Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Ten children's books I can't wait to introduce my daughter to..

When I was a wee whippersnapper, I remember our school having a "Book Newsletter" type thing that allowed parents to buy (cheaply) a different book every month for their child. The scheme is probably still going on (and the Bookstart scheme is fantastic) but I remember it for a lot of reasons, mostly because it was how I was introduced to some of the best books of my childhood.

I also had an extremely good primary school Teacher (Miss Cox) and of course my mum to thank for turning me into a bookworm. Something I'm trying to pass on to my daughter (and it seems to be working!)

Now she's getting to the stage beyond the simple picture book, I'm starting to think of the books I loved as a child - some of which are now (quite rightly) modern classics in their own right, some were even classics when I was young. So here's a list of the ten books I can't wait to read to Charlotte (or better still, can't wait till she can read them herself).

1) The Giant Under the Snow - John Gordon

One of the spookiest, most atmospheric and most influential books I have ever read. I spent a good 25 years or more hunting for a copy of this and was lucky enough to find one (with this original cover, and its nightmare-inducing illustration) at a car boot sale. I was almost in tears as I handed over a quid (the price was 25p but I was so grateful I just forked over a quid) and took it home.

It's the story of a young girl, Jonquil Winters, and her two friends who embark on a journey of mystery surrounding the return of The Giant - a long-buried figure of malice who once again stalks the earth through dark magic, ready to rise again and enslave humanity. It reads very well, and it's chock full of descriptive characters including Jonquil herself. It struck such a chord with me as a child that I could readily draw the leathery skeleton characters and the giant himself from memory. It's scary and a bit spooky so it will probably be quite a few years before I'll be allowed to let Charlotte anywhere near it but if you're ever lucky enough to grab a copy, do so, it's astonishingly good

2) Stig of the Dump - Clive King

The original - with its superb illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, is a standout children's classic. The notion of finding a lost caveman scraping out a living in a dirty smelly old dump, making his home from the rubbish he finds there, is quite enchanting. Like most tales of anachronistic characters fetching up in the wrong time, Stig of the Dump spends a lot of time building up a sense of wonder around familiar things. I can still remember thinking how cool it was to have a house with an old car door as its front door, or bottles stacked up as a window.

Before the urban sprawl took over, there were a lot of places where, as a child, you could go and explore (probably places that would turn a modern parent's hair white overnight) and live out the fantasy that you might find a remnant of the stone age scrabbling around in the discarded rubbish.

Awesome and imaginative.

3) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 

Bit of a cheat this one as Charlotte has already had quite a bit of this book read to her, but I look forward to one day doing it proper justice (and hopefully getting Charlotte over her fear of Violet Beauregarde changing into a giant blueberry girl). The movies (both old and new) have sullied the book a bit (oddly enough I liked the new movie at first but it really can't hold a candle up to the original book in any shape or form - something you could say about most of Tim Burton's movies).

Above all, the powerful imagination of a child can produce far better (mental) images of Willy Wonka's fantastic concoctions, and a far better impression of how horrid some of the children who accompany Charlie on a tour of Wonka's factory really are and how delicious their comeuppances are when they finally happen.

A timeless classic, like most of Dahl's books

4) The Owl Service by Alan Garner

Another spooky book this, and another book chock full of atmosphere. Alan Garner's "The Owl Service" was passed around at school (the school's library copies never seemed to be "in" whenever I wanted to borrow them) - but we were lucky enough to study the book during English lessons and I was hopelessly hooked from the word go. Telling the story of three teenagers coming to terms with family upheaval, and encountering an all-too-real welsh legend that threatens to sweep them up in its grasp, it's a multi-layered and quite complex book (even for an adult) that really strikes a chord with anyone who grew up in a single-parent family.

As others have said elsewhere, it could well put you off family holidays in Wales forever. Spooky, imaginative, descriptive and absolutely essential reading for young teens.

5) The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall

Another book that was studied at school, The Machine Gunners tells the story of a young lad coping with the Blitz in World War 2. Fascinated by the ever-encroaching war, a downed German plane provides an opportunity for the boy's imagination to let fly.

It's been a very long time since I read the book but I remember the way Robert Westall builds up the levels of tension throughout, until the quite shocking and wholly unexpected end.

There's no easy way to help children understand the importance of the sacrifices their grandparents and great grandparents (and great great grandparents) made for their country in wars, but Westall's book offers both an insight into these, and also an insight into how easily influenced a child's mind can be.

Dark and disturbing at times, sometimes tragic but with a strong clear message, it's timeless stuff.

6) The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier and Jane Serraillier

 Another book touching on the impact of war, this time with a driven message of hope threaded throughout an expertly written story of children fending for themselves in war-torn Poland, embarking on an epic journey to be reuinted with their parents. The symbolic 'Silver Sword' of the title is their almost mythical belief that something other-worldly can protect them on their hazardous quest.

Never holding back harrowing descriptions of the impact of war, The Silver Sword is probably one of the best books written for children about the impact of WWII on Europe - but more than that, it contains some of the strongest messages of self worth and self belief a child can read.

7) The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien

Does this book fall in and out of favour every few years or so? Or is there a perception that Tolkien's works are slowly being eroded by other fantasy novels, more modern fare that suits the contemporary palate better? I'll argue that The Hobbit - the perfect introduction to Tolkien's (sometimes unapproachable) works - is a book that paints vivid pictures of the world of Middle Earth far more effectively than the most expertly produced CGI, more effectively even than Tolkien's own scribbly ink illustrations. I was first introduced to this book when I was 5 - which might seem a little early (and might make me sound a little precocious) but thanks to my teacher at the time (Miss Cox, take a bow) and the project she wove around this book, I've loved it ever since and it made me want to read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion just to dip back into Tolkien's imaginative worlds.

With all the interest surrounding Peter Jackson's new movie, The Hobbit will undoubtedly find a whole new audience. I'd urge anyone who hasn't read it to get in there before the movie is released though (even though it's looking quite spectacular).

8) The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

It would be unfair to include J.R.R. Tolkien's works in this list without also including his fellow Inkling's works. C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, in particular The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe have been analysed, picked over and compared to everything from religious chronicles, allegories of the second world war and even linked to the signs of the zodiac. But from a child's perspective, C.S. Lewis did exactly what any successful children's author does to ensure success - put the children firmly at the centre of the book as the heroes, and made every child believe that these ordinary everyday children were almost superhuman in their ability to become more than just kids.

In essence, a tale of good versus evil. When you scratch the surface there are so many stories and sub-stories woven together that even the slightly old fashioned notions and scenarios in the book still hold up as entertaining and involving. Again a book that has been slightly eroded by the movie treatments but they're extremely well done, so serve as a jumping off point for when children are ready to tackle the quite lengthy and sometimes slowly paced / slightly repetitive books.

9) The Guardians by John Christopher

It's tough to choose just one book by John Christopher that you'd put on a child's reading list. One of the most underrated science fiction authors of the last century, Christopher is probably more widely recognised for "The Tripods" than his other works but oh my, The Guardians is an absolutely incredible book.

In a futuristic dystopian society, a boy becomes an orphan overnight. Driven by memories of his mother, and her tales of the mythical "Shire" (the countryside), the urban boy ends up at a terrifying boarding school. Ill treated and bullied, the boy decides to escape to the Shire.

As his situation becomes more desperate, he ends up under the protective wing of a youngster from the shire who vows to try and pass him off as shire-born.

With more twists and turns than a twisty turny thing, The Guardians constantly changes the reader's perception of what is normal, and what is comfortable. Underpinning the whole story is the terrifying notion that everything the young boy understands about his world is wrong, and that dark forces are the guiding hand behind both the shire and the urban sprawl he is familiar with.

Rivetting stuff. Quite dark, and probably not quite what people would expect from a children's book but again Christopher places a seemingly normal young boy at the centre of a set of circumstances that will push him to his limits.

10) Chocky by John Wyndham

When I was a kid, children's television dramas were absolutely incredible. With tiny budgets, very little in the way of special effects (certainly no CGI!) but dedicated production crews producing astonishing work, they are often still very well remembered. One such series was Chocky (and its successor, Chocky's Children). Adapted from the books by John Wyndham, Chocky was around long before E.T and certainly did not try to draw a sugary sweet portrait of a young boy's encounter with an alien life form. Wyndham weaves a tight and often quite disturbing tale of the questing mind of an alien trying to reach out and understand humanity through the mind of a young boy. For many, the clear messages in the book of how our own perceptions of 'different' and 'alien' are drawn up from an early age are often challenged in Wyndham's taut tale.

With the list, where possible, I've tried to avoid spoiling the plots and content too much. I've read, re-read and loved each of these books and there are probably dozens and dozens more I could easily add to the list (and probably will). I can imagine a time when Charlotte grows out of Disney Princesses, gets bored with Charlie and Lola, and passes up Peppa Pig in favour of at least one or two of these (I hope!).

At some point though I'll definitely have to sit my lovely wife down and get her to produce a ( perhaps more girl-centric) list, most definitely!