Ten Essential Children’s Books

For the last twenty years, each issue of Books for Keeps has included a Ten of the Best article, highlighting the ten best books on subjects as varied as World War I, human rights, the moon and ponies. In our 40th year, we are asking six authors to each choose ten books they consider essential to a child’s library. First is Philip Reeve.


What makes a children’s book ‘essential’? I suppose the term suggests a deathless classic which will stand the test of time, like The Wind in the Willows, that spring from which so much of 20th century children’s culture flows. But I don’t want to assemble a list which consists entirely of 50 to 100-year-old titles I remember reading as a kid, so I’ve tried to aim for a mix of old and new favourites which I’d want to include if I were stocking a library.

Owl Babies Martin Waddell illus Patrick Benson, Walker Books, 978-0744531671, £6.99 pbk

Someone gave my son a copy of this little book when he was about three months old – way too young to understand stories, or so I thought. But I tried reading it to him anyway,

and although he obviously didn’t know what a book was or what any of the words meant he knew something was up, and listened in a way that was different to the way he would listen if I’d just been talking to him. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, so simple and spare, and so elegantly paced. The tension of the baby owls waiting worriedly for their mother to come home rises just to the point of making you a bit teary before you turn the page and it’s released with ‘And she came...’ A perfect, snuggly, cuddly bedtime book.

The Snail and the Whale Julia Donaldson, illus Axel Sheffler, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1509878826, £6.99 pbk

Julia Donaldson’s picture books are so successful and ubiquitous that I think we’re sometimes in danger of taking them for granted and forgetting just how good they are. The stories are charming, the jokes land, the

verse rhymes and scans, and Axel Sheffler’s pictures are simple and colourful but also packed with the sort of well-observed detail that children love. I could have picked any of their many books together, but The Snail and the Whale was a particular favourite when my

son was small. 8 Books for Keeps No.240 January 2020

There’s a Shark in the Bath Sarah McIntyre, Scholastic, 978-1407185439, £6.99 pbk

Conflict of interest alert! Sarah McIntyre is my friend and co-author. But the reason I started working with her is because I love her lively illustrations, her dry humour, and her understanding of the way kids think. I regard every book she does as essential,

but one of my favourites is There’s A Shark in the Bath, the story of how little Dulcie copes with the family of hungry sharks which invades her bathroom. Despite their alarming size and massive, pointy teeth the sharks are too silly to be scary, and Dulcie easily distracts them with squirty toothpaste and festoons of loo-roll. A book full of the thrill of making a huge mess and then getting everything tidied away before the grown-ups find out.

Bunny vs Monkey series Jamie Smart, David Fickling Books, 978-1910200070, £8.99 pbk

Comics can be an important part of children’s reading, and in recent years The Phoenix comic has built an excellent team of artists and writers. Many of the strips are now available as books, and there are several devoted to Jamie Smart’s fantastic Bunny vs Monkey, all beautifully drawn and packed with hilarious and stupid jokes.

Bunny, his silly friends, and the mischievous, gadget-obsessed monkey who disrupts their woodland life have the anarchic energy of classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters, and they’re cute and simple enough that kids love to draw them. Jamie Smart is a comic genius, and also a comics genius.

Asterix in Britain Reneé Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Orion Children’s Books, 978-0752866192, £7.99 pbk

I didn’t have the benefit of The Phoenix when I was growing up, but I did have the Asterix books, the ongoing saga of a village of indomitable Gauls who hold off the might of the Roman Empire with the aid of their local

druid’s magic potion.

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