The Ultimate List of Must-read Children's Books: The Top Five
First, an apology. I posted my introduction post to the Ultimate List of Must-Read Children's Books in July last year, and have left you hanging ever since. Shocking. I could give you a list of excuses and reasons as to why the blog has been much neglected this last year, but it all essentially boils down to the fact that I'm lazy and hopeless at sticking to anything.
I'm also a very good ditherer, and can spend far too long deliberating about things that really don't matter. In this instance, I couldn't decide whether to stick to the original plan and give you the top ten books on the list (which would be quicker), or whether to re-read them, and write a post about each one in turn (which would be more comprehensive). The first option definitely appeals to my laziness, whilst the second appeals to my perfectionism. A job worth doing, as my Mother would say, is worth doing well.
But, after much deliberation, I've finally decided to stick to the original plan. Though I would dearly love to have the time and motivation to write a blog post about every single book on the list, I'd also like to actually get to the ones I haven't read sometime this century! Plus, quite a lot has already been written on the books towards the top of the list, and I'm sure you don't need my input as much as for some of the ones nearer the bottom that you perhaps (like me) haven't explored yet.
In a minor change of plan though, I'm only giving you the top five here - mainly because I got to number five and the post was already getting far too long...
The Cream of the Crop
1. Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne, 1926)
A clear winner, Winnie-the-Pooh is the ONLY book to have appeared on every single one of the 11 lists I consulted. It has been consistently in print since 1926, and with good reason - it's pretty much perfect. Pooh will be 100 in two years time, but he never seems to date - the stories are just as gentle, funny and touching today as they always have been. It isn't full of references or language that don't make sense to a modern audience. It doesn't have themes that are no longer relevant or children who are no longer relatable. AND, importantly, it is a pleasure for adults to read as well (unlike many a book I have been forced to read over the years).
I don't remember reading Winnie-the-Pooh. It feels more like it has been absorbed into my consciousness over the years. It's probably the same for you - you don't remember learning to talk, or to walk, you just can. You don't remember the first time you ate ice cream, you just know what it tastes like. You don't remember the first time you heard about Pooh, or Piglet, or Tigger. They're just there in your brain, and always have been. I can't think of many children's books that can make the same claim really, which makes it a deserving winner, in my mind.
2. Charlotte's Web (E.B. White, 1952)
Charlotte's Web almost tied with Pooh, as it appeared on 10 of the source lists. I love Charlotte's Web, and would happily pick it up and read it again at any time. Templeton was my favourite. Not sure what that says about me.
Charlotte's Web is one of those books which (as far as I know) has never been re-issued with new illustrations. If you buy a copy today, you'll still see the original drawings by Garth Williams, and I like that - there's something comforting about the fact that old children's books are still as they were and are not continually 'revamped' for new audiences. That said, I've never been able to persuade my own boys that it is worth reading. Perhaps they think it looks old and boring - and it's not actually an easy book to sell to young boys who are obsessed with magic, robots and superheroes. I hope they come around to it one day, because everyone should read it at least once.
3. Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren, 1945)
And so, we're at book number three, and already we reach one that I haven't read. Well, that's not strictly true - I've read half of it. Though Pippi was published in 1945, and had been around for some 40ish years by the time I was reading, I somehow missed her adventures completely when I was little. Maybe I'll go back and finish it for the sake of completism.
I didn't (attempt to) read Pippi until a few years ago, and sadly, I think she is someone you need to meet when you are young. The adults in the book don't really understand her ways, and neither did I. Oh, I can see why she appeals to children - I'm sure they find her very funny, and love the fact that she is so free. She lives in a house by herself, does what she wants, eats what she fancies and doesn't give a hoot about things like multiplication. I'm sure that kind of freedom appeals to most kids. But as a grown up, I found her incredibly annoying, a bit rude, and quite full of herself.
Would I have loved her when I was young? Maybe. Though as a bit of a goody two-shoes, I'm still not convinced I would have liked Pippi's way of playing fast and loose with the rules. Rolling out biscuit dough on the floor? Ewww.
4. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(C.S. Lewis, 1950)
When I was around 10, my aunt sent me a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia. Seriously, it was gorgeous. I loved it - and it remained in pristine condition on my shelf for years, box and books both. Whilst I admit I am a complete neat freak and never lend books for fear that they will come back with the spine cracked and (shudder) dog eared pages, this was not the reason I managed to keep the set in such mint condition. Really it was the fact that I never actually read them. Well, I had already read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by the time the set arrived, and I think I attempted Prince Caspian but the rest remained firmly in the box.
I dearly wanted to love what was inside those books as much as I loved the covers, but sadly, I did not. I always found the story rather dull, and never really developed empathy for any of the characters, with the possible exception of Mr Tumnus. Edmund was sulky, Lucy was annoying, Aslan was boring, and the Witch wasn't really that scary. I don't even remember the others. Were there beavers involved somewhere? The one thing I did like was the idea of reaching a magical land through a wardrobe. But so apparently did Edith Nesbit in her book The Magic World, published some 38 years before The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
I think I must have given the box set away at some point, which is a shame really because it would be worth a bob or two nowadays. There are, after all, a lot of people who really love this book and it appeared on no less than nine of the lists I looked at.
5. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943)
Also appearing on nine of the source lists was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. It's not surprising that it's on there - it is one of the best selling books of all time, and has apparently sold around 200 million copies. I read it a few years ago, feeling as though I must surely be missing out on something that so many other people had read. Though I didn't actually buy a copy, because, you know, there are libraries.
And thank goodness there are, otherwise I would have wasted my hard earned pennies. I thought it was going to be a nice, moving fairy tale about a prince, with adventure and dragons and all that sort of stuff. Wrong. It is a weird fable designed to ram philosophy down children's throats in rather an obvious, patronising way. There isn't really a story, it's just a series of 'lessons' presented by the Prince, who is frankly annoying and whom I really wanted to punch. Perhaps it worked better in 1943? Or when you read it as a child? The good thing about it is that it's really short, so luckily you don't have to put up with it for long.
So there you have it. The top five books, as voted for in no less than 11 'greatest children's book lists'. Are they your favourites? Or are you as underwhelmed with the winners as I am?
Next time, we'll be exploring books 6-10. If you fancy having a guess at what they are, crack on in the comments.