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10 of the Best Children’s Novels Everyone Should Read

The best children’s books

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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’.

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.)

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.

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.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 14, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 55 Comments.

  1. picks up there = certainly spot on. monkey also like catfish bend books by ben lucien berman & mushroom planet series by eleanor cameron.

  2. ferretpower2013

    I wouldn’t quarrel with anything on the list (although I have always rather disliked ‘Alice in Wonderland’ – it makes me think of what we used to call ‘a bad trip’ in the sixties but I see why it should be included.) However I have been bingeing on E Nesbit recently, and I would like to put in a word for ‘The House of Arden’ and ‘Harding’s Luck’ – unlikely to be on a reading list today for all sorts of reasons, but I thought, on re-reading them that they did contain some of her best work.
    And then there are the books I really loved as a child and still read – Violet Needham’s Ruritania for children’s books – ‘The Black Riders’, ‘The Betrayer’ ‘The House of the Paladin’ and so on, Eric Linklater’s ‘Pirates in the Deep Green Sea’ and ‘The Wind on the Moon’, Meriol Trevor’s series ‘The Forest and the Kingdom’, ‘Hunt the King, Hide the Fox’ and ‘The Fires and the Stars’, Elizabeth Goudge’s Henrietta series, ‘The Little White Horse’, ‘Linnets and Valerians,’ all Joan Aiken’s children books and short stories, and all Diana Wynne Jones’ – but I had better stop. I think I have already filled a small library.

    • Thanks for the suggestions – even the titles of some of those books are enough to make me want to go and seek them out! I agree about Nesbit: she’s underrated as a children’s novelist. I’ll confess I don’t know The House of Arden or Harding’s Luck but I’m going to seek them out now!

  3. Haha what a coincidence! I recently posted about something similar. Great list, I think this is spot on! Glad to see CS Lewis mentioned.

  4. Great post, I loved all the trivia! Personally I’d include “Anne of Green Gables” over “The Wizard of Oz” :)

  5. I obviously had a great childhood, managed to tick all these off the list. I would like to make a claim for Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree I loved it as a child and can still vividly remember it!

  6. The only ones on this list that I didn’t read were The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh and the latter half of The Wind in the Willows. I know the story of Peter Rabbit because so many children’s books that I read as a child referenced the story, though. I watched the cartoon for Winnie the Pooh rather than read it. I couldn’t get through the unabridged version of The Wind in the Willows though I think I may have read an illustrated abridged version as a child. I’ve also never read the unabridged version of the The Wizard of Oz. Of the others that I read though, I did not like Charlotte’s Web. I don’t really remember why. I just remember that when I finished the book I was intensely dissatisfied with the story.

    • Disney did a lot to keep Pooh popular, I think – though Milne’s prose (often quietly witty) is a delight too, as are Shepard’s original illustrations. Many of these classics have reached us even if we never read them/had them read to us – they spread into other areas of literature/culture/media so we’re aware of the characters/stories even if we haven’t read the books :)

  7. Black Beauty was one I loved as a child – yes, I’d definitely include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Five Children and It by E.Nesbit and Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, Watership Down by Richard Adams and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

  8. Funny you mention The Wizard of Oz today. Just started reading it (with Denslow’s illustrations) to my son on Monday. One thing though – if the Scarecrow has no brains at all how is it he is always thinking of inventive ways to save his friends from peril?

    Alice in Wonderland – another good one. We read it each year.

    Another I’ve found is nice- The Princess and the Goblin.

    Will give Nesbit a try.

    One thing slightly awkward reading Victorian era books to a young child growing up now is that the word ‘queer’ is the stock adjective. It’s a tricky word at least in the United States where he seem to have perpetual semantics wars.
    Through our first pass of Alice I somehow felt the need to substitute with strange or odd but being against the censorship of literature I trust he will gradually pick up context and proper usage…

    Movie adaptations have been dreadful, but Little Lord Faunterloy is a very sweet book.

    Still, happy to see so much magic in the list.

    • Good question about the Scarecrow! A rather significant plot hole? I think you’ll enjoy Nesbit, especially as you mention Macdonald’s wonderful The Princess and the Goblin. I think I’ll have to blog at some point about Macdonald’s role in developing children’s fantasy :)

  9. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    I have read all of these except “The Railway Children.” I should probably do something about that.

  10. What a good list. I’ve read children’s books through adulthood. I’m still growing up I guess. I expected “A Wrinkle in Time” and maybe “The Little Prince” to be on the list. And I’m with the horsey-set. I still think of “Black Beauty.” For my children and for children I tutor Shel Silverstein is the greatest poet that ever lived. “Light in the Attic” or “Where the Sidewalk Ends” are both magnificent. Mr. Silverstein got these kids loving poetry and for that I’ll forever be grateful.

    • I don’t know some of these suggestions, so thank you – I’ve added them to the list of books to check out! The Little Prince and Black Beauty would appear on this list if it was a top 15 (as it may well end up being!). Both absolute classics :)

  11. My kids really like the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We enjoy the Narnia stories, too. There’s a new fantasy series coming out that is very wholesome and adventuresome; the first two books are The Green Ember and Ember Falls by S.D. Smith.

  12. The Secret Garden is a must and The Black Stallion, My Friend Flicka.

  13. Love this list! Because of Winn-Dixie would be a great addition too.

  14. Yes to The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables but also Little Women, Swallows and Amazons, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn, the Green Knowe stories and in translation Heidi, The Wheel on the School, Pippi Longstocking and The Little Prince.

  15. Reblogged this on MorgEn Bailey – Creative Writing Guru and commented:
    Another super list in this series… and one for the children and those still children at heart. :)

  16. Yes you have definitely picked winners here.

  17. I really didn’t like the Wizard of Oz and my favourite children’s book is “The Tree that Sat Down” by Beverley Nichols but nobody else ever seems to have read it!

  18. Reblogged this on The Gettysburg Writers Brigade and commented:
    Great choices, and sad to say, I haven’t read them all … yet.

  19. I feel no collection of children’s stories is complete if it doesn’t include, “Huckleberry Finn,” or even, dare I say it, “Thomas the Tank Engine,” massive favourites.

  20. I think you should have certainly included The Hobbit over The Wizard of Oz, Swallows and Amazons over Harry Potter and The Secret Garden over er… well, Charlotte’s Web because I haven’t read that one! :) Also we ought to find space for Tom Sawyer somewhere?

    At the risk of being controversial, Harry Potter is in no way special. You’re confusing popular with being a classic on that one, IMO.

    A great list overall; when are we going to have one for children’s books from the rest of the world? You can start with The Little Prince. :)

    • That’s interesting re: Harry Potter. We tried to strike a balance and include books that are worth reading but also popular titles and so are good talking points, and Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon seemed like a great fit here for a more recent book. It’s also good in that it combines several long-standing traditions of children’s fiction (fantasy and the boarding school story). Tom Sawyer is an excellent suggestion, and I feel bad about leaving The Hobbit off the list!

  21. Great list, Oliver! I would definitely have THE SECRET GARDEN on here—it’s my favourite! :)

  22. I’d like to champion Babe, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Fox Busters, Watership Downs and The Animals of Farthing Wood. Oh and James and the Giant Peach. Beside that, I love all your choices although my own children find Winnie the Pooh and anything by Beatrix Potter too wordy and they’re not old enough for the others. Little Women is my favourite book but I don’t know if it’s a children’s book exactly (although I read it as a child).

    • Good point about Little Women. I’ve always thought it almost a young-adult novel before that phrase became a ‘thing’ in publishing. Especially as Alcott hated out-and-out ‘girls’ stories’. I loved The Animals of Farthing Wood – very sad though! All good suggestions, however :)

  23. Reblogged this on kalimat2016 and commented:
    Interesting list

  24. Jeanie Buckingham

    I liked Noddy. No one under thirty should be allowed to read Black Beauty it is too sad.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • ferretpower2013

      And even overt thirties should avoid the chapter entitled ‘Poor Ginger.’ Oh dear. I’ve started sniffing again.

  25. I have read them all. Great list.

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