This piece originally appeared in Country Life’s SCHOOL LIFE, Spring 2014, which you can read online in full if you follow the link above.
I’m really not sure I should have accepted this assignment. Twenty books ‘that everyone should have read by the time they leave school’. The first bugbear is that word ‘should’. Should in what sense? Because they’re good for you, because your education won’t be complete without them, because you’ll be miserable for the rest of your life if you don’t? Is there, in fact, any book that you should read?
And how can I possibly go about making my choices, particularly as there are plenty of lists already out there on the internet? Inevitably, the same books reappear time after time. On the one hand, I’d quite like to be eclectic and surprising, but -again, given the brief- it would be foolish to stray too far from the obvious.
The worst thing about lists is that, inevitably, I’ll make more enemies than friends. Already, I can feel the outrage. What, no Enid Blyton, no Dame Jacqueline Wilson, no Philip Pullman? How can I possibly ignore David Walliams, who is currently dominating the children’s market? No Harry Potter? Am I mad? These books are very personal to me. Some of them made a huge impression on me when I was at school. Others will, I believe, help young people take their first steps in the great adventure that reading is and should be.
At the end of the day, lists such as this only make you think about all the books that aren’t on it and should be. Isn’t that the whole idea?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
The Pevensie children are a touch dated, but Narnia is still the land every child wants to visit.
The Twits by Roald Dahl I could have chosen any of Dahl’s books, but I particularly loved reading this one to my two sons. I think of Dahl as the father of modern children’s literature.
Tales of Troy and Greece by Andrew Lang
There are, of course, many versions available, but the gods, heroes and monsters of Greek mythology aren’t just wonderful stories, they go to the very heart of what it means to be human.
How do you introduce children to poetry? Perhaps, by making them laugh-and this collection should do just that.
The Seven Crystal Balls by Hergé
It was the adventures of Tintin that inspired me to be a writer, so there should be no surprise finding this (one of his best adventures) here. Hergé’s world is delightful and the artwork is superb.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Another masterpiece. In just 338 words, Sendak takes his young hero, Max, on an extraordinarily imaginative journey that has resonated with children the world over since its publication in 1963.
Fairy Tales by Terry Jones
Written by the former Python and published bin the 1980s, with lovely illustrations by Michael Foreman, these stories greatly impressed me at the time. They’re funny, surreal and hugely original.
Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon
Take your pick-there are more than 50 titles to choose from and that’s part of the appeal. These short, funny stories (illustrated by Tony Ross) are a perfect way to ease younger children into the habit of reading.
A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
Sadly, there’s only room for one bear on this list, so Winnie-the-Pooh gets eased out by this immigrant from darkest Peru. Is there a more comforting character in young children’s literature?
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
This comes last on the list as it will suit slightly older children at the end of primary school. I loved the story-of wolves, wizards and warriors-when I was a boy and it’s a quintessentially English adventure that has become a modern classic.
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
A story of two brothers, set in the Belgian trenches during the First World War.
Beautifully written by one of our most prolific storytellers, it rolls gently towards its devastating conclusion.
The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier
This remains one of the greatest stories of the Second World War for children or for adults. It had a profound effect on me when I read it, at the age of about 13.
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
A love story set in England during a Third World War (completing this set of three), this is a terrific piece of dystopian fiction, hurling its young protagonists into a vividly drawn, very dark world.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Everything Mr Ness writes is worth reading, but this study of grief and acceptance, both harrowing and deeply moving, is, for me, his masterpiece. It’s strikingly illustrated by Jim Kay.
Not all of it, of course. And I hope this isn’t a contentious choice. But surely, in a country founded on Christianity, all children should have some familiarity with the stories told here?
Holes by Louis Sachar
This is the story of teenager Stanley Yelnats and his imprisonment in a bizarre juvenile facility. It’s a book with a brilliant structure and some wonderful surprises.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
By the end of secondary school, young readers should be ready for this timeless, brilliant study of civilisation falling apart when a group of children crash-land on an island.
This be the Verse is the single poem that every adolescent needs to read. In truth, I’d recommend any good modern anthology, but Larkin in particular is bleak, brilliant and accessible.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Again, this is a very personal choice, but if any author helps to build a bridge between Young Adult (YA) fiction and great literature, it’s Doyle – and once read, these stories stay with you for life.
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