From the small genius of The Borrowers to the giants of children’s books, the Narnia stories, Lucy Mangan and Imogen Russell-Williams pick their must-reads for 8-12 year-olds
This was the first original Puffin published in 1963. The story of eight-year-old loner Barney who befriends Stig, a remnant of the Stone Age hidden in the local chalk pit, has not been out of print since. The two boys grow to appreciate each other’s eras and skills as they contrive ingenious solutions to Stig’s various problems living out of the junk that is thrown into the pit. A modern classic.
“‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother” is probably the most famous opening line of any children’s book. He is going to dispatch Wilbur, the runt of the litter, until Fern pleads for clemency. With the help of Wilbur’s wise and devoted friend, Charlotte, the spider is able to live out the rest of his days in safety. You may feel like warning your child that Charlotte dies “as spiders do” at the end of the summer. You should resist. It’s a book that teaches you that characters can be made to live for ever simply by turning back to the first page and starting again.
This episodic collection of the adventures (in the late 1930s) of the multitudinous Ruggles family (seven children, two parents) was one of the first books for this age group to take working-class life as its central theme and to depict it with charm and without condescension. They remain as fresh as the day they were penned.
One End Street was Wilson’s favourite book as a child and its influence can be seen in all her wildly popular books, which speak just as directly and unpatronisingly to and about the kind of children underrepresented in young fiction. Tracy Beaker is their totem, an irrepressibly imaginative child (though the staff in her care home say she has “behavioural problems”) who writes the story of her life while waiting for her mother to come and get her back.
It’s almost impossible to choose between Dahls but Matilda is one of the most borrowed by children so let us pick her – especially as it helps refute the charges of misogyny occasionally aimed at Dahl. Matilda is the superbright daughter of horrible parents who helps free her schoolmates and her lovely teacher Miss Honey from the tyranny of Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress. All of Dahl’s exuberance and cartoon brutality is on display here, just the way kids like it.
Exquisitely written, perfectly pitched and suffused with a gentle yearning, the story of lonely Tom – who discovers that the gardenless flat in which he is staying returns at midnight to its days of Victorian splendour – is Pearce’s masterpiece. And if you don’t cry at the final scene, well, you’ll know you’re dead inside.
The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster
Bored, disaffected young Milo receives a mysterious present – a purple tollbooth – and sets off on a journey through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, cities at war in the Kingdom of Wisdom which has banished the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason. It dazzled, discomfited, enmeshed and then enraptured me.
Yes, they’re very much of their time and place, an oak-panelled room in the oak-panelled 1950s – and maybe you’ll want to drop The Last Battle, where the whole Christian allegory thing becomes crudely explicit, behind the sofa – but until then it’s a riot of fauns, talking beavers and dancing dryad in a cracking set of stories.
No, they’re not great literature. But, like Enid Blyton, they give new readers quick and convincing proof that reading can be fun. For that alone – although I’d argue they achieve more than that – Rowling’s boy has earned his Z-shaped stripes.
The Borrowers – tiny people, living secretly in the houses of “human beans” and scavenging therein – are a wonderful idea. The story of young Arrietty’s growing frustration with life under the floorboards speaks forever to children’s irritation with their own circumscribed world. If only we could all pole vault with a hatpin out of here.
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror: Chris Priestly
Mesmerising, understated, and convincingly Victorian in tone, these grisly ghost stories are beautifully framed by the mysterious Uncle Montague, telling tales of his sinister knick-knacks to his nephew Edgar over tea and cake. A book for children who enjoy being frightened – and a perfect introduction to Saki and Edgar Allan Poe.
This riproaring trilogy crams in everything – dystopian oppression, passionate conservationism, villainous relatives, shipboard circuses and a boy who can speak to cats, all set in a petrol-poor, corporation-controlled future. Charlie Ashanti discovers his scientist parents have been kidnapped by the corporation because they’re on the verge of discovering a breakthrough cure for asthma. Charlie must travel to Paris, Venice, Morocco and Haiti, in the company of the lions he has freed from a drug-administering tamer, to set the world to rights. Joyous.
Michael, worried because his baby sister has been born prematurely, finds a curious creature in the garage of his family’s new home. Unethereal in its tastes – which include brown ale and Chinese takeaway – the being nevertheless seems to have wings. Skellig celebrates children’s unfiltered, Technicolor perceptions of the exciting world in which they live. A bookshelf essential.