“Oh for Heaven’s sake, there must be a site somewhere that does this!” I exclaimed in frustration as I searched in vain. I was looking for a book. A friend of mine had just had a baby and I wanted to buy a book each for a new baby and his older brother as a gift. I thought it would be nice if each book featured a character with the relevant child’s name, and was looking for a website which would give me this information. No joy. This happened a couple more times in the intervening years, leading me to wonder why no-one had produced such a thing. Surely I couldn’t be the only person who wanted to know this? And then the penny dropped – why didn’t I write it myself? I had a change in work circumstances, which meant that I actually had the time to do it, and my friends still kept having babies, so I had a go. And here it is.
How to use this site
Click on the A – Z to find an alphabetical list. From there click on which ever letter begins the name you are interested in. The names are listed alphabetically, with similar spellings or short versions grouped together (for example, Josephine, Josie, Jo). The right-hand column contains further details using a key; for what the letters represent you can click here or at the top of each page. I have not put age guidance down as it can be quite subjective, but within each name they are in order of age suitability from youngest to oldest. I have mainly steered clear of Young Adult fiction, so all the books should be suitable up to the age of 11, but do check further if you are unsure about anything. I hope you enjoy browsing through the site. Please feel free to leave comments suggesting other books or names which should be on here, or future topics for blog posts – I would love to hear from you!
Although of course I was very sad to hear of Terry Jones’ death the other day, I was at least cheered that much of the coverage mentioned his output as a children’s author. Erik the Viking arrived too late for my own childhood, but I often used his books in the classroom, and they never failed to raise a smile. If you have never read a Terry Jones book, thinking they would just be Python-esque foolery, you really should. He combines the exuberant wit of J.K. Rowling when it comes to naming characters (Nicobobinus! Ragnar Forkbeard! Queen Pavona!) with Philip Pullman’s forensic ability to describe without using vocabulary beyond a young audience, and Julia Donaldson’s celebration of using brains to outwit the enemy. Plus, both the chapters in his longer books and the tales in the books of stories tend to be very short, so they are ideal if you are short on time. And if you have plenty time, you can always read just one more…
Complete with beautiful black and white illustrations by Michael Foreman, this was his first children’s book. Told in the episodic style of an Icelandic saga, Erik and his trusty team set sail on a quest where they battle the fearsome Dogfighters and pit their wits against Death himself, among other adventures. It is probably the best-known of his books, partly because he turned it into a successful film, but also because it became a central part of Viking topics in many primary schools. As well as being a page-turning adventure, the story-telling style has a cyclical feel to it making it an ideal step between traditional fairy tales and longer quest stories.
Fantastic indeed, both in the sense of embodying fantasy, and that they are hugely entertaining to read. He wrote 3 compendiums: Fairy Tales, Fantastic Stories and Animal Tales, and some of them can be found as stand-alone stories too. They combine a richly-imagined fantasy world with some very down-to-earth realities (for example, the King in Forget-Me-Nuts who is unable to be happy with a mere 16 palaces, because King Fancypants of Swaggerland also has 16 palaces). In a curious way, the stories remind me of the TV series “Yes, Minister” in that the details may have dated but the underlying realities are the same as ever. The heroes and heroines of these stories demonstrate bravery, compassion and ingenuity when defeating dragons or rescuing sailors – what better way to vanquish The Beast With A Thousand Teeth than to feed him sticky buns but not to remind him to clean his teeth? The moral messages are clearly set out, but surrounded by fun and colour so the reader does not feel like they are being beaten around the head by an improving moral tome. Oh, and just occasionally they will break your heart (The Snow Baby).
My favourite! For a completely bonkers story, you can’t beat Nicobobinus. Even the chapter titles provide more entertainment than some books do in their entire length (for example: Nicobobinus’s First and Only Day as a Monk). This is the book which most clearly comes from the Monty Python school, as some of Nicobobinus and Rosie’s adventures end a bit abruptly, like a sketch without a proper ending, but it matters not a jot. Terry Jones guides the reader through the madcap escapades as the two young adventurers attempt to discover the Land of Dragons and cure Nicobobinus of his golden feet (don’t worry, it’s all explained). As with his other works, happy endings are awarded to those who are deemed worthy, and those who are not (like Brother Melchoir, who gives Agnes the kitchen girl a bad cucumber) get their just desserts. The book overall is immensely satisfying, in its close-up details, and in its overall structure. I’m sure many people will be re-watching The Life of Brian or the Spanish Inquisition sketch in tribute to Terry Jones, but I will be happy just to curl up with my copy of Nicobobinus and revel in the master at work once more.
…well, new to me, that is. Actually over 100 years old, and although the morals and habits of the characters have dated, their essential characteristics have not. I really enjoyed reading this, although I felt it came to a natural end and I would not be mad keen to read the sequels. In terms of setting and tone, it reminded me a lot of ‘What Katy Did’ (one of my favourites from childhood) and I am sorry not to have read it before. I like the cover illustration of this edition, but minus points for the exceedingly dull ‘Questions to ask the reader’ section at the back.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
I was very keen to read something by this author as I have heard of her referred to in glowing terms, but had never yet read anything of hers. This was a curious book. It was very powerful (especially once you read the afterword, which I imagine would perplex younger readers – in a good way) but quite odd stylistically. I would only recommend this for the emotionally robust, as the characters really are put through the wringer. I can feel this one lurking somewhere in my psyche, ready to burst out at a vulnerable moment. Unlike, however…
The Spy Who Loved School Dinners by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Thomas Flintham
…which is a delightfully silly tale with an excellent balance of daft adventures, slightly off-kilter characters and enjoyable dialogue. Pamela Butchart really seems to capture the way children think and speak (at least, how I experience them thinking and speaking). The black and white illustrations support the story well and the chapter headings are carefully chosen to help sign post what is going on for less experienced readers. I first encountered her when reading “Too Wee Or Not To Wee”, her take on Shakespeare, which I loved, so I came to this with high expectations which were not disappointed. Definitely an author to watch.
You Choose: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Jessica Gunderson, illustrated by Sabrina Miramon
This was a very strange one. I am trying to read as many different publishers of fairy tales as I can for a future post, so I gave this a go. Having grown up with ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ and many others, I am very familiar with the choose-your-own-adventure genre, but I wasn’t sure how it would work with a traditional tale. And the answer is…it doesn’t. Not really. Not in the sense of Snow White staying in the same story-telling world. However, if you go with it and allow the story to explore alternative time frames and places, it works fine as the setting for an adventure story, with some salutary lessons to be be learnt about who you can trust (so, not that different to a traditional tale). I imagine the number of children to who this would appeal is limited, but that those who like it would REALLY love it. Which is fair enough.
Best Friends’ Bakery: Sugar and Spice by Linda Chapman, illustrated by Kate Hindley
Another one for the ‘not-nearly-as-bad-as-I-feared’ pile. Hannah, the heroine of the book, is another child who is dealing with a new family in a new town, with the extra twist that Mum is opening a cake shop. This has two story-telling bonuses. The first is that there is an interesting dichotomy with her Mum’s new job – Hannah loves to bake too and is very keen to help but Linda Chapman keeps it quite realistic as to the amount she can do. Therefore the baking is both a source of conflict, and a point of connection between Hannah and her Mum. The other bonus is that the text is interspersed with recipes which I confess I haven’t tried, but did look as though they would work successfully. I thought the book achieved a good balance between tension and coziness, and I could see this formula continuing to develop through its sequels (4 in the series so far).
Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharrat AND Sue Heap
And so I turn to the master (or should that be mistress?). There are so many Jacqueline Wilson books I haven’t read, I really should prioritise those over one that I have but, you know, it was lying around, I picked it up, next thing you know I am hooked all over again. She is so good at laying out the situation for her characters, always plausible and never preachy. Basically, I don’t think you can go wrong with her (although, as she is very prolific, there are plenty of her books that I haven’t read). What I failed to appreciate before is that this edition benefits from 2 illustrators, one for Ruby and one for Garnet, and if you look carefully, you can tell that they are slightly different. You don’t need to know this to enjoy the story, but it does add an extra dimension. Also, I didn’t notice the book feeling dated, despite its lack of mobile phones and eBay, which the equivalent plot set in 2019 would need.
I was a Rat! by Philip Pullman
Speaking of master story-tellers, here is one of the best. The His Dark Materials trilogy is rightly regarded as a modern masterpiece, but he writes really well for younger readers too. If you have ever wondered what happened to all the creatures used to boost Cinderella’s credibility by staffing her pumpkin-turned-carriage, this is the book for you. In fact it is a multi-layered read – an entertaining tale of how a rat would adapt to human life on one level, and a stark warning of the cost to individuals of society’s obsession with surface appearances, rules and the rule of the mob on another. And it is all so elegantly written, you barely notice that it has an author at all.
Strange Star by Emma Carroll
I found this ultimately disappointing as I was very much looking forward to reading this highly-regarded author. ‘Strange Star’ tells of the background to the creation of Mary Shelley’s story ‘Frankenstein’ and switches setting from the Swiss mansion where the story has its genesis, to a humble English village with some curious (in both senses of the word) inhabitants. This book has massive potential in its capacity for adventure, the plucky characters, the compelling settings and the fascinating ideas which lie behind the action, but it failed to match its promise. I found both the choices of the characters and the descriptions of their actions unconvincing. It wasn’t a terrible book by any means, but I found ‘Cogheart’ far more plausible as an imagined world. I would be interested to know if reading ‘Strange Star’ inspires many children to go on to read ‘Frankenstein’ – I am sure some will.
Fierce Bad Rabbits by Clare Pollard
Well spotted! It’s not a children’s book at all, but it is about children’s books, specifically picture books. It looks at them broadly thematically (food, fairy tales, monsters) but also highlights some authors in depth. This leads to some surprising revelations; I don’t suppose anyone who has read ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ would be amazed to discover Maurice Sendak had a hard time as a youngster, but who would have thought Martin Waddell (Owl Babies, Farmer Duck) had experienced such trauma? Fierce Bad Rabbits (the title comes from Beatrice Potter) covers the history of children’s books generally, focuses on authors past and current in more depth, and also deals with her own childhood relationship with books, and her own relationship with parenthood. It would still have been an enjoyable book without the personal element, but her responses give it an extra depth. I zoomed through it in two days flat, and I am now re-reading it. Highly recommended!
Another cracking month with the odd tear-jerker in amongst the general silliness.
My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Bruce Ingham
An entertaining book about the process of writing, illustrating and publishing itself. This would be a great book to introduce children what goes into producing a book, but is equally enjoyable in its own right.
Archie’s Unbelievably Freaky Week by Andrew Norriss, illustrated by Hannah Shaw
This was one of those books which I warmed to gradually. Things just happen to Archie. Some things are due to the choices he makes but some things…just happen. This has a cumulative effect where they start off quite tiresome, but end up mildly funny (and relate to each other in a way which is wholly unbelievable, but somehow satisfying). I wouldn’t count it as a must-read, but I am glad I persisted with it.
Frozen Fish Fingers by Jason Beresford, illustrated by Vicky Barker
I so nearly gave up on this as I found its mixture of silly puns and madcap adventures frankly quite exhausting, but I am so glad I didn’t. Whether I got used to it, or whether the style of story writing calmed down I am not sure, but either way I found myself being drawn in to the adventures of the 4 superheroes and their utterly ridiculous enemy. The book managed to combine a bonkers adventure with some friends-related soul-searching, but the mushy stuff is not over-done. Like ‘Kid Normal’, their superpowers tend to be of the niche variety (Slug Boy! The girl with the magic pocket!) which adds to the knockabout feel. This is the second book featuring the 4 Fish Fingers: the first is called The Fabulous Fish Fingers and the follow up is Fish-Fingers vs Nuggets.
Clover the Bunny by Jane Clarke
Boy, am I glad this series was not around when my daughter was aged 5 or 6. She would have LOVED the combination of simple animal stories with illustrations combining pastel drawings with photographs…and it would have driven me nuts. This is one in a series entitled Dr. Kitty Cat is ready to rescue…in which the eponymous cat supplies first aid advice and treatment to an assortment of immensely careless pets who can barely look at something exciting like a paddling pool without falling over/ getting stung/ succumbing to heat stroke. At this point Dr Kitty Cat comes to the rescue with a first aid kit and a series of really annoying homilies about how to play safely. I’m sure all the safety advice is correct, and I like the fact that proper terms are used for the equipment, but it makes for very formulaic story-telling. None of which will put off the animal-mad 6 year old. There are 6 books (so far) in this series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Mimi and the Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Helen Stephens
Strictly speaking this is a Christmas story but I was intrigued by the title and wanted to see what a Morpurgo was like in a more fantasy-based setting than his usual stories. This takes the form of a legend-within-a-story and manages to wrestle a cosy moral ending from the jaws of threatened violent destruction. An engrossing story told without fuss, and charming illustrations.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
As you would expect, this was a difficult and heart-rending read, but still highly recommended. The story of a child made homeless through war, it uses the metaphor of an empty chair to show at first how the child is excluded from a new community, and then how she is welcomed into it. The illustrations match perfectly with the text, and this is a classic example of a picture book for older children – probably age 6 and up. It is so sad that this book has a reason to exist. But it does illustrate the situation in a beautiful and compassionate way, and I would recommend it for any child who has questions about what they have seen on the news or heard around them.
Marvin Redpost: A Flying Birthday Cake? by Louis Sachar
You would expect veteran author Louis Sachar to write an interesting and nuanced story for the junior age range, but I was really impressed by the emotional depth he put into this simple story about a visiting alien in the guise of a lonely school boy. This short story maintained a good balance of action and humour, with unrealistic events taken place in a very realistic setting. I wouldn’t hesitate to read any of the other 7 books in this series.
Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
For me this story had almost everything – an intriguing setting, richly-drawn characters, an exciting series of events without too many unbelievable escapes, and some thought-provoking situations. I loved the steam punk setting and the concept of airships taking over from trains, at least for those wealthy enough to afford them. There is a feisty heroine, an adorable (mechanical) fox, a truly hideous boarding school and some memorable villains. My only serious quibble would be that the gaining of sentience by the mechanical creatures and companions is never explained – being a talented engineer is not enough to create a conscience! The setting and style of Cogheart owes something to ‘His Dark Materials’ and you could see it as a sort of starter companion to that magnificent series. Further adventures are called Moonlocket and Skycircus – the titles are something else that I love!
I have been intrigued by the (relatively) recent phenomenon or authors-who-aren’t-actually-authors. Are they any good? Can any patterns be observed with them? And so my quest began – to find the celebrity authors whose books are actually worth reading. Here is the run-down of my personal top ten:
Number 10 – Matt Millz by Harry Hill, illustrated by Steve May
A common theme of these books has been the ‘how to’ element, whereby the author’s own skills and tips about how to succeed are woven into the text. In this case, the advice is how to be a stand up comedian, with references to joke tellers old and new. As you would expect, the joke telling is pretty funny and the characterisations are enjoyable, but it was let down a bit by the predictable plot. Matt Millz Stands Up is already available and Matt Millz on Tour comes out at the end of the year.
Number 9 – Itch by Simon Mayo
This was an exciting and well-written adventure story with an intriguing theme – an attempt to collect as many elements as possible. The pace and suspense was well-maintained and, as a surprising bonus, the school aspects of the story had the ring of truth. Although the protagonist is 14, the content is fine for upper key stage 2. There are other sequels to look out for (Itch Rocks and Itch Craft) and, on this basis, I would be intrigued to read his adult novel as well.
Number 8 – Birthday Boy by David Baddiel
Possibly the most elegantly-written of this list, Birthday Boy is a manic caper around London with an entirely absurd but intriguing premise – suppose it was your birthday every day? Unsurprisingly, the reality of this turns out to be less fun than the hero imagined. The story plays out convincingly with care taken over the portrayal of both major and minor characters, and plenty of laughs too.
Number 7 – Tilly’s Horse, Magic: Team Training by Pippa Funnell
I picked this up with a heavy heart, intending just to start it off…and surprised myself by reading it right the way to the end. I don’t know whether it was the plot, the characters or the setting, but despite following well-worn story lines, it was surprisingly gripping. It’s a pony book, so if you don’t like pony books, avoid, but if you enjoy them (or are neutral about them), it might be well worth a read. Certainly she has written loads of these, (18 in the Tilly’s Pony Tails series and 4 in this series) and it might be that I just struck lucky with this one – I shall have to read some others and see if the quality is maintained. As with Harry Hill, there are lots of tips on riding and competing but they are neatly interwoven with the story.
Number 6 – Bear Grylls Adventures: The Arctic Challenge by Bear Grylls, illustrated by Emma McCann
Of all the didactic books, this is the most obvious – but also one of the most enjoyable. The skills described are both interesting and plot-relevant, and the character development is heart-felt and believable. Again, I picked this up with some scepticism (possibly even eye-rolling), but I was won over by it. I am not sure its charms would sustain me through all 12 books in the series, but at least there is a reason for all 12 (each follows a different child from the same adventure camp, and each covers a different environment and the survival skills relevant to it). At the end, the magic device is handed over to the next child. This is potentially a really naff idea, but in reality I thought it was well executed. He has also written an updated version of The Jungle Book and another series called Mission: Survival.
Number 5 – The Bolds by Julian Clary, illustrated by David Roberts
An entertaining start to a 6-book series, this has an utterly preposterous premise, but if you accept that it is preposterous and go with it, it is actually very enjoyable. The humour is lively without being gross-out, the characters are nicely drawn, there is a bit of a twist and I even got quite emotional about the fate of poor old Tony. However, the secret weapon of this book is the illustrations (by David Roberts). They really do add to the ‘caper’ feel of the book, and would be an excellent to support to less-confident readers.
Number 4 – Flying Fergus by Chris Hoy
I was worried when I started this that my preconceptions about the authors (sportsman = not a proper author, therefore books will be terrible) would colour my judgement and I would not be able to give a fair assessment. This book put my mind at rest, as I had very low expectations, but was thoroughly charmed by it. It relies, as so many of these books do, on a magic object (Bear Grylls’ compass, Frank Lampard’s football, Darcy Bussell’s…actually I can’t be bothered to remember it) but in this book the magical device has a solid, character-led reason for existing, and the magical world to which Fergus is transported has its own internal logic. The real and the magical intertwine in a convincing way and, although the plot is almost entirely predictable, it really doesn’t matter because it has heart and charm. Right at the end, I discovered in the small print that the book was a collaboration between Chris Hoy and the established children’s author Joanna Nadin. Maybe that explains the high standard of characterisation and world building? Whatever the extent of the collaboration is, this book is a real winner with positive messages (subtly done, not announced with a klaxon), interesting characters of both genders and a Scottish setting (now I come to think about it, not something you encounter that often). Again, this is the start to a series, with currently at least 8 available.
Number 3 – A Slice of the Moon by Sandi Toksvig
This one comes with a bit of a warning – DO NOT get this book for the laughs. Just because she presents funny programmes, it does not mean she writes funny books. I would only recommend this for fairly robust upper key stage 2 readers as the portrayal of circumstances during the Irish potato famine is (rightly) traumatic, especially the conditions aboard the ship they take to sail towards a better life. This is a wise and compassionate book, despite the rather dull title. It ends a bit abruptly, so I wasn’t surprised to find that there is a sequel (The End of the Sky, if anything, an even duller title). The characters are vividly drawn (both major and minor) and there is lots of fascinating historical detail. Highly recommended for drama, emotion and being transported to another world (the reader, not the characters).
Number 2 – Ghost Buddy: Zero to Hero by Henry Winkler with Lin Oliver
Another very entertaining book where the descriptions of the characters are immensely evocative without the authors seemingly making any effort. The ghost of the title, Hoover Porterhouse, is clearly a early 20th century incarnation of The Fonz, and as long as that doesn’t annoy you, you should enjoy it. It covers issues like blended families and the moral complexities of dealing with school bullies in a nuanced way, but also had plenty of laughs. The internal ‘rules’ of the book regarding how ghosts interact with humans are a little convoluted, but they are consistently applied. I enjoyed it way more than I was expecting to, and I am looking forward to reading the Hank Zipser stories as well (good to see the non-famous part of the writing team get a credit on the cover too). There are currently 3 further books in the series.
Number 1 – Kid Normal by Greg James and Chris Smith, illustrated by Erica Salcedo
I began this series out of curiosity with David Walliams (who, you will notice, has not made the cut into my top 10) and other celebrity authors, expecting that those who had begun their career as writers would probably produce the better books. As you can see, that has not turned out to be the case. If you had told me before I began that my favourite children’s celebrity author would be a pair of Radio 1 DJs, frankly I would have not believed you. I had a tip-off from a Teach Primary review that this was good, but I was still dubious. Then I read it. It was hilarious. Not only that, it was quite thought-provoking and has a very fresh twist on the superhero school theme. There are morals about teamwork and the power of friendship in there, but they are tucked away, not banging you over the head with them at the end of every chapter. The story hangs together well, but they skillfully manage to insert short standalone sections which are very funny indeed. As an added bonus, if you are reading it out loud there is exceptional scope for a range of funny voices. There are 3 books in this series available now, with a 4th due out next year. I will definitely be looking out for them, and keeping my fingers crossed that the quality is maintained.
So that’s my top 10. I’m not totally committed to this order, apart from the last 3 which I do feel are a notch above all the others, but all lists are subjective anyway. I fell that the quality of these books has been higher than I expected, and there has only been one which I was seriously tempted to throw across the room. And what was that, I hear you ask? Well you will have to keep following my future posts on sports stars/ comedians/ random famous people to find out…
Have I neglected a celebrity author you love? Let me know in the Leave a Reply box below.
Read the Book, Lemmings! by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora
A very entertaining picture book with adorable illustrations, based on the premise that lemmings don’t hurl themselves off cliffs…but has anyone let the lemmings know that? There are positive messages about the power of teamwork and the importance of literacy, but they underpin the story naturally, they are not crow-barred in. I can imagine this working equally well as a snuggly-up book with one or two children, or as a riotous read-aloud for a whole class, probably best with the 4 – 6 age range. I will definitely be watching out for more from this creative team.
Molly and the Night Monster by Chris Wormell
A truly delightful story following the old pattern of something unknown coming closer…and closer…and closer…until it is revealed as familiar and harmless. What distinguishes this version is its beautiful blue ink illustrations which make it look utterly unlike anything else, but are quite exquisite. Highly recommended from birth until they won’t let you read to them any more.
Suzy Orbit, Astronaut by Ruth Quayle, illustrated by Jez Tuya
Libraries are gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing (and this year’s Reading Challenge theme) by displaying their space-related picture books, which was how I found this gem. Suzy is beset by problems every few pages which she solves with ingenuity, engineering skill and a can-do attitude. No huge surprises but a well put-together book which might inspire budding inventors to create their own problem-solving gadgets.
Dreadcat by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Nicola O’Byrne
You can always rely on Michael Rosen to lace a thought-provoking moral text with some laughs. This is a picture-heavy book whose plentiful illustrations disguise the weighty nature of its theme. It reminded me of one of the most terrifying parts of ‘Watership Down’ where the band of rabbits temporarily reside in a seeming paradise where abundant food is left out daily…but no-one mentions the rabbits who disappear. This would be a great book to share with siblings with a large age gap, as there are cute mouse pictures for the youngest, but darker issues underneath for those with the maturity to explore them.
Matilda’s Cat by Emily Gravett
Surprisingly few books feature a Matilda in them (apart from the obvious) so it is welcome to see this addition for younger Matildas (ages 2 and up would enjoy it). This Matilda is a feisty sort who enrols her cat in all manner of role play games, with only slightly more enthusiasm from the cat than Mog has in ‘Mog and the Baby’.
Penny Dreadful is a Record Breaker by Joanna Nadin
One in a new-to-me series, Penny is in the mould of Kitty (Bel Mooney) or Daisy (Kes Gray) as a girl who means well but somehow finds herself getting into trouble. I enjoyed Penny’s range of friends, enemies and relations, and her escapades were just real enough to ring true, which I think is the key to this kind of story. There is some use of bold print and different fonts enhance expression, but it is not over-done. My only quibble would be the length of the sentences. Many of them are extremely long and I felt that they might be off-putting for the target age reader (I am assuming roughly 7 – 11). I can see that the stream-of-consciousness format reflects the breathless approach of the narrator, but I do think the long sentences present a challenge for emergent readers. Not a problem if they are being read aloud by an adult, or course, and the 3 stories in here would work equally well in that scenario (and yes, I am aware that I am equally guilty of over-long sentences myself!).
Big Nate’s Greatest Hits by Lincoln Peirce
Well this one was a complete surprise. I opened it with a heavy heart, thinking I ought to read it as it seemed to be quite a big-seller. My heart sank further because I hadn’t realised it was cartoons…and then I started to read. And kept going until the very end. I loved it. Set in a middle school, it was both sweet and caustic, but never unkind. It reminded me tonally of the Garfield cartoons I lapped up in the 80s. So much for sinking hearts. Ideal for ages 8 – 10 (and their aging parents who don’t mind if someone catches them reading cartoons).
Where the Wild Things Are was written in 1963 but barely seems to have dated. Wolf outfits will always be in demand. Parents will always have moments where they are at the end of their tether. And some children will always behave appallingly, even to cute little dogs.
2 The text
The text is very simple, enabling it to be followed and understood by very young readers. Rumpus is a word children may not have encountered before, but phonetically it is very easy to decode and as to the meaning – just look at the pictures! Yet simple does not mean simplistic and it delves into weighty themes such as anger, the power of imagination and redemption.
3 The illustrations
Like all good picture books, the illustrations tell so much of the story, both the events and the mood. For example, why use the word ‘imperious’ when you can draw a picture like this?
4 The optical trickery
Have you ever noticed that the pictures literally grow in size throughout the book?At first the illustration of Max hammering into the wall is quite small (13.8 X 10.4 cm) with plenty of white space around it. Then throughout the next five pages they gradually expand until finally the forest has taken over and there is no white space left. It is as if his emotions are physically taking over the book.
5 The characterisation (monsters)
Look at the double spread above the words “And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!” showing five of the monsters in all their glory. I’m sure, just as everyone has a Hogwarts house and a Winnie the Pooh character they best associate with, everyone will be drawn most powerfully to one of these more than the others. For me, it’s the bird-like one second from the right. Sendak based them on the relatives who used to visit weekly. Far from looking forward to their visits, he was terrified by the way the pinched his cheeks and told him they would “eat him up”. Sound familiar?
6 The characterisation (humans)
Do you have a mental image of Max’s Mum? If you do, it is entirely your own, as she is not portrayed visually in the book. And yet she is a powerful presence.
7 The resolution
The ending is wholly satisfying as he returns from his dream/ flight of fancy to find a hot supper waiting for him. Some readers don’t like this resolution, viewing it as a cop-out, that Max is being rewarded rather than punished for his misdeeds, but it is a sign that children can handle emotional complexity. They know that he is loved and cared for, despite his temper and energy. Speaking of which…
8 The emotional intensity
The book is a wonderful depiction of child anger and the need they feel to gain some control when so many others are controlling what they can do, wear, eat and say. In the Land of the Monsters, Max is King, despite the creatures’ superior size and sharp teeth. The physicality of the ‘wild rumpus’ is what Max needs to do in order to regain his emotional balance.
9 It’s pretty short
The entire book is just 10 sentences long. I’ll just leave that with you. TEN SENTENCES! It is a model of economy.
10 The actual creation of the book is a testament to problem-solving
The original title of the book was “Where the Wild Horses Are”. There was just one problem. Sendak discovered that he was no good at drawing horses. So he played to his strengths and drew what he was good at. Would it have had the same power with horses instead of ‘things’? Somehow I doubt it – I think the creatures need to be on two legs to give them humanoid characteristics. But I love that the idea wasn’t ditched but adjusted, and probably made better in the long run.
11 It inspires people
It has had an enduring appeal and not only been made into a film, but also an opera. Many people choose it as their favourite picture book, including Barack Obama (if you want to see him reading it, click here). It frequently features on ‘Best of’ lists for children’s books (not just picture books).The visuals are very distinctive, the name Max is very popular (including with authors – see the list here) and if you have read Matilda’s cat by Emily Gravett, some of the pictures may seem strangely familiar…
A modern masterpiece (does 1963 still count as modern? OK, 20th century masterpiece), a wonder of vocabulary, mood and the triumph over not being able to draw horses. Do you have any memories of Where the Wild Things Are from your childhood, or sharing it with your own children? I would love to hear about them!
An entertaining read, this would be a good addition to the ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’ genre for those who have grown out of Laurence Anholt’s Seriously Silly Stories series. This one is based on The Little Mermaid, whilst others re-tell Snow White, Cinderella and others.
Through The Cat-Flap by Ian Whybrow, illustrated by Tony Ross
I don’t know why this is under the heading of Books for Boys, because I think is is an excellent story for any gender. It does a brilliant job of creating a non-standard family with wit and warmth, and a plot which was unexpected without being completely unbelievable. I thought it was a really great example of how difficult themes (depression, disability, family conflict) can be covered in a children’s book, without it seeming like an exercise in box-ticking. This description makes it seem rather grim, but it really isn’t! Highly recommended.
Nelly The Monster Sitter by Kes Grey, illustrated by Chris Jones
Kes Grey is a firm favourite of mine, so I was really looking forward to this. The book was nicely bizarre and the monsters were well-imagined without being too grotesque. The story got a bit manic towards the end and I could imagine younger independent readers getting confused about what was happening. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t rate it amongst his best (which, for my money, would be ‘Eat Your Peas’ as a picture book and ‘Daisy and The Trouble With Zoos’ as a chapter book).
Katie and the Sunflowers by James Mayhew
This well-established series follows Katie as she has magical adventures and interacts with famous art works from around the world. I was expecting there to be more information about the painting and artist – the picture was more of a springboard for Katie to have some kind of chase adventure which now I can’t recall. There is more information about the artworks in the back of the book so it could be used as a starting point for more investigation – or just enjoyed as a fantasy-based adventure. As you would expect, the illustrations are excellent.
Tilly and the Trouble in the Night by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Kimberley Scott
A surprisingly subversive tale in which Tilly’s brother is repeatedly in danger of being sold on e-bay! A very satisfying story, helpfully illustrated, which will be particularly enjoyed by those who have irritating younger brothers. I don’t know why so many books with a main character called Tilly use the name in the title. Maybe it is something to do with the rhythm of the name? The other name which features more often than not in the title is Henry, which is not dissimilar in sound. Any bright ideas?
Archie and Archie’s Holiday both written and illustrated by Domenica More Gordon
I had never come across this author before, but happily discovered Archie in the library the day after the new royal baby was named. Both books are a total delight, a real classic where the pictures do all the heavy lifting. Archie in particular had a real laugh-aloud ending. My only criticism would be that the minimal text is in either a very unhelpful font, or the author’s own handwriting, which is a bit undisciplined in terms of letter formation, so children who are usually quite able readers would struggle with it. Having said that, it would be a wonderful book to share, even with older children who would appreciate the elegance of the illustrations. Definitely the highlight of my May reading.
Foxes are often chosen as an animal protagonist in a children’s book. Cunning, quiet and carnivorous*, they are often viewed as the enemy. But is this always the case? Let’s examine a few and discover whether foxes are friends…or foes. *Actually, foxes are omnivorous rather than carnivorous, as they eat fruit and vegetables as well as meat, but stories often focus on their hunting habits, so I will stick with that slightly inaccurate description.
Is the fox a fierce predator?
In many stories the fox will display the normal appetites of a real world fox – even if they are dressed like an Edwardian gentleman (The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck by Beatrix Potter). However, their efforts are usually doomed to failure as children’s books are generally considered to be inappropriate places for the harsh realities of nature to be shown. A rare exception to this is The Fox Busters (Dick King-Smith) where many of the chickens do indeed meet a sudden and inglorious end in the teeth of a fox. However, the valiant hens fight back in surprising ways and the laws of storytelling conquer those of nature. (This book is also notable for a brilliant, child-level explanation of natural selection in the second chapter). Unsurprisingly, the books in which foxes behave in the most realistic ways (in terms of their animal characteristics) are mainly those written by authors who of those who specialise in animal stories and have an affinity with the rural environment such as the aforementioned King-Smith and Potter, and Michael Morpurgo. In his Little Foxes the animals are simultaneously predatory and vulnerable. The ‘wildness’ of the fox is sustained right until the end and the animals are treated without sentimentality. Perhaps more surprisingly the other example of pure fox essence is displayed by Roald Dahl, an author more noted for flights of fancy than naturalistic observations. In Fantastic Mr. Fox the battle of fox versus chicken is once more played out, but this time firmly from the hungry fox’s point of view (and that of his family). Mr Fox is cunning and resourceful – but he is also arrogant and puts the life of his family in danger by showing off. That is not to say that he is a foe, merely a well-rounded character. The fox in The Gruffalo(Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler) is clearly a predator too, albeit one out-smarted by a mouse. In all of these, humans tend to be either the enemy, or an irrelevance. So being a realistic predator is not a guarantee that a fox character will be a foe.
Does the fox display particular cunning?
Sometimes the foxy quality in question will relate to some aspect of cunning rather than a primarily carnivorous diet. In Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam and the Missing Masterpiece by Tracey Corderoy (illustrated by Steven Lenton) the point that the picture-stealing fox is extra crafty is really hammered home by naming him Cunningham Sly. Marco the fox in The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater (illustrated by the Fan Brothers) has a different kind of intelligence; he is philosophical and asks questions like “How deep does the sun go when it sinks into the sea?”, but his fox family have no interest in such theoretical issues. More interesting is when this characteristic is inverted and where the fox in the story is not nearly as cunning as he likes to think. Rosie’s Walkby Pat Hutchins is a classic of this kind. Part of the joke comes from the reversing of the typical stereotype of the fox as wily and the hen as foolish. I don’t think it would work anything like as well with Rosie being an antelope leading a lion a merry dance around the savannah, even if the formula was the same.
So are foxes in stories always fox-like?
In short, no. In some books the fox is really a child substitute, and could just as well be a raccoon or a hamster; the Foxy books by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins and Five More Minutes by Marta Altes fit this definition. The fox in Nick Butterworth’s delightful Percy the Park Keeper stories also displays few fox-like characteristics. Pat Hutchins once again uses her beautiful illustrative powers on a fox in The Silver Christmas Tree but I think we can all agree that giving a mouse a duster as a Christmas present is not typically fox-like behaviour (great story though). For a cute fox with all-too-realistic urges, you could look at Outfoxed by Claudia Boldt. Here, Harold the fox is missing the normal chicken-eating urges, but does possess the appropriate amount of cunning, enabling him to work out how he can preserve his honour without letting the family down.
So, are foxes friends or foes? The answer would seem to be, it depends from whose perspective the story is seen. They can be brave heroes (or heroines) struggling to keep their families from starvation (Fantastic Mr Fox, Little Foxes) or dastardly villains trying to lure the story’s protagonist to an untimely end (Jemima Puddleduck, Rosie’s Walk), usually unsuccessfully. Or they can give a mouse a duster. Whether they are a hero or villain, foxes have inspired some of the best children’s writers to create books with flair, cunning, humour and fabulous illustrations. Which other books that you love feature friendly or fearsome foxes? Let me know in the comments.
Of the many delights when sharing a book with a child, one of the greatest is experiencing that moment when they realize that they have got one up on the protagonist/ villain in the story. Often, this is provided in a picture book by the words telling one story and the pictures telling another. As well as being great fun, it is a seriously useful skill to master. Here are some favourites which give children practice in spotting an unreliable narrator.
Getting the whole
Rosie’s Walk by Pat
in giving the child a voice in the storytelling. Rosie the Hen ploughs on
regardless, seemingly oblivious to the carnage wreaked behind her…or is she?
Read purely for fun at first, but maybe you could encourage speculation as to
whether she is doing it deliberately, or it is a happy accident (or unhappy if
you are more of a fox fan).
Handa’s Surprise by Eileen
much-loved classic, with good reason. Benefits include naming of animals and fruits
as well as a cracking story which needs the illustrations every bit as much as
the words. The reader has the chance to feel clever by spotting which animal
comes next (the curl of a monkey’s tail, an ear poking above the vegetation)
and then observing which fruit it takes while poor Handa is completely
oblivious. All is well in the end as her friend Akeyo ends up with piles of her
favourite fruit and the animals are also well-fed.
A word of
warning – it really is worth getting a proper ‘landscape’ copy of this book. I
have a squarer version published under the Reading Together banner, and somehow
it is just not the same.
Mog and the Baby by
Any Mog book
would probably come in this category as Judith Kerr very plainly sets out, Mog
is a Forgetful Cat so the reader is one step ahead of him pretty much all the
time anyway. But the extra pleasure here comes in the juxtaposition of Mrs
Thomas claiming “Mog loves babies!” while the pictures show that Mog is far
from happy with his visitor. Fear not, Mog comes good in the end by saving the
baby and receiving a giant fish as a reward.
Not Now, Bernard by
classic in which the reader has the advantage over the oblivious adults in the
book throughout, just by virtue of paying attention.
The Bear Under the
Stairs and The
Baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed by Helen Cooper
in which the text says one thing but the pictures clearly say another. The Baby
may vigorously protest that he is still wide awake, but the pictures show the
clear signs that he is very sleepy indeed.
Man on the Moonby Simon Bartram
on what is going on behind the narrator’s back. Lots of detail in the illustrations
reward re-reading. The same author has also written Dougal’s Deep Sea Diary
featuring under sea adventures.
No More Kissing! By Emma
delightful book, but the cleverness part just refers to the final page where
our anti-kissing hero admits, having just given his baby brother a kiss to
comfort him, “It was lucky no-one was looking.” That’s what he thinks, young
readers will know better! I have a huge grin on my face just looking at one
page of this charming book, which somehow manages to have sympathy for the
fussy relatives who love to kiss the baby, and the grumpy brother who does not.
The Owl Who Was Afraid
of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson
of out-knowing the hero come relatively late in this early chapter book.
Children will readily identify with the hero, Plop the barn owl, but hopefully
will also come to sympathise with Plop’s parents in their never-ending quest to
keep him fed and entertained. They can join in with his refrain of “I do not
like the dark AT ALL but…” and gradually realise that he is having to worker
harder and harder to convince himself that he hasn’t changed a bit.
Identifying with a smart
The Shopping Basket by
Such a strange book, but one of the joys of children’s literature is that talking animals and surreal situations need no explanations, you can just take them on trust. Steven is tasked by his hard-pressed mother to go on a shopping trip. He successfully buys all the required items but then finds himself threatened by a succession of animals into giving them up. He uses the environment around him (best use EVER of a 1970s-style wire waste paper bin) and the animals’ own foibles (“Me slow!” said the bear…) to prevent them from getting his shopping. The results of his skill are in the pictures, not the text, and revealed only once you have turned the page, allowing guesswork and remembering, which seem to cement the identification with the smart protagonist – similar in structure to Handa’s Surprise, but working in the opposite direction. (Added bonus – if you enjoy practising different animal voices when reading aloud, this gives them a great workout without knackering your vocal chords too much).
The Gruffalo and The
Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Many of Julia Donaldson’s texts give a starring role to brains (The Snail and the Whale, Tiddler and Room on the Broom just to mention a few), which is one of the reasons I love them so much, but this is the classic. A mouse dodges dangerous encounters with a fox, an owl and a snake by invoking the apparently imaginary threat of The Gruffalo, only to find half-way through that the creature is very much real and looking forward to a mouse sandwich. Our hero saves the day by capitalizing on his previous descriptions and correctly guessing that the Gruffalo’s brain is nowhere near as effective as its body, and makes his way back through the wood with The Gruffalo acting as a kind of bodyguard and scaring off all the other creatures. In the sequel the baton is passed to his daughter who shows similar skills by harnessing the power of moonlight and shadows. The not-so-hidden message here is that fortune favours the brave – as long as you are smart as well (and, in the case of The Gruffalo’s Child, that sometimes a little bit of adventuring is quite enough for one night).
Charlie Cook’s Favourite
Book by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
This is kind-of the Inception of children’s picture books. Each character is shown enjoying a book, whereupon the characters in the book are also shown enjoying a book and it carries on until…it goes back to the start with Charlie Cook again. It’s really satisfying and as a bonus the books are not just story books but include a joke book and a recipe book as well. It’s not so much that it makes you feel smart, you just want to go “A-ha!” at the end when it arrives back at the beginning.
Gorilla by Anthony
A deserved classic with plenty of smart visuals to spot (the repeated gorillas in places like the light switch and the cereal box) but also much more to ponder on. Does the toy actually change into a real gorilla, or is it all just a dream? How has Hannah’s Dad changed by the end of the story? Poor Hannah gets put through the wringer and the visual portrayals of loneliness are wretched, so a good one for an adult to read first to judge when a child is emotionally ready for it. Many of Anthony Browne’s books repay close reading, or re-visiting when you are a bit older. Another favourite of mine is Bear Goes to Town where you can have some fun guessing what Bear will do with his magic pencil next…or be terrified by the sinister guards he eventually out-wits.
Click on a letter to find all names recorded (so far) with the book or series that they are in and the author (I haven’t included illustrators for reasons of space). See the key below for extra information.
! = this book may contain themes which are distressing for young readers, especially for the character whose name it appears beside. This does not mean you should avoid it necessarily, but you should probably check it out further before buying it. For example, Quentin Blake’s ‘The Story of the Dancing Frog’ is a beautiful and sensitive book but it unavoidably covers the untimely death of a loved one, so it may not be suitable for all children at all times.
N = non-fiction
H = Heritage – a much-loved classic, may be particularly suitable as a birth or Christening gift (equally, it is very well-known, so they might already have it!)
V = the character is a villain (I haven’t used it in all cases – villainy is complex!)
– = a minor character in this book or series
oop = out of print (still worth including as you may be able to get second-hand copies cheaply and efficiently from internet sites).
BP = blog post – this book is mentioned in a post, click on BP to take you there.