Thursday 19 January 2012

Ten books I can't wait for my daughter to read - The CanIWalkMummy Mix

As promised, I thought I'd ask my lovely wife CanIWalkMummy for a slightly more female-centric list of books she can't wait for Charlotte to read.

She came up trumps and here's her list.

1) The Famous Five (various books) by Enid Blyton

Though my memories of this book have been mercilessly altered because of the excellent Comic Strip Presents parodies, I definitely remember reading The Famous Five as a kid and wondering how that ragtag gang, Julian, Dick, Anne, George (and of course Timmy the Dog) managed to thwart so many (useless) criminal masterminds. Blyton's books might have fallen slightly out of favour (claims of political incorrectness, even veiled racism often surround any mention of her work) but she provided the model for putting children front and centre as the focal point for the stories. Fantastical situations, and lashings of ginger beer. Though they may seem a little old fashioned, they're still extremely entertaining for young readers.

2) The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

Unfairly, Edith Nesbit always seems to play second fiddle to Enid Blyton but you could probably argue that she's the better writer. Though most people will probably more readily remember the Film and TV adaptations of The Railway Children (I shall not mention the massive crush I had on Jenny Agutter as a child and for quite some time as an adult!) nor shall I make mention of the fact that I still find that scene where the daddy comes back really hard to watch on TV (I've got something in my eye, honestly) but the book is interesting and nicely paced, perfect fodder for a young enquiring mind.

What strikes me most about the book is that despite its setting, it feels like a contemporary situation described in a non-contemporary way. Children taken away from familiar surroundings, needing to cope with adverse conditions, and letting their imaginations provide the portal out of their situation into something more desirable. Heroic acts and strong characters underpin a fantastic book.

3) The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis

As per my previous list

4) The BFG by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl books belong in anyone's top ten children's book lists. The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is one of Dahl's best loved books and it's easy to see why. Introducing children to the giant, who in any other circumstance would be quite a scary character, but showing him as heroic, cuddly and full of knowledge to impart is a stroke of genius. With the little girl (Sophie) and the giant allegedly based on Dahl himself and his grand-daughter, the feeling that the book was written with love and with great care and attention to the relationship between the giant and the child shines through.

Along with Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (of course!)  and a brace of other Dahl books, The BFG is deservedly a timeless classic.

5) Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

Recently updated with a bunch of new cover art, it's surprising how Malory Towers seems to feel more modern and contemporary than any of Blyton's other books. Despite the various updates to things like Noddy and The Famous Five over the years, the updated versions still seem to feel relatively old fashioned and twee. Malory Towers retains all the elements of a young girl's trials and tribulations at her new school, with subjects and situations that any young school starters will identify with (well, obviously it depends on the school they're going to, but the feelings and emotions definitely carry across even if some of the 'private school-centric' ideas don't).

6) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

As my wife points out, it's sometimes hard to remember if you have strong memories of childhood books, or the films that were spawned by them. One such book is The Secret Garden. I definitely haven't read it but I'm familiar with the story of a young girl who finds a wilderness growing behind a secret ivy-covered door in the sprawling grounds of her uncle's estate. Like many successful children's books where the protagonist is taken away from all they know and love and placed in unfamiliar surroundings, part of the Secret Garden's appeal is the character taking something and making it their own, bringing back a little something to their lives that was previously missing.

If the movies or TV adaptations are anything to go by, it's an enchanting book with great characterisation. I'm now sorely tempted to read this just so I can give a better and more balanced opinion of it.

7) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Despite the 'Disney Effect' of the book being robbed of its identity (and quite a lot of its dark surrealism, even despite a movie adaptation by the master of dark surreality, Tim Burton), Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass are astonishing works that arguably became the template for so many other children's books and authors to follow. Lewis Carroll perfected the art of underpinning the ordinary everyday familiar world with nonsensical characters and situations that feel dream-like and bizarre, but tap into a child's imagination in a way that ensures the book will be well loved and well remembered. So many adults have pored over and analysed the book's content, either looking for something slightly sinister to say about Carroll's obsession with Alice Liddell, and the various caricatures of Dodgson's (Carroll's) influences and familiars. At its heart it's pure fantasy and nonsense (underpinned, if you get the best version, by John Tenniel's absolutely sublime ink drawings of the characters - that thankfully haven't been eroded at all by Disney's attempts to standardise them).

8) The Diary of Anne Frank (Abridged Children's Version) by Anne Frank

A compelling, often hopeful and at times disturbing look into the psyche of a young girl in war torn Europe, The Diary of Anne Frank is probably one of the most familiar and most often read descriptions of how children cope with war. Hiding out in the back-rooms of a printer's shop, the Frank Family and other refugees eke out an existence against the backdrop of Nazi occupation and persecution.

There are so many myths and stories surrounding the book, Anne herself, and her father Otto Frank (who was accused of producing the book himself at one point) but it remains an incredibly strong work with a powerful message. As with some of the books I mentioned in my top ten list, books on the subject of war and children's experiences of war make for compelling reading and are still (quite rightly) staple fodder in schools. It's important to tell these stories and keep them alive, and no book does a better job than this

9) Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

My memories of this are really only of the 70s TV series but my wife has read the book (or had it read to her) and regards it as a classic. The near-legendary character of Beauty, a horse that becomes the centre of a series of adventures throughout the book, aided and abetted by a young girl.

There are several versions of the book, and the one shown is a heavily abridged "children's" version (a children's version of a book that was originally written for children - heavily sanitised and removing all elements of suspense and danger) so be careful which one you go for. Hunt out Sewell's original if your children aren't sensitive types upset by fires or danger.

10) The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton

Though one could technically argue that Enid Blyton was being a bit cheeky here, reusing the idea of The Famous Five and just adding a couple of extra kids to the mix, The Secret Seven books follow the tried and trusted formula of putting children front and centre in a series of heroic tales plays things safe. They seem to have had something of a comeback lately (probably because they've often been 'contemporised' to provide more modern-audience-friendly fare.

There are quite a few books in the series and if children like serial books with the same characters running through them, they'll probably lap these up.

And that's the list. Quite a few good choices there and my wife also mentioned Roald Dahl's 'Boy' book, as fascinating a tale about his young life as any of his fictional works provide. She probably won't want me to mention The Little House on the Prarie by Laura Ingalls Wilder but it'd probably be in there somewhere too.