You know me, any excuse to start compiling a list. So this week’s choice of classic children's books selected by five top writers has given me an excuse I certainly don’t need to go and yank kids’ books off the shelf and start re-reading and muttering and scribbling half-remembered names and titles down on the back of an envelope.
So here’s what I remember from when I was little. Arthur Ransome’s books were peopled by smug little middle-class gits and I lost the will to live after Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale. Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven were boring wimps, but I devoured the adventures of the Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers. Malcolm Saville hardly gets mentioned now, though he wrote cracking adventure stories and the thought of a scene in Rye Royal still gives me the creeps, 30-something years on!
I lapped up the horsey books by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, although the nearest I got to the saddle was riding a placid donkey called Flash round the stable block at Stratford-upon-Avon racecourse. And I adored school stories – Blyton again with her Mallory Towers books, the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer (any girl of a certain age who tells you she never read them is a fibber!) and Anthony Buckeridge’s hilarious Jennings series, which pre-dated JK Rowling by a good 50 years.
I’m glad to see, though, that Michael Morpurgo nominated something by Blyton. Of course she’s un-PC if you apply 21st century values to the book (so were Captain WE Johns’s Biggles stories, but they were damn good yarns). Blyton could tell a thoroughly engrossing story – as can Rowling, who doesn’t appear on the lists.
I reckon I’ve read more children’s books since I’ve allegedly grown up that I did when I was in the age range. I swiped my dad’s adult library ticket at the age of about 11 and proceeded to run through Cheltenham library’s stock of Agatha Christie, Dick Francis and Jean Plaidy. The less said about how I got hold of copies of The Godfather and Valley of the Dolls, the better …
My late friend and mentor Joan Martin, a former schoolteacher, provided me with a list of ‘must read’ children’s books about ten years ago. That’s how I discovered Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones, amongst others.
Half the fun of these sorts of lists is deciding what you’d have chosen had the call come. So here’s mine, in no particular order:
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
- A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (every time I hear Greensleeves I think of this book).
- The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (forget the terrible American film and read the original books!)
- Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
- Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer by KM Peyton (this series would probably seem dated to today’s teenagers, but it seemed edgy to me in my early teens. Peyton’s Flambards series is also fabulous and spawned an impressive TV version).
- The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
- Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease (I think this book started my fascination with Shakespeare and the theatre).
For a lot of these, I have an inspirational teacher to thank. Mrs Wanless taught us English when we started at secondary school and she seemed to know instinctively which books would keep stroppy 11-year-girls hooked.
So my reserve list could easily include Cynthia Harnet’s The Wool Pack (we got taken to Witney to see the carvings in the church commemorating the wool trade), Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth which captures Roman Britain better than many adult books, Alan Garner’s truly creepy The Owl Service, TH White’s Mistress Masham's Repose, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children (even if my abiding memory is the film version with Jenny Agutter waving her red knickers at the train!), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden.
OK, so who have I forgotten?