I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I care about more than the books I read as a child. I’ll probably be eighty-seven and still going on at anyone who listens about how much I love Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. You could give me the greatest piece of adult literature ever written and there’d still be a part of me thinking: “Okay, but... Torak was a hero.”

It’s for this reason that I’ve decided to construct a list of my top ten favourite books — which is a difficult task, I can assure you, as I read a lot of books as a child and I probably fell in love with most of them.

In an ideal world, I’d force every person in the world to read these books so they’d be able to understand, and I’d be able to make references to them without fearing that dreaded blank stare of a person who doesn’t recognise whatever you’re on about.

(This continues to be one of the most arbitrarily frustrating things in my life. Even when one of my best friends has read pretty much all the books I cared about, she’ll still turn around and admit to never having watched a full episode of Friends in her life — no matter how much I splutter about living under a rock. This means that although I can excitedly reference The Roman Mysteries one moment and be greeted with a bright-eyed grin, if I try and exclaim ‘Joey doesn’t share food’ in an exaggerated shout the next I’ll be met with only a raised eyebrow).

Unfortunately, I can’t make everyone read my desired literature, but I sure can go on about them.

After too long hmming and hahing, I settled on the following books — in no particular order, as I’m not a fan of ranking my children.  (I’ve decided not to include Harry Potter or Percy Jackson simply because I feel like they’re sort of obvious, and are already widely recognised as great children’s literature...even though I did love them).

 

  1. THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Has there ever been a time when I didn’t love this book? Not only was Dickon the original dreamboat (he roams the moors with baby animals… I mean c’mon) but the whole bleak, yet hopeful aesthetic of the book is so damn appealing. It’s all about recuperation and overcoming trauma and it’s set in such a beautiful, atmospheric place that it’s a delight to read. I have all kinds of memories of my mother reading it to me with the rain pounding down on my bedroom skylight, imagining I myself was exploring an old, shut-up house on the edge of the moor, hoping to discover a garden...And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.

  2. A LITTLE PRINCESS, also by Frances Hodgson Burnett*. It sounds cheesy, but this book has 100% helped me to cope when things get difficult, simply by imagining better things. Sara Crewe is, quite frankly, an inspiration of a character that I know I will take pleasure in introducing my hypothetical children to, because her sort of mindset has fed into how I want to be, and how I want my children to be. What’s more, the story itself is just so lovely to read, with the simple way it’s written and all the pleasing details of her doll and her decorated room forming just the sort of thing I revelled in as a child. One time I dressed up as Sara for World Book Day, and a part of me regrets the moment I ever changed back...

  3. THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE by Elizabeth Goudge. I love this book with every fibre of my being — the warm tones of the writing combined with the description of a bedroom I wanted so badly as a child, and all the other encaptivating details of the story make for a distinctly memorable book. It’s magical and romantic, funny, and contains a version of our world I desperately want to live in. Despite the now comedic use of the verb ‘ejaculated’ as speaking loudly, this book — to my memory — translates easily into the modern day, and I continue to hold it in high esteem. Even if the recent film version was awful.

  4. HIS DARK MATERIALS by Philip Pullman. This series arguably doesn’t fit on a list of children’s literature, and I definitely think a lot of the deeper meanings and interesting themes went over my head when I read it aged eight, but I’ve included it all the same. I’m very nostalgic for the series, and I think you definitely can read it as a child, especially the first one — they sort of get more and more grown up as they go — but most importantly, these books are incredible. Not only do I want a daemon so badly it haunts me (even though everyone insists I would have a goose daemon...which hurts, guys), but the series is completely gripping. Lyra’s a brilliant character, the plot’s insane, and the world-building alone is something to delight children and adults alike. The beginning of Northern Lights, especially, with its scenes of Lyra and Roger playing in Jordan, appeals to a sense of childish mischief I’ll admit to missing in myself. The best part about reading it as a child is you can then reread it when you’re older and discover all the fascinating bits below the surface you initially missed.

  5. VARJAK PAW by S.F. Said. Now, perhaps you’d think this book about cats doesn’t quite hold up against the absolute classics I’ve listed so far, but I say you’d be wrong. Maybe it’s just because I was really obsessed with cats when I was little, but either way this is a book that I loved loved loved, and still love. Bits of the book (and especially the sequel) are actually pretty dark, and I always found the illustrations slightly disturbing, in a thrilling sort of way, so despite the seemingly juvenile setting the plot’s completely gripping. I also always loved the sort of dream flashbacks to Mesopotamia, and the idea of learning an ancient martial arts but...for cats. (My mother used to take great pleasure in wildly gesticulating and dramatically hissing out ‘The Way’, which never failed to make us — but mostly her — laugh.)

  6. LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Perhaps what I love most about this series is the way it provides a detailed window into another time period, and into a different, harsher but more exciting way of life. Moral issues of American pioneering aside, this series spawned in me a longing for some sort of exploration and long, dramatic nights in a covered wagon. It also made me want to just build a house from scratch and, like, grow corn. These are apparently my dreams now.

  7. CHRONICLES OF ANCIENT DARKNESS by Michelle Paver. This is another book with an intensely appealing glimpse into a whole other time, but the fact that it’s paired with magic and monsters and wolves makes it all the more exciting. The first page of this book is possibly the most dramatic and exciting beginning to a book I have ever read, and Wolf Brother is honestly the book that still comes immediately to mind when people ask what my favourite is today. I love the intricate sense of this ancient, other world that it so cleverly creates, and you can tell Michelle Paver did an insane amount of research to achieve this.

  8. TOBY ALONE by Timothée de Fombelle. This book really feeds into my obsession with tiny things, because the main character is one and a half millimeters tall, and his world is an oak tree. This alone was enough to captivate me as a child, but not only is the worldbuilding really cool but the plot really pulls you in, with the story beginning with Toby on the run, and the reader not finding out why for some time. It also has commendably strong themes of environmental issues, but in a way that isn’t too in-your-face or distracting from the plot. It also has a map of the tree world at the beginning which was like...the coolest thing.

  9. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery. Anne has to be one of the most endearing characters in children’s literature, and it’s for that reason that I always sort of dreamed of living in Avonlea and being her best friend. (Or, ‘bosom friend’, as I should say). The series is relatively similar to the Little House on the Prairie books in terms of being a charming window into a simpler time, but the whole thing is a lot sweeter, and some of the funny moments still make me want to crack a smile when I remember them now. (Also, Anne and Gilbert Blythe were the original OTP.)

  10. DRAGONSKIN SLIPPERS by Jessica Day George. A couple years ago I convinced my friend to read this and she told me you can tell how much it influenced me because I talk a little bit like the writing style, so it goes without saying that I was crazy about this book as a child. And still am sort of crazy about it. I mean: it’s funny, gripping, packed with dragons and interesting side-characters, and I was also super into the descriptions of her embroidery. I only discovered the two sequels about four years ago, and you might be able to imagine my ridiculous squeal of excitement.  Long live the inner child.

Well, there you have it — the books that defined my childhood. (I immediately want to reread every single one.) I do have a few honourable mentions as well — things that didn’t make the cut, but I still want to talk about. To name a few: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap, Caroline Lawrence’s The Roman Mysteries, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, Erin Hunter’s Warrior Cats, and Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy.

* Shoutout to FHB for helping cultivate my childhood. I know nothing about her beyond the books she wrote but I like to imagine her as a kind, earthy sort of woman who continued to garden and bake hot buns late into her old age. You go, Frances. You go.