Country Life best books for children

Dr Ralph Townsend (headmaster of Winchester College)
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
This is the most influential thriller ever written, never out of print since Buchan wrote it in 1914 in superb English. Made into a film at least twice, the suspense is brilliantly effective and the description of places unfailingly evocative.

A. N. Wilson (novelist, biographer, journalist/critic)
The Bible
When I was at prep school, we were made to learn passages of the Authorised Version of the Bible by heart: the story of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal; the death of Absalom; the New Testament parables, and the Sermon on the Mount. It is a great privilege to have this stuff in one’s head. Any 13 year old who had the same advantage would be lucky indeed. So, I should say—regardless of what your beliefs or lack of beliefs might be—read the Bible. ‘Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.’

Dr Matthew Grenby (Reader in Children’s Literature at the Children’s Literature Unit, Newcastle University)
The Stone Book Quartet, four short novels by Alan Garner
I’m a specialist in the history of children’s literature, but I don’t think that all the best children’s books were written long ago. In any case, today’s children are going to know about Alice and Winnie the Pooh and lots of the other classics through television and film. So the book I recommend is a bit more obscure, but still one of the most brilliantly told stories, that of a single Cheshire family over the generations from the 1860s to the Second World War. It’s the best book I know about history, family and who we are.

Richard Chartres
(Bishop of London)
Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
You cannot define Britishness by reference simply to bland universals and synonyms for fairness and tolerance. Such concepts only have power when married to narrative. The fruits of this marriage are stirring impressions and memories that can shape lives. Every child under 13 in this country ought to be exposed to our inspiring island story, and be encouraged to write their own new chapter.

Kate Mosse (founder of the Orange Prize, author of bestselling Labyrinth and Sepulchre)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
In the tradition of good old-fashioned children’s adventures, it’s a story with two girls, two boys—so perfect for any child who likes to identify with characters in the books they read—left alone to have an adventure unimpeded by adults! Leaving aside the Christian allegory—which is something more evident to adult readers than to children, I’d say—it’s a story, always exciting, often dark, about bravery, loyalty, learning about who you are and independence. The language is beautiful, too.

Kate Edwards (Chief Executive of Seven Stories, the only institution in the UK dedicated to celebrating Britain’s rich heritage of children’s literature)
Dogger by Shirley Hughes
Shirley Hughes is an exquisite storyteller, whose words and pictures work together to capture the familiarity and drama of family life. Like many young children, Dave has a precious and comforting toy, a dog called Dogger. This book tells the story of what happens when Dogger is lost. When Dave’s big sister Bella does ‘a very kind thing’, his world is restored—there’s no better message to share at story time.

Recommended videos for you

Jamie Oliver (chef, author, television presenter)
Any decent, simple cook book. Not necessarily one of mine, but anything that will excite kids and inspire them to want to learn about food and give them a good basis to set them up for life. The point is that it’s whichever cookery book inspires the kid—different ones will inspire different kids.

Dr Gillian Lathey (Director of the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literacy, Roehampton University)
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
I’m very keen that children should read books from other countries and cultures. First published in German in 1929, Kästner’s tale of a lively band of children working together to thwart a thief on the streets of pre-war Berlin has suspense, pace, irony and the deeper emotional undertones that create an international children’s classic.

Ed Balls (Secretary of State)
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
I loved reading books when I was growing up. I read lots of Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ adventures and a great series of kids’ detective books by Malcolm Saville called the ‘Lone Pine Adventures’, which were mainly set in the Shropshire hills. And I’ve read and re-read The Wind In The Willows again and again over the past 40 years.
But my favourite book above all others? Swallows and Amazons was the first big hardback book I ever read—my dad gave it to me when I was eight. It has more than 400 pages—and it took me months to finish.
I had never been to the Lake District when I read it or been on a boat. I couldn’t believe what these children were allowed to do. It’s a brilliant read—and there are 11 more in the series. I’ve read Swallows and Amazons over and over again. And it was the first book I bought for our oldest.
I hope she enjoys it as much as I have.

Alan Bennett (playwright)
I’m reluctant to specify the books children ought to have read, because I know that, aged 13, I hadn’t read any of the requisite books myself.

Sarah Odedina (Publishing Director, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, publisher of the ‘Harry Potter‘ books)
Holes by Louis Sachar
About a boy unfairly sent to a juvenile correctional facility in the American Deep South, the story moves back and forth in time, weaving a complex and brilliant plot, so deftly written that the reader is delighted and surprised right up to the end.  It has that very unusual quality of combining a brilliantly gripping story with humour and sadness, and features the most fantastic group of characters from the very worst ‘baddies’ to the most lovable heroes and heroines. It is, without a doubt, a life-enhancing contemporary classic and sure to remain a lifelong favourite for anyone who reads it.

Michael Morpurgo
(children’s author)
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono
Here’s the book for our times, for all of us, old or young, the story of one man’s determination to plant trees in the barren hills of Provence, to restore what was once there, to bring new life and hope to the countryside and to the people who live there.

David Cameron (leader of the Conservative Party)
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan for boys and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy for girls…

Stephen Fry (broadcaster, humorist, writer, actor, filmmaker)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
What Pride and Prejudice is to the romantic genre, Treasure Island is to the adventure and the thriller genres. Immaculately told, stunning character drawing, breathless narrative tension and faultless English, somehow undated to this very day. Best villains, best heroes, most memorable fights and rescues. Matchless perfection—the ideal to which all writers reach up.

Jane Nissen (runs Jane Nissen Books, which publishes children’s classics)
Brendon Chase by BB
This is a classic and exciting adventure story of three runaway brothers who live through a harsh winter, deep in an ancient forest. They learn many useful survival skills and come to know and love the natural environment—and all ends happily with a parental reunion.


To find out which children’s books the Children’s Laureates chose, click here