I’ve something of a soft spot for Puffin children’s books. I inherited lots in my childhood, and as a result the 70s and 80s editions of classics by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Stephen Chance, Rosemary Sutcliffe and other such authors evoke waves of nostalgia. I can rarely leave one behind in a charity shop, and have a growing collection on my bookshelf.
In celebration of their 70th anniversary, Puffin are asking you to vote for your favourite children’s book from a shortlist of seven, one from each of the last seven decades. The problem arises from the fact that six of these seven are some of my favourite kid’s books of all time.
I read all but two of these books as a child, some in new editions, some hand-me-downs, but all hold a special place in my heart. The Family from One End Street (1940s) really made me appreciate what we had, how easy life was, and how important family were, as the Ruggles siblings got in and out of their various scrapes. Charlotte’s Web (1950s) is a heartbreaking classic – I challenge anyone to read it and not cry – a coming of age book which deals with death at just the age that we are beginning to recognise the frailty of life. Stig of the Dump (1960s) may be in part responsible for my frequent urge to sort through scrap heaps in the hope of finding treasure – or even a lost caveman… The friendship which permeates this simple story is what makes it a classic, and shows time and again that sometimes a story doesn’t need fantasy and danger and explosions to be involving, or, indeed to carve a place in your heart.
Artemis Fowl (2000s) I read as an adult, which puts a slightly different slant on my reading. While still able to suspend my belief and get lost in the plot, I was first and foremost surprised by these amazingly successful children’s books in which the protagonist is not strictly the goody! I kept waiting to see a chink in Artemis’ armour, waiting for him to learn his lesson, waiting for that wash of empathetic sentimentalism that children’s books thrive upon, but it never really came. And yet, I read on. And yet, I couldn’t help but admire him! Artemis is the ultimate anti-hero, unusually complex for a children’s character, dealing in shades of grey that are seldom seen in teenage fiction, nevermind the 9-12 category. This is a book that made me realise that (some) children can cope with ideas beyond good versus evil, and definitely deserves its oft-quoted “Die Hard with fairies” tag-line!
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1970s), the book which almost won my vote, was one I read at the very pinnacle of my Roald Dahl obsession, fueled by a teaching friend of my Gran who soon became one of my favourite aunts for the simple reason that she could always be relied upon to buy me a Dahl for my birthday or Christmas (much as my Uncle Cliff became my favourite uncle for a year because he bought be The Magic Faraway Tree)! Dahl’s combination of story-telling excellence, borderline crudity and nasty (but rarely permanent) comeuppance and the classic happily ever after endings offered a welcome break from years of Famous Five, Secret Seven, Ice Skating and Horse Riding stories. (Stories I went straight back to when I’d exhausted Dahl’s repertoire!)
But the book that eventually got my vote was Goodnight Mister Tom (1980s). I went through a bit of a phase in my first year of high school, devouring books about the war years, World War II’s evacuees proving particularly engaging. Somewhere between The Machine Gunners, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Anne Frank’s Diary and Carrie’s War I read Goodnight Mister Tom. And I cried. That’s actually my strongest memory of the book – the tears I shed over it. It seemed to me that there was more strength and bravery and camaraderie and understanding and honest, heartfelt affection between those covers than in any other book I had read (except maybe The Little Princess, which was then and remains my favourite children’s book of all time). And it was so open – it didn’t skim over the difficult bits, but embraced the hurt and pain and made traditionally adult themes – child abuse, adultery, religious zealotry, neglect and suicide – accessible to all. This book stood out from the others because the evacuation was merely the setting – the story stood alone in time, a classic tale of love and loss and friendship.
We all have unique relationships with books and stories, relationships which can shake us up, open our eyes and change the way we look at the world. Which will you vote for? Which of these books spoke to you most profoundly? Or perhaps you’d rather vote for the one that most tickled your funny bone?
(If you need help deciding, check out the Guardian’s The Pick of the Puffins slide show, where each is championed by bestselling authors including Cathy Cassidy, Jasper Fforde, Jenny Valentine and Jacqueline Wilson. Read about Goodnight Mister Tom’s victory at the Hay-on-Wye festival, also on the Guardian website.)