Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, March 25, 2011

10 Essential Children's Books

Michael Gove has said that children should read 50 books a year to improve literacy. The Independent asked five literary experts to recommend ten books apiece:


Of course, I couldn't resist coming up with my own ten. These are pretty much off the top of my head, so no doubt for the rest of the night I'll be going 'Oh, and...' But all of these are wonderful classics. How many have you read?

1) The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Nothing, with the possible exception of Wuthering Heights, has stayed with me as tenaciously as this ingenious mapping of a supernatural story from The Mabinogion on to the love-triangle of three bored 1970s teenagers in Wales. I interviewed Garner last October, knees buckling with awe, and he gobsmacked me by saying that the key to the story is Alison's period pains. (She has a 'bellyache' in the opening lines.) And then he burst out laughing, so I don't know whether he was pulling my leg or not.

2) Devil-in-the-Fog by Leon Garfield. Or Smith. Or Black Jack ... anything you can find by this master of 18th-century atmosphere. Does anyone read Garfield any more? They should. Enter a world of cut-throats, highwaymen, sinister pursuers and plucky little street urchins. No one did the kids' eye view better.

3) The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. If it's good enough for J K Rowling, it's good enough for me. Orphaned Maria Merryweather goes to live with her uncle in Moonacre Manor in Devonshire and transforms the entire valley, bringing lost lovers together, unravelling a family curse and even glimpsing the visionary 'little white horse' - all the while having perfectly wonderful feasts. How I longed to be a 'Moon Merryweather' when I was young. A few years ago in Hay-on-Wye, I snapped up an early edition with the original illustrations by C Walter Hodges, the version I'd read as a child. The plate showing Maria's turret bedroom represents every little girl's dream.

4) The School at the Chalet by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. The school saga to end all school sagas, a riot of gymslips, japes, 1920s slang, alternate days spent speaking French, English and German and at least one near-fatality per term via avalanches, floods and frozen lakes. This first episode introduces a group of girls who, living through a series of 50+ titles, prove unable ever after to form adult relationships, instead remaining 'a Chalet girl for ever'. They didn't have break; they had 'Kaffee und Kuchen', and the school washrooms were called 'splasheries'. So glamorous. I was very disappointed, when I got to boarding school, to find that the beds were not all cubicled off with 'gay cretonne curtains'.

5) The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston. The mesmerising tale of a young boy, Tolly, who goes to live with his grandmother in an ancient house called Green Knowe, where time doesn't flow quite the way it should. From the dramatic flooded opening, where Tolly arrives by boat with Boggis the gardener, to the glorious Christmas scenes of the closing chapters, Boston's magic never falters. As an adult I discovered that 'Green Knowe' actually exists and that many of the unusual items described are still in situ. Also highly recommended is The Chimneys of Green Knowe, where Tolly meets a little blind ghost. Will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

6) The Country Child by Alison Uttley. From childish fantasy to the bleak reality of life on a remote Derbyshire farm in the late 19th century. Susan Garland's walk to school is long, lonely and scary and she has few friends beyond her imagination, yet that is enough to transform her life into a thing of wonder, and Uttley describes the natural world with dew-fresh eyes. The frugal Christmas chapter would teach any spoilt modern child about the real meaning of austerity.

7) Ghost stories: hmmm, what to choose, the mournful When Marnie Was There, or The Ghosts by Antonia Barber (made into the Lionel Jeffries film, The Amazing Mr Blunden)? No, I think I'll go for Penelope Lively's chilling and stylish The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, in which a wicked spectre is disturbed, causing trouble for a young boy. It's absolutely terrifying.

8) The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. Imaginative fantasy set in England at the time of King James III, where two spirited young girls have to fight against the machinations of their wicked governess, Miss Slighcarp. The orphanage scenes are nightmarish, and the titular wolves, when they are glimpsed, are scary but beautiful, denizens of a stranger world. In later books in the series, Aiken inexplicably chooses to foreground Dido Twite, one of her most tedious characters.

9) A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Hmmm, I see a theme emerging here. I must have been drawn to harrowing tales of orphan fortitude. Sara Crewe joins Miss Minchin's Academy as a wealthy heiress, but when her father dies she is promptly relegated to the attic and a regime of punishment, starvation and scorn. Sara is is a wonderful heroine, kindly, imaginative and empathetic. And who wouldn't warm to the motto: 'Every girl is a princess - it's her right.'

10) Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. This wasn't around when I was a nipper, but even adults occasionally have to be reminded of the sheer joy of being utterly consumed by a novel. The tale of Lyra Belacqua, armoured bears, daemons and Gyptians did it for me.


  1. A Little Princess, yes. It was such a wonderful misery book. Those scenes where the mouse is her only friend. How terrible. You missed Watership Downn though... I never clicked with the Chalet Series. I was always more of a Malory Towers girl. I think the first hundred pages of Jane Eyre count as a childrens book as well.

  2. The Owl Service is one of my favourite books ever, children's or not. It has haunted me ever since I read it. Absolutely chilling.

    I loved A Little Princess too I think it set me off on a romanticisation of Victoriana style 'misery'.

    I also loved Harriet The Spy, all of Judy Blume's books, and The Secret Garden.

  3. I loved Malory Towers too! I could never cope with those bunnies, though. Garner's books are the ultimate in crossover (I still don't understand Red Shift!) and he says he never saw himself as a children's author anyway. The Secret Garden - yes!- and Tom's Midnight Garden too.

    I've heard a lot about Judy Blume but I never read her stuff. My reading was pretty English and mystical. I'm writing a young adult novel myself and all these were big influences.

  4. I would have to include 'Eagle of the Ninth' or 'Warrior Scarlett' by Rosemary Sutcliffe, both of which I found in the library at the school of the tiny village my urben family relocated to when I was 10 and I was picked on incessantly by the local yokels because I spoke differently to them and my mother made me wear odd clothes to school. Diving into Sutcliffe's perfectly nuanced ancient worlds with completely believable characters doing heroic things against the odds, and often in the teeth of the opinion of their immediate socities made everything else recede into the background,