Writing books that children want to listen to and read, and that won’t drive adults mad via endless repetition is a devil of a job. One false note, and the whole thing falls apart like a scone in a river. But if you get it right, you’re in their imagination for the rest of their lives. And they’ll love you forever for making childhood such a joy. Who wouldn’t want to chase that dream, given the wondrousness of the prize?
Here are five of the best Blighty has to offer:
1: AA Milne
Now, this is going to appear to be a little sniffy, but it’s very important not to judge the creations of AA Milne — Winnie The Pooh, Piglet etc — on their current TV incarnations, or indeed any of the movie versions past the very first one. It’s fair to say that recent developments in the 100 Acre Wood have focussed rather more heavily on Tigger, and learning important lessons about life, and less on the beautiful friendship between Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. And no one can quite get the dialogue right. In the space of a few short books, AA Milne was among the first to capture how a child’s brain processes a problem, and wrote his stories in the full and certain knowledge that they were to be read to children by a grown-up. So when Pooh and Piglet attempt to hunt down a heffalump, tracking their own footsteps in the process, both the reader and their audience get carried away in each new chunk of this ripping yarn, even though it’s just a silly story about a bear of little brain and his timid friend walking around a bush. Plus he invented pooh sticks, and kids LOVE that.
2: JM Barrie
Writing for slightly older children, who could sit through an entire theatrical presentation without demanding to go to the bathroom every five minutes, Barrie’s sterling contribution was to make it perfectly all right to worry about growing up. Peter Pan is a story about fear of losing what is precious about childhood — freedom, wildness, and being loved unconditionally— in order to fit in with the careful but uncaring adult world. That he did this by indulging some of the dearest wishes of childhood — to run away, to be able to fly, to never grow old — is simply the bait on the hook. And that stuff about stitching your shadow back on simply proves that children, for all their bluster, are rubbish without an adult to turn to. And they know it too.
3: Roald Dahl
While AA Milne tackled the mindset of children, and JM Barrie allayed their fears, Roald Dahl very simply wrote about the things they like, using a similar grotesque moral framework to Victorian morality tales like Shock-Headed Peter. He wrote about disgusting things, dirty things, fantastical things, magical things, appalling things, silly things, righteous things and horrible things. The characters in his books are either put-upon and clever, or slovenly and gross, usually in positions of power. The sole exception being Willy Wonka, who is essentially an all-year-round Santa Claus, naughty list and all. Those who are put-upon get their revenge, usually in a very satisfyingly gross fashion, those who do not know how to look after themselves wind up wishing they had learned, and all of the bad people lose. It’s all tremendously satisfying to a child-like mind.
4: Roger Hargreaves
Speaking of morality tales, Roger Hargreaves, who also dealt with the idea that bad things happen to selfish people, did two things very right when he sat down to write what became the Mr Men and Little Miss series of children’s books. He gave each character an excess of one, and only one, particular personality trait or physical quirk— clumsiness, sneeziness, happiness, nosiness — which automatically gave each story a reassuringly familiar arc. Then he drew each of his characters using as vivid a colour palate as his felt-tipped pens would allow. Generations of children have learned to read using these books as an early incentive, and generations of parents can probably still quote chunks of Mr Bump or Little Miss Bossy to anyone who would care to listen. And the theme music to the ‘70s TV series is a delight too.
5: JK Rowling
Let’s not be silly about this. While the Harry Potter books are clearly for older children and teenagers, that does not mean they are exclusively for children and teenagers. The same is also true of any of the books in this list, even Mr Silly. What Jo Rowling has done is to find the perfect metaphor for that curious transitional state between childhood and adulthood, where every day brings a new revelation about where you have come from and where you will eventually fit, and then wrap some hugely imaginative stories around that. She also invented a lexicon of words for which people are now finding everyday uses: muggles, mud-bloods, expelliarmus. Although it’s doubtful that Quidditch will ever properly catch on. What fun is a team game if you can essentially obliterate your opponents’ score and win just by catching a random thing whenever you see it?
What no Beatrix Potter? Shout at us here.