Updated on April 15, 2016
5 favourite children’s authors
Revisiting books aimed at younger readers is a major perk of looking after children. Here are five favourite authors who are equally loved by my daughters
Photograph by Annie Spratt
Ahhh the school holidays. A joy, of course, to have the children with me every minute of the day. But, after a few too many crazy “weeks off” last year, my husband and I made a pledge not to organise anything over the Easter break. We needed lazy days and lie-ins, and two weeks at home with the girls seemed like a delightful idea. Yeah, you can see where this is going. So, apparently the feeling is not mutual and we are not providing enough excitement. My standard suggestion is, of course, to read a book – because, naturally, when you can’t have adventures of your own the next best thing is to read about someone else’s. Luckily they are both pretty keen readers and I’m more than happy to read to them, too, especially now they’ve moved away from picture books and onto the good stuff. The youngest is at the Harry Potter stage, while books I’ve recently read to my eldest include Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, “Waiting for Anya” by Michael Morpurgo and “Charlotte Sometimes” by Penelope Farmer. Here are five more of my favourite children’s authors, now being discovered by my own children.
E Nesbit (1858-1924)
I guess I read these books after my Enid Blyton phase so they didn’t seem especially remarkable at the time, but now I realise that Edith Nesbit’s stories must have have been revolutionary in their day. Nesbit wrote novels in which adults were rarely present and children were free to pursue hair-raising escapades that ran the gamut from turning invisible to averting rail disasters and could turn from glorious to terrifying in an instant. But unlike “Alice in Wonderland”, “Treasure Island” or “The Jungle Book”, her stories did not carry the reader to faraway or imaginary lands but had solidly English settings. Sure, her young protagonists might have visited ancient Egypt or Atlantis for the day, but they were always home in time for dinner and a bath.
Invariably concerned with large groups of siblings, they were set against an everyday backdrop of rambling houses, nursery teas and bustling maids, their magical adventures juxtaposed to often comic effect against the mundane world of adult life. Reality was not always forgotten, and hovering in the background were worrisome tribulations such as financial hardship, thwarted love affairs – even a father wrongly convicted of selling state secrets. But an intrepid spirit, plus a little luck and magic, would allow the children to escape such concerns on wild and risky adventures that must have seemed almost subversive in Edwardian Britain.
Nesbit paved the way for many writers who came after her, and for whom a childhood with little parental input was far easier to imagine, what with evacuation, quarantine and boarding school at their narrative disposal. Of Nesbit’s books, “The Railway Children” is an enduring classic and I still cry at the end (“Oh! my daddy, my daddy!”), but I also found “The Enchanted Castle” particularly memorable. It’s a book about three siblings whose holiday takes an unexpected turn when they fall backwards through a hedge and discover a mysterious castle on the other side. Complete with fairytale princess (or is she?), the castle’s unpredictable brand of magic and enchantment brings about a series of unforgettable episodes – some wonderful, others deeply alarming, in true Nesbit style.
My daughters also loved the Psammead trilogy, comprising “Five Children and It”, “The Phoenix and the Carpet” and “The Story of the Amulet”. Charming and wonderfully eccentric, these three books relate the adventures of five siblings who discover a grumpy wish-granting sand fairy, a teleporting magic carpet and a time-travelling Egyptian amulet respectively. Next up for us is “The Story of the Treasure Seekers”, in which the six Bastable children attempt to restore their family’s lost fortune. Can’t wait!
Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986)
A former actress herself, Streatfeild specialised in stories about poor but talented children who struggle against the odds to realise their artistic potential. Stage school brats they are not, however, and most have noble intentions that usually involve a pressing need to earn money for their families. Best known for “Ballet Shoes”, she covered pretty much all the bases, writing about ice skating (“White Boots”), acting (“The Painted Garden”), violin playing (Apple Bough) and child movie stardom (“Gemma”), to name but a few. Generally focusing on the hard slog of practice and training, the novels include detailed and strangely absorbing descriptions of rehearsal schedules, audition etiquette and exam regulations, as well as the emotional thrills and spills that go hand in hand with nascent stardom.
But Streatfeild also writes about the effect of this on the rest of the family, whether they are proud, supportive, resentful or simply struggling to find the requisite resources to nurture such prodigious talent. She weaves as much – probably more – drama from homesickness and missed pets as from bright lights and glittering costumes, and I think that’s what makes her books so memorable. Despite their starry themes, the children concerned are complex characters who struggle with confusing and contradictory emotions, including jealousy, disappointment, anger, pride and loneliness. In fact “Ballet Shoes” is probably her most whimsical work – later books take a more down-to-earth view of a world in which life performs a series of unexpected turns that are not always welcomed by everyone.
Of course the books have happy endings, in which families pull together for the greater good and everyone finds their own path to contentment. Ultimately, Streatfeild’s message is that success and fulfilment come in many different guises, and I guess that’s a pretty good lesson to learn.
Rumer Godden (1907-1998)
Born in the UK, Rumer Godden spent her early childhood and much of her later life in India. Although it was very much her home, her expat status made her something of an outsider; yet England, where she also lived on and off, was unfamiliar and strange and she never felt quite settled there. This sense of not quite belonging is a constant theme in her writing as her heroines search for ways to fit in without compromising their identity.
I think my favourite is “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”, about Nona, an eight-year-old girl who is sent from her father’s tea plantation in India to live with her cousins in England. Desperately homesick, she is dismayed by the weather, the stodgy food and the lack of space and freedom. Her cousins make fun of the way she talks and dresses and she despairs of ever feeling settled. So when she is given two Japanese dolls, she pours her energy into building them a traditional Japanese house, complete with sliding wall panels, stone lanterns and tatami mats, so they, at least, will feel at home.
It’s an enchanting book, but Godden was not a writer to shy away from the less pleasant aspects of life as the outsider. Bullying, racism, fear and mistrust pervade her stories, perhaps most explicitly in “The Diddakoi”, in which Kizzy, a half-Gypsy girl, is taken in by a local landowner. Encouraged by the bigoted remarks of their narrow minded parents, her classmates tease and bully her, eventually tying her up and running her, head first, into a tree, until she passes out. It’s a shockingly violent scene for a children’s story and demonstrates both the depths of cruelty that children can reach and the pernicious consequences of a community’s casual intolerance.
At least Kizzy survives, which is more than can be said for one of the characters in “The Dolls’ House”, which actually features cold-blooded murder, albeit that of a doll. A book that initially appears to be a charming story about tiny clothes and miniature furniture (and it is that, on one level) ultimately becomes a dark tale of inequality, injustice and an abuse of power that culminates in a terrible act of violence. The dolls have no control over their lives and depend on their owners to look after them – laziness and lack of care have devastating consequences, and the book centres on the dolls’ frustration at their inability to communicate their needs and fears. Made into a children’s TV programme by the brilliant Oliver Postgate, it’s a story that has stuck in my mind for decades – and now its grown-up themes are only too clear.
But despite these sinister undercurrents, Godden’s books are ultimately comforting. Things come right in the end and she had an absolute gift for tying up her plots in a neat and satisfying way that stays just the right side of saccharine. Her books are filled with detailed descriptions of the little things that make childhood jolly and cosy – the toys and traditions and home comforts that fill us with nostalgia when we stumble across them in later life, much like these stories themselves.
Joan Aiken (1924-2004)
I borrowed Aiken’s book “Midnight is a Place” from our local library when I was eight or nine years old, and I still remember the cover vividly. Showing a black tower and a fiery orange sky it was not especially inviting – yet I was gripped from the first page. Aiken’s historical novels, mostly set in a fictional version of the 19th-century, are thrilling tales of children on the run from life-threatening dangers, be they wolves, workhouses, man-eating birds, flying monsters or – more often that not – villainous scheming adults. Often described as Dickensian, they feature a wealth of vividly drawn characters and memorable scenes, all steeped in layers of atmosphere. Courage and cunning are often the children’s only resources, and their edge-of-your seat adventures make for a thrilling and unpredictable ride.
Aiken is probably best known for the Wolves Chronicles, a series of books that mostly concern a plucky young girl called Dido who finds herself responsible for the fate of king and country on more than one occasion. Many of Aiken’s adult characters are truly sinister and some of her scenes are shocking – particularly memorable for me was her depiction, in “Midnight is a Place”, of child labourers in a cotton mill, who face the daily threat of grisly death amongst its machines. But her fictional worlds – which become ever more fantastical in the Wolves Chronicles – create a sense of distance that negates any real horror.
“The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” is the first in the series and its potent mix of fairy-tale fantasy and derring-do are woven into a gripping story of secret passages, faked wills, hidden caves and daring moonlit breakouts. Wealthy Bonnie and her orphaned cousin Sylvia are left in the care of the monstrous Miss Slighcarp, a distant relative who proceeds to claim the ancestral pile as her own, sells Bonnie’s beautiful clothes and toys, and ships the two girls off to a workhouse. Can they escape, expose Miss Slighcarp as a fraud and return home? Their journey takes them from Bonnie’s vast playroom, “a large and beautiful apartment, carpeted in blue, its walls white, its ceiling all a-sparkle with gilt stars” to the “great smoky lights and fearsome fiery glare” of industrial town Blastburn, and all the way to London, “on the open upper deck of one of the new horse-drawn ominbuses”. The plot moves at breakneck speed and its various twists and turns ensure there is never a dull moment.
Philip Pullman (1946)
OK so I might not have been a child, strictly speaking, when Philip Pullman first published his trilogy of Dark Materials books, but I was certainly young(ish). I remember looking forward to the time when I’d be able to read it with my own children and – hurrah – that day has now arrived. My older daughter recently chose “Northern Lights” as her bedtime story and we are enjoying it so much. Even my younger daughter, who can’t quite follow the story, is captivated by the armoured bears and evil monkeys.
Generally considered to belong to the young adult genre, the trilogy, which comprises “Northern Lights”, “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”, deals with more complex and grown-up themes than your average children’s story – notably religious repression, free will and, ahem, sexual awareness. But we’re not talking Judy Blume’s “Forever” here – the latter is subtly signposted and could also be decoded as the beginnings of mature self-awareness and the desire for knowledge. And while the battle between innocence and experience is at the heart of what is essentially an epic coming-of-age story, I’m not anticipating any awkward questions just yet.
First and foremost the books are fantasy novels set in a fictional world, where humans have animal companions that form an intrinsic part of their identity and from whom they must not be separated. Lyra, a fearless and curious 12-year-old, becomes caught in a sinister web of politics and religion that sees her travel to the frozen North to save her father from powerful forces she does not understand. Accompanied by witches, rebel angels and Will, a boy from Oxford, she then travels to other universes, while untangling the mystery of her own destiny and confronting the responsibility that knowledge and experience bring with them. Alongside this gripping adventure story, Pullman creates a mythology – a belief system of morals and values that pulls in ideas from religion, philosophy, science, legend and folklore – which reveals itself as the story arc develops over the course of the three books, and adds a deeper layer of meaning that is both thought provoking and controversial.
Philip Pullman has written several other children’s books, which we haven’t read yet. I wonder if we should have started with those as “His Dark Materials” will be a pretty hard act to follow…
So there you go – some of the books we’ve all enjoyed recently. Which of your favourite children’s authors do your own family also enjoy?