What makes a children’s book a classic? This is the question Lucy Mangan was considering in the Guardian last week and whenever Mangan is discussing books, I am always happy to hear what she has to say. And, as usual, I found myself nodding my head in complete agreement as I read through the article. But what surprised me the most was how few of the modern classics Mangan lists, with the exception of Roald Dahl, were part of my childhood reading. I know the titles but the books of my childhood were, for the most part, the books of my father’s childhood and, in turn, the books of his parents’ childhoods: a steady, proven diet of Victorian and Edwardian children’s fiction. As I grew up, I read more “modern” fiction: I fell in love with Kit Pearson’s Guest of War trilogy, breathlessly followed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s American adventures, and read hundreds of thrilling but forgettable children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton. But few of them had the same impact as those earliest books.
I could easily come up with a list of a hundred books I consider children’s classics. The Hobbit, Little Women, Kipling’s Just So Stories…there are so many obvious choices. But which are my classics? Here is my list of my essential classics, the books I consider absolutely vital to a child’s library, the ones I cannot do without even now:
Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – growing up, my mother was very exclusive in her bedtime reading choices for us. Fairy tales, Greek myths and assorted legends were all that were on offer. I was indifferent to the myths, terrified by most of the legends (scary because of their supposedly factual basis) and enthralled by the fairy tales. I loved them still and regularly reread my old favourites, particularly “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (which can still make me cry).
Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery – I love Anne. I loved her when I was eight and I will love her just as well when I am eighty. And as much as I love the undisputedly classic Anne of Green Gables, I love Anne of the Island more. It introduced me to the inevitable fact that, no matter how happy you are in your childhood home, you are eventually going to have to leave it and create a new home of your own, whether you’re going away to university, like Anne, or getting married, like Diana.
The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green – is there anything more romantic, more stirring, more inspiring than these classic tales of chivalry when you’re young? Unsurprisingly, an obsession with Tennyson soon followed.
The World of Christopher Robin by A.A. Milne – there is no book I love in the world more than this one. None. Truly. My copy was a christening gift, has crayon scribblings all over the endpapers, and remains the only book I have ever attempted to memorize. It is the first book I remember my father reading aloud to me and it is certainly the one we read the most. I cannot see chrysanthemums without thinking of “The Dormouse and the Doctor,” cannot walk by Buckingham Palace without thinking of Christopher Robin’s Alice and her guard, and even now there are nights when I send myself to sleep whispering the stanzas of my favourite poem, “Disobedience” (James James/Morrison Morrison/Weatherby George Dupree/Took great/Care of his Mother,/Though he was only three.)
What books do you consider your personal essential children’s classics?