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Ten of the Very Best

For the past five years, each issue of Books for Keeps has included a Ten of the Best selection, in which an expert chooses ten books that exemplify a particular theme. For this our 200th issue, we gave Daniel Hahn, currently compiling the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, a nigh impossible task. To choose ten of the very best works of contemporary children’s literature, as defined by the 33 years of BfK. Amazingly, he took on the challenge.

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his will obviously be a disaster. Whatever I do, you’ll disagree with, oh, probably all of it. Only ten books since 1980? The starting-point is naturally a list of options that’s enormous and

varied, and utterly magnificently wondrously rich in possibility. So first I invented somewhat arbitrary rules. No books from Australia / U.S. / New Zealand / Canada. No author/illustrator can appear twice. So the presence of a Dahl book illustrated by Quentin Blake spares me choosing between Mr Magnolia / Cockatoos / Clown / Zagazoo. (Really, how ever would one set about such a thing?) Later I contemplated imposing even more arbitrary restrictions on my choice, just to make the task seem more feasible. (No books by left-handers? No books by redheads, or Sagittarians? No titles with abstract nouns, nothing with collage?) I’ve been feverishly checking publication dates, always delighted to learn that something I felt compelled to include wasn’t actually eligible. (Dogger – published 1977. Excellent! Each Peach Pear Plum? 1978. Oh, thank God!)

But there are still, of course, impossibly many to choose from.

To begin, chronologically, at the beginning. My first choice, The BFG, just squeezes in, in 1982. I was eight when it appeared, and it’s the first book whose publication I was aware of. Until then, books simply existed, or didn’t; but there wasn’t a BFG and then one day suddenly there it was. My dad took me to see Dahl talk about it. My signed copy – For Daniel, with love from Roald Dahl – remains my most treasured possession. Like all great Dahls, this story of Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant she meets, and their defeat of the other giants (even bigger, but not nearly as friendly) is spiky and energetic and alight with imagination and fun.

Whatever you think of the Harry Potter books, it’s hard to deny their place as the massively dense centre of

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gravity of children’s literature in recent decades. I happen to like them – I like the plots, the characters, the originality, and the commitment JK Rowling clearly made to them. The prose is fine. The impact and the scope of that impact are like nothing we’d ever seen before in the history of books. Not sure I need say any more. Harry Potter makes my list.

Likewise The Gruffalo – it’s not the first Donaldson-Scheffler (A Squash and a Squeeze), nor my favourite (Tiddler), but it’s the one that is a global superstar, that made the style recognisable, a brand that’s appeared on all manner of merchandise, with spin-offs in different art-forms and media. It’s everywhere. I’ve never been quite sure how well the toddlers whom I know follow the plot (mouse convinces animals that fictional beast is real and the scariest animal in the wood, then turns out fictional beast is in fact not fictional at all, and mouse must persuade not-fictional Gruffalo that he – the mouse – is the scariest animal in the wood); but that seems to be my problem more than theirs, because they all love it.

Orange Pear Apple Bear, meanwhile, couldn’t be simpler – only five words in varying combinations, combined with gorgeous, warm and subtle watercolour artwork; even in its seeming simplicity it almost has a plot, and manages playfulness and humour, too. It also has what’s perhaps my favourite ever picture-book bear. This was my first Emily Gravett book, and since then everything she’s done has felt like a particular treat. Apparently it took her just eleven hours to produce.

Skellig was the book that introduced young readers to David Almond, and won him the Carnegie Medal; but for me Kit’s Wilderness is the one. Kit moves to the town where his grandfather lives, where he meets a strange boy called John Askew, who plays a game called Death. Kit’s Wilderness is dark and beautiful, and about things that are there even if you sometimes can’t see them, things beneath the surface, full of menace and the spirits of the past – but this wilderness is full of things that are precious, too. Kit’s Wilderness is a book that changes the way you see the world, I think, and you can’t say that about many.

For ambition, it’s hard to beat the epic His Dark Materials trilogy. The scale of the canvas, and the scope of the ideas the books grapple with, fearlessly, helped to make this an exhilarating experience for so many readers. My tastes tend towards realism more than fantasy, on the whole, but these books are so irresistibly plotty and characterful and thoughtful and intricate and teeming… They are about huge, unwieldy and important things, they are uncompromising, unpatronising, and enthralling. They take their readers to Lyra’s world – or worlds, I should say – where she and her daemon (one of Pullman’s thousand extraordinary imaginings) race into a great adventure, a quest with the highest possible stakes. It is massive in its ambitions and its capacity, and it delivers.

My next two choices are both easy and difficult.

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