Thursday, 5 March 2015

Things – My Favourite Kids’ Books

Happy World Book Day

So today is World Book Day, the day that celebrates books and reading all over the world, the day dedicated to encouraging children and young people to read. Book tokens are handed out in schools and all over the country and I think the world, kids are currently sitting in school dressed up as their favourite literary character. I think it’s wonderful.

In honour of this occasion I thought I’d do something a bit different, and give you a run-down of my favourite books when I was a kid. I should say (as a warning) that this is a fairly spontaneous post, so I haven’t had a chance to reread or even look over some of these books; there are a few that I know I absolutely loved but don’t actually remember all that much about. After all, I am sadly no longer a child. On the same note, this is not a definitive list, nor even an up to date list in terms of children’s fiction – it’s simply the books I remember most enthralling me when I was somewhere between the ages of seven and thirteen. Of all the books and series that shaped my childhood, it was genuinely so hard to choose a top ten. I therefore had to pick a top fifteen. Apologies. I promise I tried.

15. The Children of the Red King Series (AKA the Charlie Bone books), by Jenny Nimmo

Now let’s be honest. This series was basically a rip off of Harry Potter. Boy with strange magic powers goes to special school for other children with strange magic powers. Shortly after Charlie Bone discovers that he can read the thoughts of people in photographs, his uncaring family send him to Bloor’s Academy, an arts school where each child must specialise in music, art or drama – and the students, like Charlie, each have unique superpowers. My favourite character, Billy, can talk to animals. So yes, the premise is basically the same as Harry Potter’s – but they’re a well written, engaging and lovely series.

14. The Artemis Fowl Series, by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl is twelve years old and an utter genius. And being a precious and slightly eccentric genius, he is also a sort of criminal mastermind. Having discovered the existence of fairies, he enlists the help of his butler (whose name is Butler) to kidnap a fairy, Captain Holly Short. If my memory serves me right, they’re an entertaining and funny series. I know I really enjoyed them, if only because Artemis Fowl himself is such a great character.

13. A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket (AKA Daniel Handler)

Now I loved these books as a child. The only reason they don’t come higher for me is that I remember the ending of the series being a little disappointing. However, for the rest of it, I loved the formulaic – but brilliantly so – way in which Violet, Klaus and Sunny are passed round their relatives, with Count Olaf adopting weird disguises to find a way into their lives, desperate for their money. What I really loved about these books are the odd details, the way Lemony Snicket is both the ‘author’ and a character in the books, and those strange mystery letters, V.F.D. I think it’s quite impressive that nearly ten years after I finished this series at the age of twelve, I still remember those three letters, even if I no longer have any clue whatsoever what they stand for, or even if we ever find out.

12. The Magic Finger, by Roald Dahl

This is certainly not the book people think of when they think of Roald Dahl. It’s far less known than Matilda or The BFG or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – all of which I of course loved. But it’s this one I remember being my favourite. The narrator possesses a secret talent – her magic finger – which is triggered whenever she gets angry. In fury at her next door neighbours, who go out hunting birds, she shrinks them down to the size of ducks, and the ducks grow to the size of humans. As always with Roald Dahl, it’s just a great read.

11. Skellig, by David Almond

The basic premise of Skellig is this: Michael is a ten years old boy who has just moved into a new house, and while his parents focus on his sick new born sister, he finds himself often alone. He then discovers a strange homeless man living in their garage. This man appears to have wings, and may or may not be a sort of angel. It took me a little while to remember what actually happens in this book, but in all these years I’ve never got out of my head just how thoroughly good it was.

10. Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin

I read this when I was a little older, I think about twelve or thirteen, and it’s a truly lovely book. After fifteen-year-old Liz dies in a car accident, she travels to the place of Elsewhere, where you age backwards until you’re ready to return to Earth as a new-born baby, to start life over again as someone else. From Elsewhere, she can watch her family and friends back on earth from the Observation Deck. And it’s here that she meets Owen, who died as an adult but has now aged backwards to be only a year or two older than her. Elsewhere is basically an odd sort of love story, an original, strange and truly beautiful book.

9. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis

Well this had to be here somewhere. They’re too wonderful a series and were too formative to me and so many other kids that I couldn’t not include them. My favourites of the series were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (of course) and The Horse and His Boy (of which I now remember absolutely nothing except that it was my favourite one). I love the way the novels intersect with each other, characters from each popping up in other stories. I love the whole world and its creation. And most importantly, I love Mr Tumnus.

8. The Divide Trilogy, by Elizabeth Kay

The books centres on thirteen-year-old Felix. On holiday in Costa Rica, at the point where water flows both to the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, he finds the Divide, a thin line where you can pass into an alternate world. In this other world filled with mythological creatures, Felix sets off in a quest through to try and find a cure for his heart condition. The world is a great creation, and they’re just such fun books. There’s this one moment when Felix brings his friend Betony back across the divide, and takes her home for dinner. Felix’s mother (assuming Betony is a friend from school, not an elf) asks what she wants to drink. Bewildered by what people might drink in this world, Betony looks for the closest drink bottle she can see and asks for ‘Sherry’. Ten years after having read these books I still remember that moment. It made me laugh so much.

7. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud

I feel like I’m slightly cheating here because I didn’t actually read these book as a child, but rather more recently. However, I feel pretty confident that any book-loving twelve-year old would enjoy them just as much as me. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy we’re introduced to an alternate Britain, where the government is run by magicians, relying on djinni for power. In the books our viewpoint is split between Nathaniel, a young magician, and Bartimaeus, a djinn. Bartimaeus speaks in this brilliant sarcastic voice, completel with footnotes for passing comments. They are great engaging books, and really really funny.

6. Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

Do I really need to say anything more? I think pretty much everyone of my generation has a long-standing attachment to Harry Potter. We were roughly the same age as the characters when the books and later films were coming out, and Harry Potter’s become so engrained in popular culture that I feel I know the books so well, even though I’ve only read them twice, and not for years. It’s difficult to explain just why I like Harry Potter so much, except that they’re just brilliant, well-written books. They capture precisely what I think kids like in literature, the familiarity of a school setting with something complex and magical there as well. Te books are both funny and moving, and pull you so firmly into the world. And the characters are brilliant, often Roald Dahl-like or Dickensian in their eccentricities. It’s just a fantastic series.

5. The Silver Sword, by Ian Serraillier

This book is quite different to the rest on this list. For one it’s a lot older than most of them, having been written in the 1950s. It’s also more serious, and it’s also based on fact. It is a brilliant, tragic and moving novel, set in Poland during the Second World War. It mainly follows the experiences of four children, siblings Ruth, Edek and Bronia, and their friend Jan, as they try to make their way back to their parents. For me, this book was the first thing that really taught me about that period of history. It is one thing to study Evacuees in school, but The Silver Sword gives a much harsher and truer picture of what was happening on the continent. And it’s not just an important book – it’s engaging too. I listened to it on audiobook on my tape player again and again when I was a kid. It’s one of those books I think all children should read.

4. The Butterfly Lion, by Michael Morpurgo

I’m slightly trusting to the general consensus that Michael Morpurgo is an excellent writer, and to the good taste of my eleven-year-old self, because I really remember very little about this novel. Except for the fact that I read it several times and that it was my favourite book of all time when I was in primary school. The set up is this: while at boarding school, a young boy meets Millie, an elderly woman, who tells him the story of Bertie and the butterfly lion, a white lion cub Bertie rescues as a boy. Even smudged as it is in my memory, I still think of The Butterfly Lion as one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

3. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman

This is a brilliant, brilliant series. Were this a list what I think are the very best children’s books rather than my favourites, it might be at number one. Although, I should say I feel odd calling them children’s books, because although I read and absolutely loved them at twelve, I reread them recently and think I probably got even more out of them. The premise is brilliant, and the alternate and not-quite-our-world so well created. The characters are wonderful. The idea of daemons is just fantastic. And the books are so jammed packed full of moral messages, philosophy, deep thoughts, so that you can read them on so many different layers and levels. It’s a brilliant story, and so so much more.

2. The Inkheart Triology, by Cornelia Funke

I genuinely think this was one of the first books that made me want to write books myself. I loved Cornelia Funke’s other books as well – The Thief Lord, Dragon Rider – she’s just such a great storyteller. I loved that Inkheart is so much about books. Meggie and her father Mo, the central characters, have the power to bring characters from novels into the real world when they read aloud. Years ago, Mo accidentally brought to life four characters from a book called Inkheart, and during the series these come back to haunt him and his daughter. I genuinely loved these books so much growing up.

1. The Edge Chronicles, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddel

For me, these books has to triumph over all. Set in a mythical world of floating rock, known as The Edge, the series is made up of three main trilogies, and a few other standalone books. Each trilogy deals with a particular generation in a particular family tree, so that we get to see this world over decades as it changes. I just can’t put into words just how much I love and admire these books, not only for the brilliant world and writing but for the lovely illustrations. The world is just so brilliantly done, each section of it so well created and so fully thought out, not just in one static time but over the decades the series spans. The Edge Chronicles are imaginative, fun, engaging, wondrous and bizarre, full of so much imagination and so many great enjoyable ideas. And there are sky pirates. I mean what’s not to love about sky pirates?

Note: Wikipedia tells me that there are now four trilogies in the Edge Chronicles, with the first novel in the fourth trilogy having come out last year. I think I may have to buy it out of curiously and nostalgia.

Next time: I’ll be reviewing The Dynamite Room, by Jason Hewitt

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