World Book Day: eight children’s books that adults shouldn’t miss

Happy World Book Day everyone, whether you celebrated on “official” World Book Day yesterday, or (as we did) today. I looked out this morning over a glorious assembly of creatures and characters, including half the Gryffindor common room. Parents all (and I speak as one who was trying to manufacture a raven – Edgar, you know, from the Raven Mysteries – at 1am), it was worth the effort.

I’ll post at more length next week – World Book Day-related activities have rather impacted on my reading time – but it seemed feeble not to have anything to say. A friend at a book launch provided the perfect topic when I mentioned that I only read children’s books these days. As so often happens, my friend was incredulous and slightly horrified. Didn’t I miss reading “proper” grown-up books?

Well, no – in fact I struggle to remember reading a grown-up book recently that wasn’t a textbook. I’ve read some fairly pedestrian children’s books, for sure, but that’s true of adult books too. I’ve read some that lose their drive or lose their way (coincidentally, they’re often titles in the now-obligatory series dictated by publishers eager to sell in batches and assure follow-up sales) but I’ve also read some outstandingly inventive, vivid, deeply understanding and beautifully written books for children and young adults, many of which I have written about earlier on this blog. You’ll find more detail if you follow the links to earlier posts, but these are seven books that I do believe will raise your appreciation of what children’s books can be.


Davis Almond: Skellig
The strange, spare and compelling story of a boy, a new home, a seriously ill baby and an uncanny, unearthly visitor. You might read it in an hour, but it’ll stay with you for years.


Sally Gardner: I, Coriander
Beguiling in every way, set between the real world of seventeenth-century London and the realm of magic, with writing rich and bright as tapestry.


Nick Lake: In Darkness
Bringing together the extraordinary life of Haiti’s liberator Toussaint l’Ouverture with a modern-day gangster, buried and forgotten beneath earthquake rubble. Vivid, harrowing, unguessable, glittering.


R J Palacio: Wonder
A home-schooled boy, frighteningly disfigured, goes to public (state) school for the first time. A slightly too-good-to-be-true ending doesn’t detract from the huge insight and empathy and unsparing observation of the whole.


Philip Reeve: Fever Crumb
Mortal Englines was Reeve’s first, brilliant dystopian vision, but I found this all the more compelling as London slides from the just-recognisable towards its predatory future.


Marcus Sedgwick: Revolver
Genuinely unputdownable: a boy and his sister attempt to outwit a murderous attacker in a snowbound cabin in Alaska, and unravel the mystery of their father’s death.


Jonathan Stroud: The Amulet of Samarkand
Something of a counter-Harry Potter, in which magicians are in government, powerful, manipulative and venal – and a talented magician’s apprentice summons the gloriously sardonic, immensely vain and wily djinni Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus’ explanatory footnotes are a particular treat.


Meg Rossoff: How I Live Now
Protagonist Daisy’s clear, unsparing voice doesn’t miss a fraction of a beat: from troubled teen in wealthy New York to bohemian cousins in the English countryside, and from distant political tension to all-out war. It is – just – possible to be funny, warm, haunting, devastating all at once, but only if you can write like an angel – or like Meg Rosoff.

Note the huge range of time, style and theme, from seventeenth century to present and imagined future, taking in death, war, revolution, gang life, persecution, disfigurement, trauma – no-one says children’s books have to be limited and cosy (although of course they can be); but at their best, they have extraordinary power to raise questions, provoke thought, touch nerves, empathise, involve and inspire. Don’t miss.


One comment

  1. […] spliced with a reimagining of the life of liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, such as Nick Lake’s extraordinary In Darkness? I’ve barely touched upon a number of successful authors with different styles, and I’m more […]

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