Ten Essential Children’s Books

As part of the celebrations for our 40th anniversary, we are revising the long- running Ten of the Best feature, and asking six authors to choose the children’s books they consider essential reading. Our thanks to Anthony McGowan for these recommendations, and our congratulations on his Carnegie Medal win.


It’s almost impossible, of course, to choose 10 ‘essential’ books. Apart from anything else, whatever we book fanatics occasionally claim, books are not essential, as food and water are essential. We can live without them. We just don’t want to. So I have picked books which I have loved and wouldn’t want to live without. On another day, I could easily have chosen 10 completely different titles. And perhaps not all of the ones I have plumped for will work for all young readers. But they are all part of the furniture of my head, and I wouldn’t be me without them being there. I’ve noticed that most of the books are decades old, and it’s heart-breaking to exclude brilliant recent historical novels by Tanya Landman and Catherine Johnson, the emotionally gripping YA by Phil Earle, the tense and exciting work of Alex Wheatle… So the list is a little long in the tooth – but then so am I!

A Kestrel for a Knave Barry Hines, Penguin, 978-0141184982, £8.99 pbk

This booked changed me. I read it as a class reader in Year 9, in a tough school in Leeds. Most of the kids there weren’t big into books, to say the least. But soon we were all gripped, not only by the narrative, about the struggles of young Billy Caspar and his beautiful kestrel, but also by the world – that gritty, hard-scrabble, working- class Northern world so brilliantly depicted;

and also by the language: the perfect precision of the descriptions, and the total realism of the speech.

Red Shift Alan Garner, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0007127863, £6.99 pbk

Alan Garner is one of the all-time greats of children’s writing. He’s perhaps best known for his fantasy works (or rather books that weave fantasy and realism together), such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but this is my personal favourite. It’s a difficult, demanding book, that entwines together three different timelines, and the reader has to work hard to keep up with the lightning flashes of the language. But its

power, once it grips you, is immense. You finish it shattered and broken. But in a good way….

4 Books for Keeps No.243 July 2020

Doing It Melvin Burgess, Andersen Press, 978-1783440634, £7.99 pbk

Melvin Burgess was the first writer to portray adolescent boys as they truly are: funny, filthy, vulnerable, tender, violent. Doing It is a little less well known than his equally fine novel about addiction, Junk, but it adds an extra dose of humour. It can be an uncomfortable read – the truth is often uncomfortable – but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stare

it in the face. And that’s precisely what Burgess does. .

The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0261103252 £22.00, pbk

Until I was 8 or 9 years old, my main reading obsessions were the natural world and war. There wasn’t a tank, an aircraft or a bird that I couldn’t identify. But then a teacher, more or less out of the blue, gave me a copy of The Lord of the Rings. It was the first novel I ever read and it took me a couple of years to work my way through it. But by the end I was a different person – a

novel reader, and one day a novel writer. Tolkien may now seem a little dated (it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he really wasn’t very interested in women) but his world-building, the beauty and power of his language, and the engrossing plot, make this surely the greatest fantasy work ever written. .

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