My recommended reads from a century of children’s literature, featuring tales of mystery, adventure and the great outdoors, of magic, fantasy and other worlds, of theatre, ballet and life on the stage … Most will be enjoyed by girls and boys, and a great start to a bookshelf to keep for life.
Some of these authors wrote over many decades, and their characters’ lives are usually firmly rooted in the time in which they were written and set; an urban Edwardian childhood, the reality of war, or ordinary and understandable modern lives suddenly being turned upside down by astonishing magical events. All are beautifully written, evocative and engrossing, with believable stories, characters and relationships that will stay with the child who hears them and then goes on to read them, too.
Malcolm Saville’s mystery adventure series featuring the friends of the Lone Pine Club begins with an exciting World War Two spy adventure “Mystery At Witchend” and concludes somewhere in the 1970s with the characters [including the dog] barely ageing a year, although the concerns and interests of the teenage characters do develop and change over the decades as the world does. The Club members have adventures in beautiful parts of England; Rye, Shropshire and Dartmoor, taking in flying saucers, Roman temples, a female crime mastermind and many other tales.
Outdoor fun and vintage bad behaviour with the ageless William Brown and his Outlaws, who first appeared just after World War One in “Just William” and were still causing mayhem well into the sixties. William and his gang have a hideout in the woods, play tricks, get into terrible trouble and cause endless and often extremely funny annoyance to their parents, long-suffering siblings and the hapless parade of grotesque characters that passes daily through their village. Excellent opportunities for the reader-aloud to ‘do all the voices…’ Check out Martin Jarvis’s recordings for a superb example of just how to do it.
It all begins with “Swallows and Amazons” where two families meet and sail, camp and hold mock battles together on a lake [inspired by Lake Windermere] one summer. Storytelling is itself a strong element within his many books; sometimes it’s difficult to tell if the characters really are experiencing what’s happening or if they’re taking part in live-action roleplay games of pirates and explorers together. Imagination and creativity abound, together with a lot about the countryside, history, animals and birds, and of course, sailing.
In “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen” and “The Moon of Gomrath”, an ordinary brother and sister are off to stay with relatives at the eerie Alderley Edge. There they encounter a link between this world and another, and must join forces with heroes from that world, where dangers from Norse and British mythology are leaking into ours. Scary and spellbinding, Garner’s themes of other worlds just beyond this one continue in “Elidor” and “The Owl Service”, perhaps for older children, and also well worth a look.
This author’s work translated by Thomas Warburton, Elizabeth Portch and Kingsley Hart is a series of absolutely charming Scandinavian fairytales. The adventures of trolls and hemulens, moomins and fillyjonks in a deep and mysterious forest on the edge of the ocean begin with “Finn Family Moomintroll”. There is sometimes a frightening element; a comet, a flood, the freezing Groke monster, but always the themes of family and friendship. A Tolkien for the tiny.
From “The Magician’s Nephew” to “The Last Battle”, the Chronicles of Narnia tells the story of another world from its dawn to its end. In the first written and best known, “The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe”, four brothers and sisters find themselves drawn into Narnia and help in its heroic struggle to free itself. The whole series can be read in a sequence or individually and is well worth exploring, drawing on ancient Greek mythology, religious allegory, mediaeval history and old tales of adventures sailing the seven seas. It features many magical creatures; talking animals, fauns, nymphs and minotaurs, and some much scarier ones, too.
The writer often credited with getting boys reading again. Her Harry Potter series creates a whole other magical world, mixing the classic British boarding school stories loved for generations, with a huge tale of good versus evil. The third, “The Prisoner of Azkaban”, with its theme of friendships and betrayals, is I think the best.
Her far from perfect or virtuous Edwardian children argue, explore and fall into adventure, sometimes in stories firmly set in the real world, with “The Story of the Treasure Seekers” or “The Railway Children”, and sometimes encounters with astounding mythological creatures which take them flying and exploring other worlds in “Five Children and It” and “The Phoenix and the Carpet”.
A group of teenagers discover a derelict hall and work together to create their own theatre in “The Swish of the Curtain”, a book which has inspired generations of young actors to follow in their footsteps. As they grow up through the later books they go on to drama school and discover the life of training and working in the worlds of theatre and film.
“Ballet Shoes” introduces the Fossil family of adopted sisters who become a film star, a ballerina, and a WW2 pilot. That first book sees them as children, learning to dance and act in 1920s London. Later books tell the stories of different characters working to succeed at ballet, theatre and music, through the war and on right into the 1970s. “The Painted Garden” is the adventure of a young English girl in California just after the war, caught up in the whirl of starring in a Hollywood film of “The Secret Garden”, and the Fossils, grown up now, do occasionally appear.
Even though the books have been created over many years, all feature themes of family, loyalty and friendship that any child will recognise. Any child who reads these – and any family that reads them together – will have a very good start in life, and a bookshelf to keep for ever.
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