have to be books you read as a child, since Michael Rosen includes an Andy Stanton Mr Gum book. Interesting bias towards books for older readers (you, too, Mary!) maybe reflecting the laureates' own areas of practice. I'd say (from childhood): Finn Family Moomintroll; The Little White Horse; Toucan Toucan; A Bear Called Paddington; Dr Doolittle; La Chauve-souris d'Ore', The Silver Sword. It would be a bit different now - and perhaps too hard to do.

Fiona Dunbar said...

Couldn't agree more re; the omissions, Mary, though would add Hans Christian Andersen, whose stories had the most powerful effect on me and, I'd have thought, many others. I adore the Just So stories too, but they were a later discovery; SO enjoyed reading them to my kids. I overlap with a lot of already-mentioned books as favourites but another one that hasn't been mentioned is The Secret Garden. I now need to get hold of a copy of Thirteen Clocks; have long been a fan of Thurber's but never knew about this and it sounds brilliant! Thanks for that.

adele said...

My seven, being truthful, were:
Ballet Shoes, Little Women, Tales of Troy by Andrew Lang, Hans Andersen's fairy tales, The coloured fairy books, also Andrew Lang, What Katy Did and an awful lot of poetry. Also a history book called Our Island Story.
Can't do Tolkein or C S Lewis even now!

The Ginger Darlings said...

1. White fang
2. Antelope Singer
3. My Friend Flicka
4. Tarka the Otter
5. The Once and Future King

my favorites when I was a child and maybe also now. No no no to Harry Potter. There is so much more to children's books than JK.
Reading and loving The Knife of Never Letting go by Patrick Ness at the moment.
As for lazy journalism, I have been getting so so tempted to write fake press releases and send them to my local paper. They always seem to print word for word whatever I send them. I wonder.... dinosaur spotted on the Fishguard ferry?

Nick Green said...

Book Maven, I've never been a 13-year-old girl, but I love 'I Capture The Castle'. I read it only a few years ago, and re-read it, and plan to read it again soon. I just love the narrative voice, I suppose. That's what I look for most of all, these days.

Jackie (Ginger Darlings), I love Tarka The Otter too, but I wouldn't be so cruel as to give it to a child! Too, too, too sad. Incredible prose though - the best. Never read anything like it.

Speaking of which, has no-one mentioned Watership Down? That would make my top five easily.

Book Maven said...

I tried to be honest and put ones I had read as a child (apart from Alice TTLG) but picture books and younger fiction didn't linger so much in my memory. I did love Mary Poppins and the Dr Dolittle books but they didn't quite make my top seven (odd number)

If I were choosing now I would definitely put Not Now, Bernard and the Judith Kerrs and the wonderful four books by Russell Hoban known as the Hungry Three, which I have had to read to many university student friends of the girls.

And I didn't mean you HAVE to be a 13-year-old girl, Nick, and had no intention of excluding you. Just that it would be a shame to miss it when and if you WERE a 13-year-old girl.

The most influential stories, as opposed to books, for me were re-tellings of the Norse Myths and King Arthur but not in named author versions like Roger Lancelyn Green or Barbara Léonie Picard, alas. Still, the stories worked their magic.

And Adeèle, Our Island Story was a big book for Kevin C-H according to his autobiography too!

Elen Caldecott said...

I'd have to add The Very Hungry Caterpillar; I remember how magical it was when it was read to me.
And, Holes by Louis Sachar, though of course I've only read that as an adult.

Book Maven said...

Thanks, Elen; that's how to make a maven feel her years. You remember having The Very Hungry Caterpillar read to you?

bookwitch said...

Nick - you never know. One day you may become a 13-year-old girl.

Looking at what people are saying, we need to decide if we want to list what we liked best as children, or what we now feel influenced us in a 'suitable' way when we were young, or what we as adults want to suggest young readers ought to read. It's not the same, and having had this brainwave I'll now go away and consider it, quietly.

osirun said...

I'm interested in ways that Harry Potter represents the mindset of a new age. Children's classics are children's classics, but their *topical* appeal is receding ever further into the past, and they run a risk of being bought/read solely BECAUSE they're classics, and not because they actually speak to modern children, no?

I was just reading an interview with Bob Dylan, who I think is an impossible, largely unlistenable narcissist, and he launches into a big tirade against "young people walking around with cellphones and iPods in their ears and so wrapped up in media and video games", which apparently "robs them of their self-identity. It's a shame to see them so tuned out to real life." I wanted to throw something at him: the definition of real life is not "what you were doing when you were a teenager", Bob.