Ten Essential Children’s Books

As part of the celebrations for our 40th anniversary, we are revising our long- running Ten of the Best feature and asking six leading children’s authors to choose the books they consider essential reading. Our thanks to Geraldine McCaughrean for this selection


Memory isn’t what it was. While I was thinking this out, plots surfaced without their titles, titles with little of their plots and books without their authors’ names. I may spend the rest of the year recalling more momentous titles, but for now... (Note the unplanned, recurring theme of parent/child relationships.)

First, The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliffe – sequel to Eagle of the Ninth already mentioned in this series. The Roman standard – wingless now – is found by the next generation and carried into battle once more. It was a school prize that confirmed my love of historical fiction. And Sutcliffe doesn’t date.

One of the greatest virtues any book can have, surely, is to make a young reader feel included, valued, at ease with themselves rather than fretful or ill-fitting. Hilary Mackay has a knack of embracing the reader and taking them, and her characters, somewhere ... warm. Her Casson series about Saffy, Indigo, Rose and Caddy leaves not only them but the reader feeling loved. The children are not without their problems – loneliness, envy, parent trouble, love...but there’s always an enlightening resolution at the end of the tunnel. When Saffy’s Angel was up for an award, each mention of it made every judge around the table involuntarily smile. What more could you wish from a book?

Love that Dog by Sharon Creech is a must for any child who thinks they don’t ‘get’ poetry. It overlays an existing poem (Love that Boy) with one boy’s need to exorcise an aching sorrow. It’s a salute to teachers and poets alike. I’ve tried reading it aloud in schools, but it makes me cry every time, and an abiding rule of poetry is not to read it when your nose is running.

Staying with poetry, one book a reader can return to over and over, at any age, is Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. It’s a book that children won’t ‘leave behind’ as they get older. Hugely entertaining, witty and wise.

How to choose between Framed and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce? Funny, uniquely inventive and unputdownable, with great plots. I suppose the Saints (God bless’em) tip the balance in favour of Millions. Never has religion sounded less pompous or other-worldly. Brothers Damian and Anthony are blessed with huge, unexpected wealth gifted from above (by the train robbers who nicked it). Against the clock they must try to spend the money. It sparks avarice in one, charity in the other, and danger in the shape of the irate robbers. Over all hangs the loss of a mother. So, much more than a headlong adventure: an excursion into economics, bereavement, virtue, capitalism and a whole covey of helpful, chatty saints. And, of course, the father-son relationship.

I came to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in French, as a teenager, at a time I unaccountably wanted to be a pilot. I just wish I’d met it earlier. It either translates very well or its quirky simplicity is universal: it pleases young and old everywhere. Its wistful weirdness needs no ‘explaining’ to young readers. ... and since Saint-Exupéry’s final crash site was never found, I maintain he just flew into the night and followed the scent of roses to an asteroid of his choosing.

Ahead of all Roald Dahl’s bonkers, bouncy books, I would put forward Danny the Champion of the World – the most ‘realistic’. Danny and his Dad manage pretty well in their gypsy caravan, until Dad is injured and the local landowner gets nasty. Revenge is sweet and anarchic. The relationship between father and son is everything a father aspires to and a son (or daughter) hopes for. I read, online, a ‘warning’ about questionable content: poaching. Good grief. What a splendid chance for young minds to wrestle with the dilemma of adult moral turpitude.

4 Books for Keeps No.244 September 2020

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