There have been a spate of ‘Top Ten’ children’s book lists lately, voted for by readers and critics, but all seem to go for the most well known, the ‘top’ titles by each author, whereas what I remember from my reading childhood are the writers. I remember the absolute delight of discovering a voice that spoke to me, took me away to another world, and even more wonderful, the moment when I discovered these writers had written other books… so I could go back to them again and again! Perhaps the earliest of these was Beatrix Potter – what a heavenly combination for me, a country child, of those familiar landscapes in her delicate but detailed illustrations, and endearing ( or sometimes scary!) characters in stories told with such humour and rhythm – ‘I go barefoot, barefoot, barefoot’ or ‘pit pat waddle pat, pit pat waddle pat…’ a gift for readers aloud! An early hero was the bad cat Simpkin in The Tailor of Gloucester who got all my sympathy for being in the wrong but unable to explain himself. ‘Where is my TWIST…?’ ‘Where is my MOUSE!’
A brilliant short novel – it had everything!
My next addictions were the coloured fairy books – Andrew Lang’s collections of stories from around the world, not many fairies, but every kind of myth and legend, and an original example of the inclusion of ‘found texts’ or ‘mediaeval’ illustrations – scraps of old documents, lost tales, ‘found’ fairy spells that now fill current historical fantasies from Philip Pullman to Chris Riddell. At the time I believed in them absolutely, maybe they were real?
Other fairies or at least the most wonderful fairy godmother was to be found in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblins, transcendentally beautiful in her tower, with her purifying bath of stars and her fire of roses. All his books – The Golden Key, The Light Princess, still have the power to move me to another plane, such uplifting writing.
I had a Canadian grandmother who was a postgraduate at Radcliffe, Boston USA, where she heard talks by Sylvia Pankhurst and saw Sarah Bernhardt play Jeanne d’Arc. She taught my mother Joan Aiken at home until the age of twelve, and I inherited all their books – not just What Katy Did, but the books Katy might have read – Elizabeth Wetherell’s The Wide Wide World, or Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost. Also I loved some of the Alcott heroines, like Rose from Eight Cousins, but I preferred the put-upon, struggling motherless girls, and the detail of their day to day American lives, a more grown up version of the fairy tale heroines with their wicked stepmothers perhaps, but excellent material for me as a would be orphan – or rather daughter of a desperately hard working single mother! Those girls are probably still my friends and role models, and I’m delighted to see their popularity endure.
At the same time I was discovering the tongue in cheek parodies of E.Nesbit’s fairy tales – Nine Unlikely Tales or The Magic World with their string of unfortunate Royal families and unhappy christening parties, and her hilarious but gentle social criticism which delightfully included you, the reader, as a partisan, or being the ‘best beloved’ of the flamboyant storyteller in Kipling’s Just So Stories. I first began to enjoy and appreciate style for its own sake. And I wondered about the mysterious double world of Nesbit’s Harding’s Luck and The House of Arden which gave alternate views of the same story, and two possible outcomes…
More stories followed – the now less known Eleanor Farjeon wrote two collections of stories set in my own Sussex countryside – Elsie Piddock who skipped on top of Mount Caburn to stop developers building houses there was another heroine, singing ‘Andy Spandy sugardy candy french almond rock’ – and is skipping there still for all we know… and Martin Pippin, the hapless hero sent to find his baby or his wife in daisy field or apple orchard who told the old Sussex stories. A direct descendant of E.Nesbit, she went on to write one of my possible Desert Island favourites – The Little Bookroom.
Delightful dry humour came from T.H.White’s Sword in the Stone and The Witch in the Wood – I loved the witch wandering on the battlements looking up beauty remedies in a magazine called ‘Vague’ that she had obtained from the future, or the bunch of frightful boys – Agravaine, Gawaine, Gareth and Gaheris obstructing King Pellinore, as he followed fewmets in his hunt for the questing beast.
I did finally (almost!) come into the present day with Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden – why is this not on any list? It has a marvellous evocation of the past, but also for me was the first glimpse into the heart of a boy. Such a brilliant unfolding of the story, and what an ending when he meets his long lost love. Unforgettable. And at about the same time I discovered William Mayne, a couple of his books Underground Alley and A Parcel of Trees will continue to haunt me, with their mix of everyday life and elusive magic, as of course does his own unfortunate history and eventual disgrace.
Noel Streatfeild of course was a regular standby – being a post war baby I identified strongly with the children who had to earn their own livings, preferably on the stage, or at a pinch as a bluebell girl in a circus, or playing Mary in a film of The Secret Garden, and of course with my passion for orphans I identified completely with the real Mary Lennox, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Sarah Crewe, making her quite shocking sudden poverty and loneliness more bearable by imagining the worse fate of a prisoner in the Bastille.
The real joy of those books, was the suggestion that by using your imagination, changing your outlook, you could change your life. So I would find it completely impossible to make a list of top ten books – what I was lucky enough to have was a magical library from the past, that grew and expanded as I grew up, and which was continually added to thanks to my mother’s own writing career and the work of her friends and contemporaries during another ‘golden age’ of children’s writing.
Although most of my favourites have come from quite a bit earlier, and I have to confess a weakness for the language and style of that earlier golden age, I do of course have to include some Aikens in my selection – her own first stories of magic and mystery, the Armitage family stories and others, were the backbone of my early reading life, and the glorious unfolding ‘Wolves’ saga with the adventures of Dido Twite and her sister Is, lasted until her death. It may be heresy, but my own favourite is that very last one, The Witch of Clatteringshaws – hardly known in comparison with ‘Wolves’ or ‘Black Hearts’ but is for me absolutely bursting with character, history humour and magic, as if she had to get in every last thing. Simon recovers from being proposed to by ‘an eight foot troll’ – the visiting Finnish princess – and escapes to lead his armies into battle against the Wends, but being about as inexperienced as his army, gives them a less than encouraging version of the Agincourt speech to cheer them on. Luckily the Wendish leader is very eccentric, and not much battle ensues. Meanwhile Dido is up in Scotland looking for a long lost heir, and meeting the Witch herself, let alone the peculiar inhabitants of Clatteringshaws, where the bairns throw their books into the loch on Saint Vinnipeg’s day and surprise a monster… and there’s so much more, so delightful…sorry I’m going to have to go and read it again!