While most sensible mothers-to-be were stockpiling nappies and baby wipes during their pregnancies, I was collecting books. If I’m honest, I started buying and hoarding children’s books long before my husband and I were even considering a family. Most of the titles I chose weren’t all that practical: there were no touch-and-feel baby books or toddler board books. Instead, the little library I slowly amassed is filled with books my daughter, Lily – who has just turned two – won’t be able to read for years yet.
Lily’s bookshelf is now divided into two distinct sections. The lower shelves, those within her reach, are crammed with bright board books boasting titles like Chocolate Mousse for Greedy Goose and Winnie-the-Pooh’s Very Grand Day. The shelves higher up – safe from destructive little toddler hands – are filled with some of the best memories of my childhood. I quickly realized that was exactly what I was doing: populating my own child’s bookshelf with the books and characters I loved best when I was little.
More than any other trait, I’d love to instil a love of reading in my daughter. I believe there’s very few things that can’t be taught by books: kindness, empathy, resourcefulness and creativity, to name a few of the best. There’s so many other distractions competing for our children’s attention these days, and that’s perhaps why this little book collection has been an unconscious pet project for me for so long. These are the books that shaped my childhood and made me a reader for life – and I can’t wait to pass these experiences on to Lily.
- The Hundred and One Dalmatians – Dodie Smith (1956)
Before Disney got hold of it and, well, Disney-fied it, The Hundred and One Dalmatians was a very different beast. There is something quintessentially British about the original text, which tells the tail (haha) of Missus and Pongo’s epic rescue of their pups after they are kidnapped by the evil Cruella De Vil, and their return to the loving bosom of the aptly-named Darling family.
As twee as it might sound to a hardened adult, this book is brimming with the value of love, kindness and perseverance, and is the ultimate good-triumphs-over-evil story. Great for children, obviously, but surprisingly comforting for grown-ups, too – I found myself reaching for this book well into my adult years, when I was feeling a bit bruised and battered by the world and needed an escape.
Incidentally, this is the only title on the list that I didn’t buy in more recent years: it’s one of just a handful of books that survived with me into adulthood (we moved around a lot when I was a kid and, sadly, most of my books found new owners along the way).
My copy also represents my one and only foray into crime: it’s technically stolen, because I loved it so much that I “forgot” to return it to the school library when I was about nine. I won’t be telling Lily that part.
- The Magic Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton (1943)
What would childhood be without Enid Blyton’s influence? The Magic Faraway Tree captures the possibility of magic, the potential for the extraordinary to exist right in your own backyard. Although it’s been well over 70 years since it was first published, the strange, exciting worlds and charming characters created by Blyton are still as appealing as ever (who could ever forget the venerable Moonface? It was my dearest wish as a child to select one of his cushions for a trip down the slippery-slip!).
The Magic Faraway Tree was one of the first “page-turner” books I encountered – I couldn’t wait to get back to it and find out what happened next. I saw the same compulsion just a few years ago, when I spent a few weeks tutoring a ten-year-old girl who’d been forced to temporarily withdraw from school. After her lessons, we’d spend half an hour reading The Magic Faraway Tree It was the best part of her day, and I pretended not to notice when she subtly prompted an earlier and earlier start to our reading sessions each day. I was just as enchanted as she was.
- Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck (1937)
I bet you didn’t expect to see this title on the list. It’s perhaps a little odd that I’ll one day be encouraging my child to read this one: the profanity, sexual overtones and occasional murder means this book is definitely on the “Young Adult” side of children’s literature. But it stands out so distinctly in my memory, perhaps because I felt that it was the first Important, Grown-Up Book that I’d read (I was about twelve at the time, I think). It shocked and disturbed me, but it also got me thinking.
The broader themes that Steinbeck deals with remain highly relevant today, and the book is still a perennial fixture on school curriculums worldwide. As for its core value, Steinbeck himself said it best: “Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.” We’ve grown a little cynical about kindness and love, but I still hope they will feature prominently in my daughter’s formative years.
- Stray – AN Wilson (1987)
This is probably a title that many won’t recognise, but it’s a book that I read and re-read more than any other as a kid. Stray is the story of Pufftail, a cat who has lived a remarkable life. My enduring love for all things feline aside, this was another book that remained with me because I found it so disturbing: amongst other things, Pufftail is subject to animal testing at a cosmetics lab, as well as being thrown out of a moving car by one of his first owners.
Because the story is narrated by Pufftail himself, this novel humanised animals for me in a way that no other book or film ever had – it was definitely a lesson in empathy for my young self. I read it so many times that I wore out the copy I’d repeatedly borrowed from our local library. By that time, my life of crime was behind me, and I dutifully returned it on each occasion.
Years later, when I was all grown up, I battled to find a copy and eventually managed to buy a (very well-thumbed) copy on Ebay. Happily, it has since been republished by Atlantic Books, with a considerably friendlier cover (although I was glad to get my hands on an older edition with the same broody, atmospheric front illustration that first drew me to it all those years ago).
- The Witches – Roald Dahl (1983)
Ah, Roald Dahl! No childhood reading experience would be complete without his twisted, ironic sense of humour. The Witches is deliciously devious and really rather warped: it tells the story of seven-year-old Philadon Key, who discovers that witches walk among us. Though they are disguised as lovely ladies, they are in fact “demons in human shape” that murder little children. The stuff that night terrors are made of! While it has a happy ending, typically of Dahl, it’s not in the shape that you’d expect.
Dahl really pushed the limits of what was acceptable for children to read, and I do question the mind of a man who clearly loved to scare children as much as entertain them. But that, I think, is why Dahl is so popular: being scared (when there’s no true threat, really) is actually rather fun.
There’s something truly special about reading as a child. Maybe it’s because our imaginations are at their most vivid, or because we’ve yet to be tainted by adult scepticism. Whatever it is, you’d be hard-pressed to find an adult booklover who doesn’t remember their favourite children’s books with a passion that borders on fanaticism. Which was your favourite?