In the earliest books the drawing is a little cruder, in the later ones the stories can drag a bit or strain too hard for novelty, but in the middle there’s a long run of near perfect ones, of which Asterix in Britain is a good example. The Britain which it gently spoofs – all Beatlemania, tea-breaks, and stiff-upper-lipped suburban chaps reading stone-tablet versions of the Times – was fading even when I read it in the ‘70s, but the drawings are magnificent, combining cartoonish humour with a real eye for historical detail, and the story (translated by the great Anthea Bell) bounces along, powered by the usual mix of friendship, slapstick violence and good-natured cultural stereotypes, with enough reversals to keep you rooting for our heroes till the last page (where it all ends, of course, with a huge feast).
The Eagle of the Ninth Rosemary Sutcliff, Oxford, 978-0192753922, £8.99 pbk
I was fascinated by ancient history as a child, which may partly have been due to all those Asterix books. But it was probably more thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novels of Bronze Age, Roman, and Early Mediaeval Britain are so vividly written that I’ve been returning to them with pleasure ever since. The essential one (and my favourite as
a boy) is The Eagle of the Ninth, the story of a young Roman officer who arrives in Britain eager for military glory, is disabled by a crippling wound, and finds meaning instead on a lonely quest north of Hadrian’s Wall, searching for the eagle standard of the lost Ninth Legion. It’s a great adventure story, but it’s much more than that – between the battle early on where Marcus is injured and the quest for the eagle there is a long and heartfelt section dealing with his recovery; the painful operations he endures, his bitterness and depression at finding himself an invalid, his cautious, slow-blooming friendships with a British girl and with his slave, Esca. Even as a child it was these parts that stayed with me, lending the adventure a weight that few adventures have. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain is clearly a product of the 1950s, and I believe later research has debunked the legend of the Ninth Legion, but that doesn’t matter; The Eagle of the Ninth rings true.
The God Beneath the Sea Edward Blishen and Leon Garfield, illus Charles Keeping, Doubleday, 978-0857533111, £12.99 pbk
A grounding in myths and legends is one of the best things you can give a child; apart from being great stories in their own right, they are the key to so much of art and literature. The God Beneath the Sea retells the stories of the Greek gods, their war with the Titans, the creation of human beings, Prometheus,
Persephone, weaving all the strands into a continuous narrative which reads like a novel. It is full of cruelty and wonder (the opening image is of a blazing baby falling out of heaven), the writing is brilliant, and every one of Charles Keeping’s eerie illustrations is a masterpiece. It’s one of the great children’s books (and it has a great sequel, The Golden Shadow, which deals with the Labours of Heracles).
Northern Lights Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 978-1407130224, £7.99 pbk
There’s a clear through-line from The
God Beneath the Sea to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; another story woven out of myths by another author who, like Blishen and Garfield, like Rosemary Sutcliff, respects children enough to
talk to them
frankly about serious things. The later books in the trilogy move between several different
worlds, including our own, but my favourite is Northern Lights because it stays in one world, both familiar and utterly strange, and sketches it so clearly and yet so economically that within a few pages you feel as if you’ve lived there all your life. Like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand 20th Century British fantasy, or who just likes a really good story.
The White Darkness Geraldine McCaughrean, Oxford, 978-0192726186, £7.99 pbk
Geraldine McCaughrean is another author who has never written an inessential book. Her children’s books – all adventure stories, all different, all wonderful – are written with the wonder of a child and the wisdom of a very thoughtful grown-up. Her adult novels were the spark that set me writing. The White Darkness is as close to adult (or Young Adult) as her children’s novels come, a
strange, unsettling, utterly gripping story about a shy, partially deaf girl whose eccentric uncle drags her off on a hallucinatory quest across Antarctica. The prose shimmers with perfectly chosen words and brilliant metaphors, but is never flashy, and doesn’t distract from the extravagant twists and switchbacks of the page-turning plot.
Winnie the Pooh The House
at Pooh Corner A.A. Milne, illus E.H.Sh
ephard, Egmont, 978-1405280846, £14.99 hbk
I tried to start this list with books for younger readers and progress to books for older ones, but I think Winnie the Pooh works just as well for both. Pooh and his friends and their adventures in their small, safe world are instantly appealing to children, but the adults reading them aloud will recognise
Rabbit’s pomposity, Eyore’s passive-aggressive gloominess and Owl’s immense but slightly flimsy gravitas for the wry character studies that they are. They’ll also recognise that the books’ theme is childhood innocence and its passing. So many of the incidents and lines of dialogue are clearly based on things the real Christopher Robin said or did; they shine like captured sunlight. My son used to laugh so hard at some of the funny bits that we had to go back and read them over and over again (not bad for jokes that are almost a century old) but he probably didn’t understand why I was always in floods of tears when I read the final page of The House at Pooh Corner.
Finally, whatever you like... The most essential book of all is the one that a child loves. It might be one of those I’ve mentioned, but it’s just as likely to be one I haven’t read, or haven’t even heard of it. It could be a classic picture book, but it could also be something by an unknown author, picked up at a supermarket. It could be a comic. It could be a car manual, or a book about football. It might be written by a revered author, worshipped by her peers, her career garlanded with awards and critical acclaim. It might be written by David Walliams. What makes it essential is that, while the child is reading it, and for as long as it lives in their minds, it expands their world a little, or frees them from worry or boredom, or makes them laugh, and makes them want to read more, see more, know more. Just about every book is essential to somebody
Philip Reeve is the author of Mortal Engines, recently adapted for the screen by Peter Jackson. He has written many other works, including Railhead, Here Lies Arthur, and a series of popular books for younger readers with the illustrator Sarah McIntyre.
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