Top 50 books for children
Lorna Bradbury of the Telegraph tells parents how to create the perfect library
I’ve been so excited by the quality and the range of questions I’ve received since this column kicked off at the beginning of the year: questions concerning every age of reader, and every kind of reading problem; from parents and grandparents, librarians and teachers, and more recently, I’m pleased to say, from children themselves.
Recently I was sent a question from a grandfather – one of many I’ve had from grandparents, I should say – which asked for rather more than this column could deliver in its normal format.
“Your new column on children’s books has arrived just in time for me,” wrote Paul, in an email. “I have recently become a grandfather for the first time and, while my home is full of books, none of them were written for the under-fives. My granddaughter is only a few months old, but I would appreciate both guidance in buying books for children and a possible hit list of 50 books to own before you’re five.”
I’ve been mulling this question over for several weeks. It is clearly rather difficult – not to say a bit arbitrary – to whittle the huge terrain of children’s books down to a list of 50. But I have found it an absorbing exercise, and one that I hope will be of interest to anyone who reads with a child or, indeed, anyone who loves children’s books.
As the question suggests, children’s publishing has changed remarkably over a generation or two. There was nothing like the number, or the breadth, of books being published for children when today’s grandparents were growing up – especially in terms of illustrated stories for the under-fives, and novels aimed at teenagers – most recently in the paranormal or dystopian veins.
I could have answered Paul’s question many times over by selecting just picture books. There are so many inventive illustrated stories for babies and toddlers, and many extremely good ones published in the last decade alone. But I’ve decided to broaden the remit a little, and to think about the books a parent or grandparent might want to consider if they were building a library for a child to last into their second decade.
I’ve steered clear of the furry, noisy kinds of interactive board books that babies and toddlers love, as these can be found prominently displayed in any bookshop or library. I’ve avoided the books that any child will come to automatically as they get older; stories by JK Rowling and Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, for example, which are so much part of the air that modern children breathe. And I have tended towards distinctive editions of the classics, figuring that parents and grandparents will add to these with more contemporary books over time.
You will notice that I have kept in mind the gender of Paul’s granddaughter, especially in the older section of the list that follows. It would have been different in many respects had I been recommending books for a boy.
The list is divided into three broad sweeps: illustrated stories to read to a toddler – though many of these are likely to continue to be favourites well into primary school; novels for, broadly, eight- to 12-year-olds – or to read to a slightly younger child; and reference books and collections. There are, of course, many omissions, but I am relying on you all to join in and put me right over the coming weeks.
1 Curious George by Margret Rey and HA Rey (Houghton Mifflin). The first book of seven, from 1941, about a monkey who is kidnapped by the man in the yellow hat.
2 Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Red Fox). One of my favourites as a child, this has gone on to inspire a generation of illustrators – and a very poor film.
3 Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs (Puffin). The best book about Christmas by some margin, featuring an extremely grumpy Santa. Narrowly beat The Snowman for a place on this list.
4 Gorilla by Anthony Browne (Walker). A beautifully drawn story from the former children’s laureate about a lonely girl who finds company in a gorilla.
5 The Mick Inkpen Collection (Hodder). This edition contains seven stories, including my son’s favourite, Billy’s Beetle. You have to find the beetle hiding somewhere on each spread.
6 There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly illustrated by Pam Adams (Child’s Play). This edition has holes.
7 The Babar Collection by Jean de Brunhoff (Egmont). Here are five of the classic French stories, including the first, The Story of Babar, from 1931.
8 Jim by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Mini Grey (Jonathan Cape). The poem is reproduced at picture book length with Grey’s striking illustrations and paper engineering. You could go, if you prefer, for a collection of Belloc, such as Cautionary Verses (Red Fox).
9 Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Eric Carle (Puffin). This charming verse story about how different animals behave is less well known than The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but more fun.
10 What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry (HarperCollins). Scarry’s immensely detailed books about everyday life can lead to some good conversations, and are great for children who need to know how things work (more or less all of them).
11 The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch (Chrysalis). This may not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no escaping the lavatory when it comes to children’s humour, and this book manages to be educational too.
12 Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss (HarperCollins). Or another of the vast number of books Dr Seuss wrote from the Forties onwards. Excellent fun in verse, and great for learning to read too.
13 Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins). First published in 2006, this is already a modern classic.
14 The Adventures of Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen, illustrated by Hilda Offen (Red Fox). This edition contains two abridged versions of these well-loved Norwegian stories about the woman who shrinks.
15 The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler (Macmillan). It may now be over-familiar, but it’s hard to imagine a library without one of Donaldson’s catchy rhyming tales.
16 Monkey and Me by Emily Gravett (Macmillan). Or anything by Gravett, really: an exceptional new(ish) writer and illustrator.
17 Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd (Macmillan). A perfectly soporific bedtime story. Ditto the following.
18 Time for Bed by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer (Houghton Mifflin). You’ll read these books so many times, it’s important to have more than one.
19 Operation Alphabet by Al MacCuish and Luciano Lozano (Thames & Hudson). My favourite book about the alphabet.
20 Hippos Go Berserk by Sandra Boynton (Simon & Schuster). A jolly counting book that goes down as well as up.
21 Beatrix Potter: the Complete Tales (Warne). You can’t have a library without Beatrix Potter, and there’s no messing about with this edition which contains all 23 tales.
22 The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé (Egmont). The collected edition seems to be out of print, but why not go for one of the various volumes which collect several stories at a time?
23 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations by Yayoi Kusama (Penguin). This beautiful new cloth-bound edition is a must-have.
24 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer (HarperCollins). Alice’s American cousin, this is a story about a boy who is transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom via a magic tollbooth.
25 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, with art by Robert Sabuda (Simon & Schuster). This is a classy pop-up edition, based on an abridged version of the text. For the complete text, try the edition by OUP.
26 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, tr by Katherine Woods (Egmont). A lovely edition, with Saint-Exupéry’s original illustrations.
27 The Winnie-the-Pooh Collection by AA Milne, illustrated by EH Shepard (Egmont). This boxed set contains all four books.
28 Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Lauren Child (OUP). These new illustrations by the author of Charlie and Lola provide a contemporary twist on the Swedish classic. (Lindgren’s books about Karlsson and Emil are also very good.)
29 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (Red Fox). The first in a series set between the wars at a time when children mucked about in boats and built camps by themselves – or at least we like to think they did.
30 Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton (Hodder). It was a close run thing between the Famous Five and Malory Towers, but I’ve opted for the adventures of George and co. This is the first book in the series. Make sure you get the edition from 1997 with Eileen A Soper’s illustrations, rather than the newer edition in which the text has been modernised.
31 Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (Girls Gone By). I adored the Chalet School books as a girl – and, thrillingly for children who like to stick with a series they know and like, there are nearly 60 books. Some of them have now fallen out of print, but this one, the second, is as good a place as any to start.
32 The Railway Children by E Nesbit (Puffin). No childhood is complete without this novel from 1905, immortalised by the 1970 film starring Jenny Agutter.
33 The Magician’s Nephew by C?S Lewis (HarperCollins), the first in his Chronicles of Narnia series.
34 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Templar or Puffin). Choose between two new editions, the Templar one illustrated by Robert Ingpen and the Puffin one by Lauren Child.
35 The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Templar or Egmont). Both of these editions are lovely, the former illustrated again by Robert Ingpen and the latter preserving the illustrations by E?H Shepard.
36 The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (Red Fox). This is the first story about the man who can talk to animals, from 1920. The longer sequel, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, which won the Newbery Medal, is trickier to get hold of, especially if you’re after a pretty edition.
37 The BFG by Roald Dahl and Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl (both Puffin, and both illustrated by Quentin Blake). I am sneaking in two here – my favourite novel and my favourite of his silly rhymes.
38 Fattypuffs and Thinifers by André Maurois (Jane Nissen Books). The French classic about a fat brother and a thin brother – and the battle that ensues between two warring nations. This edition is illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
39 Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (Puffin). This is the first in the captivating series about the red-headed orphan, published originally in 1908, and the one that covers her early childhood.
40 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Puffin). Again, the first book in the series, about the four sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. It was originally published in the United States in 1868. The sequels are also published by Puffin.
41 Charlotte’s Web by EB White (Puffin). Another American novel, this one is about a pig who is rescued by a spider called Charlotte. I’ve gone for this over Dick King-Smith’s animal tales.
42 The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (Sort Of Books). The Finnish novelist is best known for her series about the Moomins, but I have selected instead a novel for older children about a girl and her grandmother, and the summer they spend together on a remote island.
43 The Greengage Summer or The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden (Pan). Also for when your granddaughter is in her teens, two coming-of-age stories, the first set in France and the second in India.
Collections and Histories
44 The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, edited by Iona and Peter Opie with illustrations by Joan Hassall (OUP). This chunky volume containing every nursery rhyme you can possibly think of is charmingly old fashioned, reproduced in a format that harks back to its first publication in 1955.
45 The Hutchinson Treasury of Children’s Literature, edited by Alison Sage (Hutchinson). Every child’s book shelf needs the breadth of an anthology, and this one contains nearly 100 extracts from nursery rhymes, fairy tales and all kinds of stories.
46 Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Joel Stewart (Walker). Andrew Lang’s collections of fairy tales are great, but I’ve gone for this collection by Hans Christian Andersen as a starter.
47 The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear (Faber). There are beautiful editions of individual poems, such as “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, Mammoth), but why not opt for the collected works?
48 Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (Puffin or, in an edition illustrated by Joelle Jolivet, Harry N Abrams). These retellings of the plays are literary works in their own right.
49 Our Island Story: a History of Britain for Boys and Girls from the Romans to Queen Victoria by HE Marshall (Galore Park). An excellent single-volume history of Britain, first published in 1905.
50 A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich (Yale). A sophisticated narrative by the art historian which runs up to the First World War, written in language any child can understand.