The best children’s books – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
What are the top ten greatest children’s novels ever written? This is going to prove a contentious list, but below we’ve compiled what we think are ten of the best works of children’s fiction in all of English literature. We’ve had to make some (regrettable) omissions, but we think these are all classic books which children of around the ages of 5-11 would especially enjoy (though, being classics, they’re for ‘children of all ages’). They span from the 1860s until the 1990s. We’ll offer some interesting background trivia about each book as we go.
1. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Along with Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll was the master of Victorian nonsense literature, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is his best-known book. First published in 1865, the story originated in a boat trip that took place in Oxford on 4 July 1862, on which Charles Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) entertained the children of his friend Henry Liddell – children who included Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in the book – with a humorous story involving illogical conversations and nonsensical events. The Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat have been firm favourites with readers of all ages ever since.
Recommended edition: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Penguin Classics)
2. L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The American writer Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919) was a physically weak child who had a heart attack while still a youth, after his parents attempted to toughen him up by sending him to a military academy. He disliked the horrors in many children’s fairy tales – notably those by the Brothers Grimm – and his most famous work was motivated, in part, by a desire to provide children with some horror-free fairy-tale fiction. The book may be more famous as a film (surprisingly, the famous 1939 MGM adaptation, starring Judy Garland, was the eighth film version of Baum’s novel), but the book, about Dorothy’s adventures in a surreal world where she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, is a classic work of children’s fantasy fiction.
3. E. Nesbit, The Railway Children.
Nesbit (1858-1924) wrote a number of classic children’s books which still stand up well today: Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, The Story of the Treasure Seekers are just three examples. But The Railway Children (1906) is Nesbit at her best, and focuses on something we see in much of her greatest work: children finding a sense of ‘magic’ and adventure in the world around them. After their father is arrested, a family moves from London to rural Yorkshire, where the children start to become interested in the nearby railway, and befriend an old gentleman who takes the train every day. It may not sound like exciting page-turning stuff, but Nesbit’s ability to build believable young characters who the reader cares about makes this a classic work of children’s fiction.
Recommended edition: The Railway Children (Puffin Classics)
4. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.
Grahame (1859-1932) was an employee at the Bank of England for a number of years, but in 1908 he retired and spent much of his time engaged with relaxing activities (including ‘messing about in boats’) on the River Thames in Berkshire. His retirement provided the inspiration for this, his best-known book for children, which also grew out of the tales Grahame told his invalid son, ‘Mouse’, as bedtime stories. Grahame had difficulty finding a publisher for The Wind in the Willows, until endorsement came from a surprising source: the President of the United States of America, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, to whom Grahame sent the manuscript. Thanks to Roosevelt’s encouragement, the book was published and has entertained readers, young and old, ever since. One reviewer supposedly complained that The Wind in the Willows was zoologically inaccurate concerning the hibernating habits of moles, but millions of readers have been able to overlook such trivial details and wallow in the sheer fun of it all. (While we’re at it, ‘Ratty’ isn’t a rat but a water vole!)
Recommended edition: The Wind in the Willows (Wordsworth Collector’s Editions)
5. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Potter (1866-1943) started out as a mycologist – an expert on fungi – but it is for her animal stories for children that she is best-known. Her first such book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, about a mischievous young rabbit who breaks into Mr McGregor’s garden, was rejected by numerous publishers, so Potter self-published 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million copies worldwide and is one of the biggest-selling books of all time.
Recommended edition: The Tale Of Peter Rabbit (BP 1-23) (Beatrix Potter Originals)
6. A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.
The man who illustrated the 1930s editions of Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, E. H. Shepard, also provided the classic illustrations for Milne’s books, including the two collections of tales he wrote about Pooh Bear: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928). Millions of children have taken Pooh and his friends Piglet, Kanga, Roo, Tigger, Rabbit, and Owl (who spells his name ‘Wol’) to their hearts. Although the second Pooh book reportedly made the American wit Dorothy Parker want to throw up, what saves the stories from excessive sentimentality is the strain of gentle humour running throughout them.
Recommended edition: Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh – Classic Editions)
7. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Published in 1950, this was the first of seven Chronicles of Narnia novels that Lewis would write, culminating in The Last Battle in 1956. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was criticised by Lewis’s friend and fellow Oxford don, J. R. R. Tolkien, for being too simplistic in its Christian allegorical overtones, and Lewis’s other writer-friends (known as the ‘Inklings’) were reportedly so critical of the manuscript that Lewis destroyed it and rewrote it from scratch. The rewritten version has never been out of print since.
Recommended edition: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia)
8. E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web.
White (1899-1945) wrote several classic books for children – he was also the man behind Stuart Little – but this is his best-known novel, about an unlikely friendship on a farm between a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte. According to Publishers Weekly in 2000, Charlotte’s Web was the bestselling children’s paperback novel of all time and was the last children’s book to appear on the New York Times bestseller list until the Harry Potter series nearly half a century later.
Recommended edition: Charlotte’s Web (A Puffin Book)
9. Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
As a schoolboy, Roald Dahl was one of a number of children ‘employed’ by Cadbury’s as a taste-tester for their chocolate, and Dahl remained a lifelong lover of chocolate, believing that children should be taught the history of chocolate at school and even being buried with the stuff (along with his snooker cues and trusty pencils). This classic 1964 novel, about the poor boy Charlie Bucket who wins the chance to go on a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, is among Dahl’s most famous books. But it could have been very different: the working title of the book was ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’, Willy Wonka was called ‘Mr Ritchie’, and the Oompa-Loompas were known as ‘Whipple-Scrumpets’.
Recommended edition: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl Fiction)
10. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The Harry Potter books need no introduction. Yet they are included on this list because they distil so many aspects of classic children’s fiction: the boarding-school setting, elements of magic and fantasy, the trials and challenges of growing up, and the ‘family romance’ motif proposed by Sigmund Freud. Rowling’s own rags-to-riches story – she was a poor single mother in Edinburgh when she wrote the first novel, and used to write in a tearoom because it was cheaper to buy a coffee than stay at home and pay the heating bill – is fascinating in itself. (We have more interesting Harry Potter trivia here.)
Recommended edition: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: 1/7 (Harry Potter 1)
What do you think of our pick of the best children’s novels? Do you think we should have included The Hobbit over The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or The Secret Garden over The Railway Children? Let us know your own top ten classic children’s books below…
Continue to explore the world of fiction with these recommended film adaptations of classic novels, these must-read Gothic novels, these classic detective novels, and these science-fiction novels from the genre’s early years. For more children’s literature recommendations, see these classic Victorian fairy tales and these much-loved children’s poems.
Image (top): Title page of 1900 edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): J. K. Rowling (author: Daniel Ogren), Wikimedia Commons.