I think children’s fiction contains some of the finest novels ever written – and I believe firmly that more adults would read if they rediscovered children’s books. Beautiful, moving, funny and endlessly inventive, there are thousands of hidden gems just waiting to be found. Here are ten of my own childhood favourites. This list contains history, magic, fairy tale, science fiction and even animal dystopia – I love these books, and I hope you will too.
The Book: Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf
The Author: Catherine Storr
The Premise: A wolf comes to eat a little girl, but she’s having none of it.
Why I Really Like It: A sweet, sharp reimagining of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. This little girl’s no damsel in distress – she’s smart and resourceful, and it’s her job to look after the rather simple and helpless wolf. He comes to eat her, but we all know he’ll never manage, and it’s wonderful to watch their careful not-friendship grow.
Who It Will Appeal To: Children 7+ who like their fairy tales a bit twisted.
The Book: The Family from One End Street
The Author: Eve Garnett
The Premise: A charming tale of everyday working-class family life from a vanished world.
Why I Really Like It: It’s a warm, wonderful book that gives a gentle look at a part of early 20th century British history that authors like Noel Streatfeild don’t deal with. Yes, it’s idealised, but it’s so heartfelt and charming – and the Ruggleses are so wonderful – that it can’t fail to delight.
Who It Will Appeal To: Children 7+ who love Noel Streatfeild but want something a little different.
The Book: Carbonel
The Author: Barbara Sleigh
The Premise: The story of Carbonel, the magical King of Cats, and his adventures with Rosemary and John.
Why I Really Like It: A lovely magical adventure, full of spells, witchcraft and talking cats, this was a real wish-fulfilment for me when I read it as a child. I wept bitter tears over the ending, and then read it again and again and again.
Who It Will Appeal To: Budding witches and wizards 8+.
The Book: The Little Wooden Horse
The Author: Ursula Moray Williams
The Premise: A sort of Homeward Bound with toys, the Little Wooden Horse goes out into the world to seek his fortune and then has to get back home.
Why I Really Like It: I was fascinated (and a bit upset) by this book when I first read it. The Little Wooden Horse’s adventures are so compelling, and so dark, but there’s wonderful uplift at the end, and you truly root for him as a character.
Who It Will Appeal To: 7+ kids who like books with heart and emotion (and a bit of a tear-jerker). They may also enjoy Gobbolino, an equally lovely book (but rather close in theme to Carbonel – which is why I picked The Little Wooden Horse for this list instead).
The Book: Catherine Called Birdy
The Author: Karen Cushman
The Premise: A smart, wonderful teenager fights against her fate in medieval England.
Why I Really Like It: Catherine is the kind of heroine who seems to jump out of the book and sit next to you as you read her words. She’s outspoken, funny and feisty, and although her plight (she must obey her father by getting married, and quickly) doesn’t seem particularly relatable on the surface, learning to balance truth and fiction and face up to life challenges is something that we can all connect to.
Who It Will Appeal To: Children 10+ who want an accessible way in to historical novels, and a heroine they can really root for.
The Book: White Boots
The Author: Noel Streatfeild
The Premise: Lalla Moore is going to be a skating superstar – until Harriet and her big, loving family come along. They show Lalla that there’s more to life than skating, but while she’s discovering that, quiet Harriet is falling quietly in love with the ice. A story about friendship, ambition and family love, with just the right blend of showbiz and good sense.
Why I Really Like It:
Who It Will Appeal To: Kids 7+ who want to read about friendship with a little extra sparkle.
The Book: Charmed Life
The Author: Diana Wynne Jones
The Premise: Orphan Cat Chant’s sister Gwendolen, is a witch. When the children are sent to Chrestomanci Castle, Gwendolyn grows sick of the rules and does a piece of magic that could change not just Cat’s life, but entire worlds…
Why I Really Like It: Diana Wynne Jone’s fantasy worlds and made-up characters feel real enough to touch, and you can’t help but be swept up in her wonderful plot. This is simply one of the best magical fantasies you’ll ever read, and I’ve been in love with Chrestomanci for about two thirds of my life.
Who It Will Appeal To: Children 7+ who love humour, fantasy and magic.
The Book: The Green Knowe series
The Author: L. M. Boston
The Premise: History, ghost stories and folklore all combine in a mysterious old house.
Why I Really Like It: This wonderful series is an odd, unique mix of many stories and many worlds. Ghosts exist alongside the living, darkness and danger are always lurking just around the corner and everything takes place in the gorgeous, magical Green Knowe. It’s scary and alluring at once, and as a child I was absolutely desperate to find a Green Knowe of my own.
Who It Will Appeal To: Children 8+ who love history with a sprinkling of magic.
The Book: The Starlight Barking
The Author: Dodie Smith
The Premise: Everyone’s heard of The Hundred and One Dalmatians – this is the lesser-known sequel, the story of the day that the Dalmatians and their dog friends wake up to find their owners in a deep sleep…
Why I Really Like It: Odder, eerier and sadder than the first book, this is no less enchanting and beautiful. I’ve always loved the idea that dogs have secret lives – and I’m sure that if they took over the world they’d do a pretty great job. It’s very gentle science fiction, a brilliant way in to the genre that features well-known characters.
Who It Will Appeal To: Dog-loving children aged 7+
The Book: The Mouse Butcher
The Author: Dick King-Smith
The Premise: In a world where the humans have all vanished, the cats have formed a hierarchy. But then the lowly Mouse Butcher falls in love with the daughter of the lord of the manor – and decides that he has to prove himself by vanquishing the Monster of Hobb’s Hole.
Why I Really Like It: Another brilliant book about animals in a world without humans, this is an edgy, exciting read, full of danger and clever detail, and a hero it’s hard not to fall for. An animal novel with real teeth!
Who It Will Appeal To: Kids 6+ who love animals – the dystopian readers of the future!