The only important thing in a book, is the meaning it has for you.
Most kids connect to Quentin Blake through his iconic illustrations of the Roald Dahl books. Surely contender for the best-ever author/illustrator partnership. It’s hard to imagine one without the other, but of course, Blake is a wonderful author of his own.
You could pick up any of Quentin Blake’s books and be instantly charmed by them, Mrs Armitage on Wheels, Loveykins, Fantastic Daisy Artichoke to name just a few. But I’ve chosen Clown—like all the books on this blog, for the personal connection —in my case for all the laughter it brought into our house when the kids were younger.
There are quite a few children’s books which do away entirely with the words and let illustrations carry the story, but for me Clown is perhaps the most successful. It manages to be both funny and moving, drama-filled one moment and subdued the next. We have the magic and fantasy of an abandoned toy clown coming to life, colliding with the more real world of a downcast little girl trying to help her struggling mother get by in an unforgiving city. The result is a touching slice of humanity—wonderfully conveyed through Blake’s sketches.
Another of Blake’s books that deserves mention is The Laureate’s Party a compendium of all his favourite children’s writing from other authors (which he compiled after being made the children’s laureate.) As you can imagine, Roald Dahl has an entry or two.
Wendel’s Workshop occupies a special place in our household. We don’t actually own a copy I must admit, but if MI6 were to hack into the international library database and access the borrowing habits of the Mason family, they would see the that we’ve taken it out a total of 127 times over the last five years.
Wendell is an inventor. He’s also a mouse (with a wonderful range of facial expressions that only Riddell could capture.) Wendell does have a bad habit of throwing everything he doesn’t want on the scrapheap, including a clumsy robot by the name of Clunk. In an effort to tidy up his workshop he brings forth the Wendelbot with disastrous consequences. Suffice to say, all’s well that ends well, with the help of Clunk, Wendel changes his way and readers are left with a subtle message about waste.
Riddell is a hero of mine in the world of children’s books. As an author, as an illustrator as a collaborator. For me he occupies that same revered place as Quentin Blake, in that as soon as I recognise his delightful illustrations on the cover of any book, I’ll gladly give it a read. I can’t say I’ve ever been let down.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
By William Steig
Sylvester is a donkey who, as it happens, is a pebble collector. One day he comes across a flaming red pebble, so special it makes him shiver. It starts to rain, and with the pebble in his hand, Sylvester wishes it would stop, and hey-presto it does. The pebble is magic.
On his way home to tell his parents the good news about the pebble and all the great things they could wish for, Sylvester comes across an angry lion, and in his haste to save himself wishes that he was a rock. And so he is trapped, imprisoned as a rock, with the pebble lying beside him. (It has to be in his hoof for it to work.)
Though it ultimately has a happy ending, I remember as a boy being quite affected by the sense of despair and helplessness that grips Sylvester. The idea of being trapped with no way of communicating, but still being aware of everything around you was really quite worrying.
Luckily for Sylvester it ends well, and the story leaves us thinking we should be thankful for what we’ve got—something I think most of us could do with reminding of from time to time.
Two Can Toucan
by David McKee
I had one of those lovely moments the other day when browsing for books with my kids I came across a favourite childhood book I’d completely forgotten had existed. It happens from time to time. It was like meeting an old friend that you haven’t seen in years only to find out you still get along like the old days.
The book in question was Two Can Toucan McKee’s first. Mckee went on to write and illustrate Mr Benn which I always thought was a great T.V series, and Elmer the Patchwork Elephant for which he is probably most famous.
The toucan in question begins the story completely without colour and is ridiculed by the other cruel animals in the jungle. He decides to leave and ends up in a city, where he feels he needs to get a job (that’s what people do in cities.) He tries his hand at several, before getting a job as a paint can carrier—he can manage two at a time. The day he tries three however….well you can see where this is going.
Charming, well drawn and fun. Everything a book for young children ought to be.
The Scarecrow and His Servant
By Phillip Pullman
I’ve chosen this one by Pullman (and not his Dark Materials trilogy) simply because of the reaction it once elicited from a class of mine when we read it together. Once we started the tale, they pestered me each and every day until we had raced right through it. Pullman does a superb job of bringing his outrageous characters to life through dialogue and it’s a great one for reading aloud. The light-hearted humour that runs throughout is genuine, and the punch lines don’t fall flat—something so many children’s books suffer from. Nothing quite as painful as a line you know is meant to be humorous, that just isn’t.
A crack of lightning brings a scarecrow to life. This is no ordinary scarecrow, his voice is rich, he is well mannered, and he is carrying an important letter. He is in turns, both a clown and a sage. Of course Lord Scarecrow requires a servant. A bright young boy called Jack who happens to be passing by his field will do. The two of them set off on a series of adventures, getting in and out of scrapes, travelling across a country that feels like a romanticised Italy. They encounter and outwit bandits, join a farcical army on the eve of battle and meet an island full of talking birds—all the while pursued by an evil henchmen.
Young readers will find it irresistible.
The Fish of Maui
by Peter Gossage
Myths and legends are something that children all over the world seem to be drawn to. Lyrical language spinning tales of supernatural powers, flawed gods , vivid monsters and heroes. It isn’t hard to see why the appeal is universal. Myths are something that unite all of us, as the late great Joseph Campbell spent his whole life proving.
New Zealand’s Maori heritage gives us a rich vein of mythical stories. Often centred around Maui the greatest of Pacific gods, they tell among other things how he stole the secret of fire, fished out the north island of New Zealand (Te Ika a Maui,) and slowed down the passage of the sun to make life that little bit more pleasant for all us.
No one captures Maui’s stories quite as well in my mind as Peter Gossage. His distinctive illustrations are wonderfully stylized with Maori kowhaiwhai patterns and are perfectly suited to breathing life into these legends. His language is poetic and effectively simple. Most New Zealand children will have fallen in love with Gossage’s books at some point.
Gossage is probably best known for his six books of Maui stories, though his bibliography numbers dozens of myth and legend retellings. All well worth having.
By Alfred Noyes
I came to the Highwayman relatively recently while looking for poetry to read to my class. Reading it for the first time I was amazed that I had been ignorant of such a thing for so long. Since then I’ve made it a point to read it to each of my classes over the years.
Inspired by the wild countryside surrounding him, Alfred Noyes wrote this well-known (by some) narrative poem over two days. It tells the story of the ill-fated love between the highwayman, and Bess the landlord’s daughter.
The poem works with older children for several different reasons. They like the fact that it has a narrative, that it has drama. There is the dashing figure of highwayman himself, finely decked out with his pistols and his rapier. There is a cowardly villain, dastardly red-coats, and even the lingering presence of ghosts.
Noye’s language has a wonderful rhythm to it—the rhythm of an outlaw on horseback, his words are evocative, they create a dark, shadowy world that children well respond to. If you’re trying to teach western poetic devices, this poem has bundles: metaphor, simile, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, repetition.
The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding riding riding
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.
by Edward Ardizzone
Yes, I must admit this one was always a favourite because it was the only book I ever had with my name in the title. I’ve even managed to hold onto my copy of this book since 1974, quite an achievement I think.
In truth, I could have chosen any of Ardizzone’s books, I’m a big fan of his naive pen and ink illustrations and storylines. Ardizzone’s books inhabit a more innocent time, his storytelling an antidote to this internet age. His characters run off to sea; join circuses; adopt runaway rhinoceros. (But usually making sure they write mum and dad a letter explaining everything first—so that makes it all alright.) He is perhaps best known for his ‘Tim’ series and for illustrating a wide range of books for other authors. (Clive King’s Stig of the Dump springs to mind.)
To this story: Paul is distraught one day to find his mother weeping and his dad cross. The market has gone to pieces and the family are broke. Nothing for it but for young Paul to find a job. He leaves home and plucks up enough courage to join the circus. Catastrophe later strikes the circus when a fire breaks out…I wonder can anyone save the day?
By Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
I remember quite clearly the first Asterix I ever read. In fact I still have it. Happy Birthday Paul 8 years old, love Mummy and Daddy inscribed inside the cover. So I can say with some accuracy that I’ve been happily following the adventures of the diminutive Gaul for 32 years straight now. One of the things that told me I’d definitely found my soul mate years later, was when we brought two complete Asterix collections to the marriage. Our children have been quick converts.
But enough misty-eyed gushing.
Asterix works on so many different levels. As a comic children love it, and find much about the simple storylines and detailed illustrations to enjoy. For older readers there is historical allusion to pick up on, and clever, clever wordplay. The English translators Derek Hockeridge and Anthea Bell are right up there with John Lennon and Paul McCartney in my life. To this day I drop their phrases into conversations. Their character names still make me laugh.
A very short roll call of some of my favourites outside the village: Chief Whosemoralsarelastix, Prefect Surplus Dairiprodus, Centurion Nefarious Purpose, Neverataloss the Greek, Valueaddetax the British druid, Governor Curious Odus, actor Laurensolivius, wild child Justforkix, Egyptian sailing vessel the Nastiupset. I’m chuckling even now.
I’m a bit of a purist and tend to stick to the classic Asterix that both Uderzo and Goscinny worked on together prior to Goscinny’s death in 1977. As much respect as I have for Albert Uderzo, the truth is that the comics without his partner were a shadow of the earlier work. (with the exceptions of The Great Divide and The Black Gold—the first ‘solo’ efforts.)
My favourite, and contender for the strongest: Asterix the Legionary, though if my house was on fire I’d try and save them all–or at least one of the sets.
Badjelly the Witch
By Spike Milligan
I’ve been a lifelong Spike Milligan fan. As a child I remember my dad playing me recordings of the Goon Show. As a teenager I discovered and ploughed through his series of war memoirs. At university I somehow managed to get hold of Spike’s address through the grandson of one of his army comrades, so I wrote to Spike, not expecting to hear back. But a few months later I got a handwritten letter thanking me, and to this day it remains one of my most prized possessions.
Spike is a wonderful author for children. I have a shelf full of his crazed poetry—just the sort of nonsense that children love: “On the ning-nang-nong where the cows go bong…”
Badjelly, a brief synopsis: a brother and sister set off to find their cow who has wandered off into the woods and been taken by the cruel witch Badjelly. Along the way the twins encounter all sorts of magic, but are themselves snatched up by the witch and her henchman Dulboot the giant. Together with their friend Dinglemouse and a giant Eagle called Jim, they plan their escape…
One of my favourite things about this book is that Spike published it in his own whimsical handwriting with extravagant flourishes and little characters lurking among the words. Not only are the words playful, they look playful. Spike’s illustrations are wonderfully naïve, his character names worth the price of admission alone. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked to read this one as a bedtime story.
A Little History of the World
by E.H Gombrich
Written in a staggeringly short six weeks, this history of the world for young readers is an important book and an utter delight. I wish I had known it as a teenager.
In 1936 Ernst Gombrich set out to capture the sweeping scope of human endeavour in a way that was without jargon or condescension. He wrote his chapters by deciding which events in history had touched the most lives and were best remembered. It was never meant to be a textbook, or a dry work that could be cited as a reference, rather he narrates the events of history like a genial storyteller.
In his words: “I would like my readers to relax, and to follow the story without having to take notes or to memorise names and dates. In fact, I promise that I shall not examine them on what they have read.”
Gombrich’s writing is lyrical, and light hearted. His language conveys open-mindedness, good sense, and a shared humanity. He inspires our inherent potential as humans regardless of origins. Gombrich is critical of religious conflict, and war in general. The Nazis later banned the book for being too pacifist. A recommendation on its own.
This is the sort of book that belongs in every home.
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm
By Norman Hunter Illustrated by W. Heath Robinson
Originally published in 1933, Professor Branestawm still has the real ability to make children giggle today. Commendable, given the changes that have taken place in children’s entertainment. A Wii meant something quite different back then.
The Professor is a madcap inventor—the best sort. He’s hopelessly absent-minded, and his schemes inevitably spiral out of control. After all, this is a man who wears a trouser elevator, has his breakfast in the bath, and travels on a Penny Farthing. His closest friend and confident is Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers, a puffed-up Wellington-like military man, and Mrs Flittersnoop the unwitting housekeeper.
There are episodes where the contents of the waste paper basket come alive and try to devour anyone who crosses their path. There’s the invention of a burglar catcher; the out of control pancake making machine; the screaming, exploding clocks; and the clones in the ‘too many professors.’ All hilarious.
Special mention must go to Heath Robinson. His intricate pen and ink drawings of the Professor’s inventions are half the reason the books are so captivating. A jumble of wheels and cogs, broom handles and levers—all held together with carefully tied string. I used to love trying to work out how the inventions were supposed to work, as I know young readers do today.
The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it was None of His Business
by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch
There is some sort of trigger in the human psyche that occurs around the age of five when the language of poos and bums suddenly becomes irresistibly funny. Some people eventually grow out of it, but whole cultures never do (and you know who you are.)
Publishers have sniffed out (get it?) this market: and so we have the Captain Underpants of this world. Books about dogs smelling bums and so on. By far the most original and worthwhile of these is this offering from Holzwarth and Erlbruch.
A mole sticks his head out of his burrow, and a turd lands on his head. Understandably quite upset, he sets off accusing the other animals in an attempt to get to the bottom (snigger—I said bottom) of the problem. To prove they aren’t the guilty ones, each animal provides the mole with a little demonstration of their own wares.
Apart from being an extended poo joke, what makes this book so good, and such a great one to share with children are the descriptive sound effects that accompany each animal’s efforts, such as “rat-a-tat-tat” and “splish-plish.” Ever need to explain onomatopoeia? Each of the droppings are also illustrated accurately—essential learning for any child—surely?
The Iron Man
by Ted Hughes
“Taller than a house, the Iron Man stood at the top of cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness…”
Long before Robert Downey Jr donned a gadget-loaded, red, super suit there was Ted Hughes’s Iron Man: A children’s story in five nights. Written in 1968, The Iron Man hasn’t lost any of its ability to captivate children.
Recently, I asked a parent to come in and read to my class. I told him to bring a story that had an impact on him as a child. He brought this one. It’s the sort of book you remember.
The story centres on the giant Iron Man ‘Where had he come from? Nobody knows. How was he made? Nobody knows.’ The Iron Man is terrorising the countryside, devouring tractors, ploughs and barbed wire fences. The farmers build a trap, a deep pit. But the Iron Man stays away. Then one day a boy called Hogarth, lures him in…
The Iron Man is a haunting fable. Short, poetic sentences move the fantasy swiftly along to an outlandish conclusion. I’ve found boys in particular respond well to the simplicity of Hughes’s language, though reading it aloud, I’ve had entire classes spellbound.
Bravo Mr. William Shakespeare
by Marcia Williams
I’m a big fan of graphic novels and cartoons as a way of motivating reluctant readers. Images can really engage a young audience. Visual language grips children, it pulls them in, it provides clues.
Top of my list would be Marcia Williams. Williams wears her passion for literature proudly. This isn’t a dull, academic love. Williams’ retellings of the classics are vivid: her books are irresistibly wicked and genuinely funny.
There is no dumbing down here. The texts are abridged, the storylines simplified for understanding. But her books remain true to the essence of the originals, they are ever-present in everything she does. The characters might joke, but the original text is never far away. And children love it.
As an illustrator, Williams recognises that children need to discover tiny secrets, hidden details. Her pages are a sea of wonderfully detailed cartoons. Characters even sprawl into the margins, and shout commentary. They are grotesque when they need to be, villainous and heroic.
Since Greek Myths (1991), Williams has treated us to, among others, retellings of Dickens, Chaucer, Homer, and most successfully in my mind, two books of Shakespeare.
I’d recommend them all. Now.
Animalia by Graeme Base.
Still going strong, thirty years since it was first published, over 3 million copies sold, Animalia is a hugely important book. Not because of statistics, but because of the way it inspires children to be curious about language. As a primary teacher, a dad, and a volunteer working with reluctant readers, I have often turned to Animalia for inspiration.
Each page features a letter of the alphabet highlighted with clever and delightfully nonsensical alliteration: “Great green gorillas growing grapes in a gorgeous glass greenhouse.” Playful words are mirrored by lush illustration. The composition and the intricate detail in Base’s drawing make each page a real work of art, and showcases a great sense of humour.
The haughty look of the gorilla holding up a bunch of grapes, goblet of wine in hand, posing for the artist. The giraffe staring quizzically, the gibbon with a guitar and gumboots. Base invites the reader to dig for words, and for knowledge. “Gnome is spelled with a silent G…that lizard is a gecko…the soldier belongs to the Grenadier guards.” Each piece of the puzzle with the potential to lead a young reader down a different path of inquiry. Plus the fun of finding the boy with the striped jumper hidden in each painting—not always easy.
Apparently it took Mr Base three years to complete this book, and I’m not surprised. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Haka by Patricia Grace
Illustrated by Andrew Burdan.
Like many books, it was the cover art of Haka that first grabbed me, and Haka contains some of Andrew Burdan’s strongest work to date. Burdan was nominated for his artwork on four books in three different categories in this year’s awards.
Andrew is a great artist for interpreting mood and adding drama to a story—I feel there’s often a haunting, other-world quality to his work, an integrity that works particularly well when capturing the past, and Haka is no exception. Burdan and Grace are a good match.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few stories brought to life by Andrew, but my pick, is his artwork for Te Manu Taratahi, a story which follows a young Maori woman from the time of legends, making a kite to save her life. As one of my first published stories, and with Andrew’s art, it holds a special place.
Mirror by Jeannie Baker.
A valuable book at a time when it is sorely needed.
Given the saddening events going on in the world today, and the distrust we see between cultures, I was really pleased to come across this book in the school library.
Mirror is two stories in one book, designed to be read together. On the left side of the book we follow a family in Australia as they go about their day, on the right, a family from Morocco, North Africa. There are very few words, so the stories are told through beautiful, intricate collages, each completely stunning.
As the reader turns the pages, it becomes clear that these actually aren’t two disparate stories, they are essentially the same. Just as in our wants and needs, so are humans.
Winner of Australian Picture Book of the Year in 2011, I think it belongs in every school.
Tintin in Tibet
My uncle recently sent me this lovely image of the Dalai Lama, book in hand. There’s so much to like about seeing one of the most enlightened human beings to have ever graced this planet, settling himself on the sofa and reading Tintin. It speaks volumes both about the humour and humility of the man, and the widespread appeal of Hergé’s most famous character.
It’s not hard to see why the Dalai Lama would like Tintin in Tibet, also reputedly Hergé’s favourite of his books. Tintin in Tibet is above all, a story of friendship.
There is Tintin’s unshakeable bond with Chang that drives him onward through the Himalayan snow. We see Captain Haddock willing to risk his life for his friend, even though he thinks the cause is futile. And we have the Yeti itself, drawn as Chang’s protector, left heartbroken at the end of the story.
For many people Hergé’s story published in 1960, was their first encounter with the culture of Tibet. So, in 2006, the Dalai Lama bestowed the Light of Truth Award on the Hergé foundation in recognition of the book.
And he reads it on the sofa too.
by Jo Nelson, Illustrations by Richard Wilkinson
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” ― William Morris
Historium is quite simply, stunning. The illustrations by Richard Wilkinson–each a work of art in their own right, the enormous size of the book, the smell and feel of the matt paper. Our copy lies open on a book stand, a different page on show each day. It really is a wonderful thing.
Like a giant History of the World in 100 Objects for children, Historium takes us through a carefully curated collection– a timeline of ancient civilisations, grouped geographically. A museum in your house. Each civilisation is brought to life by their artefacts, from Lamassu sculptures of Assyria to the giant heads of Easter Island. Jo Nelson’s curators’ notes, both simple and confidently knowledgeable. We learn something daily.
Published by Big Picture Press (earlier offerings: Maps, and Animalium) it is a must have.
My cousin Joe and I are collaborating on a new book–we’ve set up an inspiration board on Pinterest. Some favourite illustrators we’ve pinned: Tove Jansson of Moomins fame, E. H Shepherd who brought the Wind in the Willows to life, Heath Robinson whose pen and ink drips with 1920’s decadence.
Among my favourite author/illustrators is Raymond Briggs. Briggs gives us among others, the world of Fungus the Bogeyman–a dreary, filthy, stench-filled realm of puddles and cow pats, that is both riveting and disturbing. I remember being scared stiff by his Cold War classic When the Wind Blows, as a simple, everyday couple succumbs to deadly nuclear fall out. But probably more than any other of his books, I poured over Father Christmas and Father Christmas on Holiday. His portrayal of Saint Nick as a grumbling, cursing, bah-humbugging, but ultimately warm-hearted old man makes it hard to picture him any other way.