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Forget the BBC’s book list, check out our modern children’s classics


Did you know that Mark Twain defined a classic as a book everyone wants to have read but no one wants to actually read? We’d be willing to bet that for many readers ”“ rightly or wrongly ”“ the word classic conjures up visions of dustiness, worthiness or plain old hard work.

It was interesting to see, then, that the BBC’s recent list of ‘The 11 greatest children’s books’ featured not one book published after 1968. That’s not to say the selection was dusty in and of itself, but the slideshow that accompanied the list certainly didn’t sell it (could they really not find any up-to-date editions?) and, with the exception of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, there was a definite tendency to define a children’s book as a story told in words.

In response, personal selections poured in, and the Guardian and others reflected on the modern day children’s books that may one day become classics. Here at Barrington Stoke we love most books in the selection ”“ although we might have switched Anne of Green Gables for Little Women, The Secret Garden for Little House on the Prairie and perhaps The Hobbit for A Wizard of Earthsea. But we’d create a couple of different lists to supplement it ”“ and in no particular order we’ll call them ”˜modern classics’ and ”˜classics to be’…

Modern Classics

1. The Tiger who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
The tiger first popped round over 50 years ago and is beloved by generations of children. He has been jolly in a West End show and dark in interpretations ”“ Michael Rosen sees an echo in the dangerous, unexpected visitor of Kerr’s family history in the Holocaust. It’s by no means Kerr’s only classic, either ”“ we think that Mog and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit will live on forever too.

2. Each, Peach, Pear, Plum by Janet and Alan Ahlberg
A jolly romp through a mash-up of fairytales, this book is the perfect gift to begin a newborn’s library. The rhyming text is perfect to read aloud and there’s lots and lots of detail to spot and enjoy in Janet Ahlberg’s gorgeous illustrations. Ahlberg and Ahlberg are responsible for many classic picture books ”“ The Jolly Postman and Burglar Bill immediately spring to mind ”“ and this is a perfect example of their story-spinning skills.

3. Granpa John Burningham
Perhaps Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing is an easier read, but Granpa achieves something remarkable in its portrayal of love and loss, and its fabulous, layered interaction of word and picture proves that picture books are too good to leave to babies.

4. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ”“ audiobook available
Tom is sent to his aunt and uncle’s flat in an old mansion house to recover from an illness. When the clock strikes 13, he discovers a magical garden outside, and befriends a young girl called Hetty there. Pearce pulls off a lovely reflection on memory and the central paradox of time-travel narratives without ever letting the story slide.
(Note: this one is from 1958. But it’s a goodie!)

5. Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian ”“ audiobook available
The nostalgic title and setting of Magorian’s novel belies its hard-hitting message. A survivor of abuse befriends the man who takes him in when he is evacuated. One of those rare books that consistently survives being taught in schools and remains a firm favourite for many thousands of children.

6. The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith ”“ audiobook available
Hitting a note somewhere between Charlotte’s Web and James Herriot, The Sheep-Pig is a wonder in itself and, of course, it gave us that most joyous of films ”“ Babe.

7. Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
War Horse and its stage and film adaptations are perhaps more famous but this novel is, for our money, even better.

8. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman ”“ audiobooks available
Perhaps it’s cheating to list a trilogy in a top ten (although we’ll do worse below), but it seems wrong to split the Dark Materials in a list of recommendations. If Northern Lights is ”˜for’ you, then you’ll want to read the lot. Immediately.

9. The Owl Service by Alan Garner ”“ audiobook available
Another one published pre-”˜68 ”“ just ”“ this novel is hard to categorise or describe. It recently spawned some controversy when the Accelerated Reader levelling system for texts found it to be easier to read than some of the Rainbow Fairies series. Perhaps, on the surface, the language is simple, but it’s a rich tapestry of allusion that weaves a medieval Welsh legend into a deeply unsettling exploration of modern English/Welsh prejudices, class, the trials of adolescence and the enduring power of narrative in our lives. A theme also beloved of…

10. Terry Pratchett ”“ audiobooks available
As A.S. Byatt once said, free distribution of Pratchett to all 12-year-olds would “have a very good effect” on getting people into books. Pratchett wrote some books specifically for children and young people, but many teens are happy to fire right on into the Discworld, Johnny and the Bomb and all the rest. That’s why we’ve not selected a particular Pratchett for this list; from the witches to the luggage, there’s something for everyone.

And classics to be  – a starter for ten.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Press Here by Hervé Tullet
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd
Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Junk by Melvin Burgess
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
And (bias alert! bias alert!) Brock by Anthony McGowan

We’d love to hear your modern classics. In the main we went for a younger definition of ”˜children’ and didn’t tend so much towards YA. Which books will be the classics there?

Original Image: Bargainmoose

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