Dare to be honest?

When asked for the best children’s books, do you a) list the ones you truly loved the best, or b) mention the ones you reckon are expected of you? The ‘proper’ books of childhood.

Last week I was impressed to find I wasn’t totally alone in thinking the new list of 11 best books for under tens, published by the BBC wasn’t one I agreed with. They asked critics, who are supposed know about this. All adults, I imagine.

Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, The Little Prince, Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wizard of Earthsea, A Wrinkle in Time, Little House on the Prairie.

These are fine books. But how much were they even the favourites when these critics were under ten, and how likely is it that they will continue to please young readers of today? Under ten 25 or 50 years ago is not the same as now. Much as I loved Little Women, I’d give it to an older reader today.

I’m not too keen on Roald Dahl. Never read Narnia, but accept that many have and will continue to do so. I have a feeling I’ve not got round to Charlotte’s Web, either. It’s one of those books that are always mentioned, and so well known that it can be hard to keep track of whether or not you’ve actually read it.

Surely this is primarily a list of the books a group of adults believe they loved the best, or feel are the books they ought to admit to in public? Rather like the castaways on Desert Island Discs, who were always asking for the Bible and Shakespeare, and I suspect, not always because those are the very best books in the world. True, there is a lot to read in both, but the choice feels more to be about what you dare say in public. Brave is the person who’d admit to not being a reader, or one who’d prefer Enid Blyton or Lee Child, to pick a couple of very popular writers.

As a foreigner, I feel I’m allowed not to know all these books from childhood. But if I were to choose my favourites, I feel I would be expected to go for Astrid Lindgren, rather than some unknown or forgotten light fiction (by that I mean there were lots of books I loved to bits, but where I either didn’t note the author’s name, or can’t remember it now). Nothing wrong with Astrid, I hasten to add, but whereas I liked Pippi Longstocking back then, today I’d rather not suggest her, but go for one of the others.

And there is that difference between now and then. What I liked 50 years ago, and what I reckon a little Bookwitch today would enjoy. It’s not the same. These critics would also not all be the same age, so their choices show a top eleven from the mid-20th century onwards.

If Offspring were under ten today, there are about four books on the list I’d give them (wouldn’t prevent them from picking any of the books themselves, of course). If I ever end up with Grand-Offspring, I might offer two of these books, and after that I’d go for much more recent books. There are countless wonderful reads for under tens from the last 25 years.

5 responses to “Dare to be honest?

  1. I definitely agree that when asked about our favorite books, whether as adults or children, we’re more likely to answer with what we’re ‘supposed’ to. A lot of the books on the list, which I did enjoy, weren’t among my favorites as a kid, and then again–what ages are they targeting? The books I see my sister reading (she’s 11) are some of the same I was reading when I was in my teens when they came out. I had to practically beg her into reading the Harry Potter series, but she devoured The Hunger Games. I don’t think she’s read any of these on this list, and at this point I’m fine with that. Letting kids pick what they want to read is probably better than forcing literature on them; they’re more likely to enjoy reading something they want to than something they have to.
    Just my own honest thoughts; lovely entry!

  2. Linda Lawlor

    ‘Best’ is such a vague word, isn’t it? Most well-written? Most popular? Most influential (if that’s the case, where’s Harry Potter?)? And even ‘favourite’ offers little: surely that depends on mood, reading age etc. As a child (and even now, sometimes) I would take refuge in ‘Wind in the Willows’ whenever times were sad, but happily read all manner of stuff otherwise, from boarding school stories and fairy tales to crime, and lots of adult travel books which were way above my comprehension but which fed dreams of lives and places far from the banalities of suburban childhood.

  3. Maybe it’s a ‘best to put on lists of best books’ kind of choice.
    I have only read The Gruffalo as an adult, but understand it’s very popular. I’d have thought that would be a better choice than the Sendak book, from a child’s point of view. But one is not allowed not to admire Sendak.

  4. I was one of those nerdy children who read and enjoyed all of these as a child, though I confess I understood Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince far more as an adult. My top ten would be very different and very personal. I’ve had some success with foisting them on offspring, also some notable failures.
    Serialised children’s ‘classics’ were popular when I was growing up and started me off. I think dramatisations/film adaptations are a wonderful way in to the classics for children. My children loved the films of The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, for example, but balked at the books. They can read them later when/if they’re so inclined.

  5. Pingback: Enough research? The right research? | Bookwitch

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