“I used to love this when I was your age” – what makes a children’s classic?

Ten years ago, the BBC ran a high-profile poll to find the nation’s favourite book (Lord of the Rings, closely followed by Pride and Prejudice – probably not much change at the top, then). One of the striking things about the final list of 100 was the number of children’s books that featured, especially in the higher reaches: at least 10 of the top 30 (thank you Google). Perhaps there’d be fewer Harry Potters today; perhaps Alex Rider would have a foothold too, and Artemis Fowl would figure more than once; but I’ve little doubt that Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and Black Beauty would still be quite secure in their places, with The Wizard of Oz bumping along just outside or inside the top 100 as well.


Of course when we stop to think about it, it’s no surprise: the impact of a brilliant story at an impressionable age never leaves us. Even so, that list of six was first published between 1877 (Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent the previous year for “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”) and 1926 (by which time John Logie Baird was successfully demonstrating the first recognisable television). Not even in science fiction was there such a thing as a computer, let alone an international network of them through which you could exchange data, send messages in nanoseconds, play complex strategy games and buy stuff- sometimes on a model the size of a small bar of chocolate, otherwise known as your mobile phone…


At the same time, tall ships and piracy, country manors with redoubtable servants and horse-drawn transport are probably as alien as science fiction for today’s children, not to mention the quaintness of language and remoteness of cultural reference. Perhaps it helps that the great children’s classics (especially the out-of-copyright ones) are not only widely available in adaptations and annotated editions, but also familiar through some brilliantly vivid and inventive stage, film and TV adaptations… In the end, though, the real power is in the story itself. My elder daughter unwittingly made the point when she picked up a handsome Everyman edition of Treasure Island in a second-hand bookshop. Lifting her nose from the pages an hour or two later, she was transfixed: “It’s a really good adaptation, Mum.” (No, darling, that’s the original…)


Does the children’s classic have more or less of a future when it can be downloaded onto a Kindle or other e-reader for next to nothing… but so can thousands of other books from the heroic to the horrible? Curiously, there seems to be a stronger market than ever for “heirloom” classics, nicely printed on good paper with well-designed cloth bindings: search for any of the titles above, and you’ll find four or five different publishers offering a handsome illustrated hardback around the £15 mark. And while authors mostly have to be long dead to merit the full clothbound-illustrated treatment, there’s a fairly robust market in “modern classic” (still-in-copyright to very-much-alive-thank-you) editions of children’s authors from Roald Dahl to Jacqueline Wilson.


So: children’s classic plus contemporary child equals happy ever after? Sadly, not always. It’s a terrible disappointment to give a child a book that you once loved – perhaps even your own battered but treasured copy – only to find that it leaves them quite cold. Sometimes we don’t make enough allowance for the difficulty of period style. Sometimes we are hazy as to when we first read our favourites, and try to pass them on much too soon. Sometimes we forget how much more effort we used to put into reading, how bored we were otherwise, computerless and phoneless and with cheap and clunky children’s TV at strictly limited times. Sometimes, too, it’s the physical effort of reading an old book: that may sound trivial, but for decades after the war, the spirit of austerity persisted in paperbacks printed on flimsy, discoloured paper, in densely-leaded 8-point Times New Roman. I look back at some of my own childhood favourites and wonder how I ever had the patience, even in broad daylight, never mind by torchlight under pillow (or once, memorably, by bedside light with the shade taken off – until the smell of singeing pillowcase gave the game away).


It took a brilliant former children’s editor to realise that the children’s classics of the last ninety years deserved and needed high-quality, contemporary editions as much as the Stevensons, Hodgson Burnetts and Milnes. Jane Nissen Books (available through all discerning independent bookshops as well as, necessarily, Amazon) is a fabulous list of over 40 overlooked gems. It’s rather like someone finding a jewellery box in a family attic, and having the contents cleaned and polished and valued (each title has an introduction by a famous contemporary author or children’s book expert): there are some things that you remember and rediscover with absolute delight; others that aren’t necessarily to your taste, but you appreciate the craftsmanship as you never did before. And, to pursue the comparison, they’ve lost none of their sparkle: as a family we spent one remote and extremely peaceful Christmas with all three children variously engrossed in Fattypuffs and Thinifers, The Wind on the Moon and Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf. The peace was only disturbed on the last evening by the discovery of a bath overflowing, very nearly bringing down a ceiling – the designated bath-watcher was miles away, helping to bring down a particularly vile dictator along with two little girls, two retired engineers, an exiled piano teacher and a liberated puma…


Individual authors have also found their champions, sometimes at the very publishers which allowed them to go out of print. Diana Wynne Jones, on whom I plan to post in a week or two, was brought back into print by a discerning commissioning editor and longtime fan at HarperCollins; Alan Garner’s unsettling, folklore-steeped, between-worlds fantasies are now being promoted with 50th-anniversary editions. Here are my ten modern classic authors that deserve not to be forgotten (and allowing that Roald Dahl and C.S.Lewis are in no danger of it); I have posted or will post on some of them in this blog. Did I miss any of your favourites? Let me know.

Joan Aiken

L. M. Boston
The Children of Green Knowe and five others in the series: wonderful, atmospheric time-travel mysteries set in an ancient English manor house presided over by a wise and story-steeped grandmother.

Susan Cooper

Alan Garner
Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service and others: beautiful writing, like old wood- and stonecarving, strong-grained and spellbinding, dense with myth and tradition, long remembered.

Diana Wynne Jones

Ursula Le Guin

Penelope Lively
From ancient myth and medieval legend through (hilarious) ghost story to engaging science fiction, a writer of fabulous range and imagination. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is perhaps her most enduring and accessible (not to mention available) book for children.

Jill Paton Walsh
Another author of tremendous range, with too many books out of print. Fireweed and The Dolphin Crossing are quietly devastating classics of the Blitz and Dunkirk; The Emperor’s Winding Sheet a rare and absorbing evocation of the mid-fifteenth-century ifsiege of Constantinople, and Hengest’s Tale a spare, vivid account of Dark Ages tribal politics and treachery.

Philippa Pearce
Tom’s Midnight Garden is the undisputed classic, the  beautifully-drawn dream-time-travel story with the bored and resentful Tom discovering an impossible garden every night when the clock strikes thirteen. Minnow on the Say, A Dog So Small and Mrs Cockle’s Cat are also much loved, as well as the more recent A Finder’s Magic.

Rosemary Sutcliff
Two-three years ago, feature film The Eagle made a well-judged but flawed attempt on Sutcliff’s best-known book, The Eagle of the Ninth; for me, it successfully drew me back to the book and its masterful, atmospheric understanding of Roman Britain and the tensions between conquerors and conquered, with all the nuances between. Over dozens of books set between the Iron Age and the present day, Sutcliff set a template for acute empathy, real understanding of her settings and beautiful, readable writing. What’s more, given current pressures and anxieties over reading abilities of five- to six-year-olds, it gives one at least a moment’s pause to know that Sutcliff herself didn’t learn to read until she was nine.



  1. […] conventional hardbacks are more beautifully produced than ever before; not only the established children’s classics, but even first-time authors, if they’re well-enough thought of, are exalted with good quality […]

  2. […] Sea; Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke; R J Palacio’s Wonder. There is also a peppering of classics: A Little Princess; Anne of Green Gables; Five Children and It; Ballet Shoes; The Hobbit; […]

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