Ten Influential Childhood Books

Words: Chelsea Haith
Images: Sourced
Ten authors crucial to growing up

If I could have it my way books would be near the top on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They are a part of life and without them there would simply be empty space on people’s bedside tables and by extension in people’s souls. Reading is a life-long pleasure but seldom do we revisit the books we read as children. Compiled as a self-indulgent trip down memory lane, the ten authors and their books that are crucial to the personal development of under-13s. And over-13s. And anyone who needs some laughter, innocence and magic in their life.

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1. AA Milne – Winnie the Pooh
“Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, thump thump thump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.” As memory serves, these are some of the opening lines to the large and beautiful book that introduced to the world a yellow bear who inexplicably didn’t wear pants, and who defined a generation. Most 20-somethings don’t like wearing pants either so perhaps there’s something in that.

Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo have infiltrated our hearts and our interactions. So much so that the die-hards of the 100-acre Wood are horrified to see Pooh Bear remakes in cartoons and on television. Pooh is sacred and so is the story. ‘Pooh bear’ is a popular nickname, but more seriously the lessons about friendship and selfconfidence in the book are long-lasting. The friendships and perhaps more essentially, the tolerance of others’ differences that Pooh and his friends promote, have stayed with the pint-sized fans of yesteryear, now in their 20s and finding their own way through the woods.

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2. Diana Wynne Jones – The Merlin Conspiracy
The intricacies of the story, the villains, the protagonists Nick and Roddy, the unlikely hero Grundo, the romantic subplot (rather racy when you’re only ten years old) makes The Merlin Conspiracy a work that opened my, and I presume others’, eyes to the possibilities of fantasy fiction and sparked a love of the genre that’s still going strong.

The honesty of the characters and their personalities is so typically English and so well-constructed that you find yourself and people you know in the book, both surprising and delightful, like a chocolate you find in the top shelf of the fridge a week after Easter.

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3. JK Rowling – The Harry Potter Series
An obvious choice, Harry Potter has become part of popular culture and even infiltrated the Oxford English Dictionary, making ‘muggle’ an acknowledged part of the English vocabulary. This was then succeeded by selfie in 2013. The English speaking world isn’t doing very well for itself these days.

The generation that was 11 years old with Harry and struggling with bad skin and homework grew with him and nowadays also find themselves negotiating awkward love triangles and fighting off a man in a big black cloak who seems to be missing his nose- wait what? Just the former perhaps.

JK Rowling gave our generation a map to life and while slaying dragons at age 14 might be a metaphor for standing up to playground bullies, the promise of one day receiving that misdirected letter that so tragically went missing at age 11 gives us hope for a future when we can wave our wands and call lost items to us without having to phone our parents to ask where we put the spare keys.

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4. Enid Blyton – The magic Faraway Tree
Vivid imagination is so crucial not only to reading, but also to being able to understand others and to being able to grasp unfamiliar cultural concepts. While Enid Blyton’s is famous for her other works The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, The Magic Faraway Tree has a particular attraction due to the possibility that anything could happen to Beth, Joe, Frannie and their cousin Rick on their adverntures with the Saucepan Man and co.

While they are simple children’s stories, the series laid the ground work for children to understand ‘otherness’. In The Land of Topsy Turvy the children discover a place where everything is upside down and they meet people who walk on their hands. They also travel to The Land of Goodies (free cake anyone?) and The Land of Magic Medicines where they find a medicine to cure their ailing mother. The problem solving that goes along with the mischief the children cause is also useful as it gives children the opportunity to exercise their grey matter.

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5. Pretty much anything and everything by Terry Pratchett
In a class of his own, almost anything Terry Pratchett writes is worth reading, be the reader young or old. The Discworld series, featuring the iron-willed and insightful Granny Weatherwax, is must-read for younger readers. The novel Mort in particular is laugh-out loud in its hilarity and challenging conceptually as it presents Death, ‘Mort’, as a character with a weakness for beautiful princesses.

Pratchett’s work is satirical, clever and political if you choose to read it that way. His tongue in cheek perspective on religion and spirituality takes nothing away from the faith in humanity his novels portray. If you managed to survive childhood without Terry Pratchett you are to be commended for your survival skills and urged to go find something, anything, of his in the local book store to step into the world of a child’s wild imagination mixed in so thoroughly with Pratchett’s dry wit.

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6. Eoin Colfer – Artemis Fowl
On the topic of fantasy and science fiction literature, Artemis Fowl, the most anti-heroic boy- hero, stole into the hearts of readers over the course of several books with his cool gadgets, his clever think and his utterly unlikeable, pitiful personality. The other characters made up for this poor-showing and Colfer created one of the most feminist characters I had ever read as a child in the character Holly Short, the only female elf on the LEPrecon team. The team is aided by Foaly, a centaur who is also a computer geek. The punny name choices are also part of the perfection of this series.

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7. Kenneth Grahame – Wind in the Willows
Mole and Rat, more commonly known as Ratty, are just two of the anthropomorphised characters who defy all of misconceptions about them by being quite pleasant characters. They are entertaining, the camaraderie between the characters is light-hearted and the messages in the stories of these lovable and occasionally dim and silly characters are lessons of common sense.

Grahame, formerly the secreatary of the Bank of England, published the book in 1908 and while the olde worlde sensibilities ring through, the ideas remain the same. The characters are honest. Toad is good natured but vain, Mole has good intentions but little follow-thorugh and so on. It is a book of stories about real people with strengths and weaknesses who just happen to be animals who live on the Thames.

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8. The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – Michael Morpurgo
The genesis of Pippi Longstocking is as sad as the character is happy. Pippi was born out of Astrid Lindgren’s daughter’s illness as a young child. Karin Lindgren would ask her mother for stories about the indefatigable and brilliant little girl with gravity-defying red pigtails and these became the tails of Pippi Longstocking.

The girl who was strong enough to lift a horse and independent enough to live on her own was an inspiration to young girls in an age in which women’s rights were slowly coming to the fore just after the Second World War. Pippi’s escapades, her secret loneliness and her enthusiasm made her a character any child would want to be friends with, and therefore the best kind of character.

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9. The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – Michael Morpurgo
Stories about war are always heart-wrenching, but stories about animals in war-time situations are even more heart-wrenching. Stories about cats surviving wars are therefore the most heart-wrenching of all. Tips is a cat who cares not a jot for the signs to the locals to keep out of the practice area where the Allied forces had set up camp on the British coast to
practice for the D-Day landings that ended World War Two.

The relationship between the little girl Lily and her cat Tips and the events that transpire are pure Morpurgo and as a lesson in the effect that a book can have on you, Morpurgo’s novels are the height of tear-jerking drama. Morpurgo is also the author of War Horse which became the film of the same name. Animals under stress in art, be it film or literature, do
something to our hearts, and this book, as a first exposure to empathy for non-existent characters, gives young readers an idea of the power of words.

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10. Garth Nix – The Old Kingdom Series
Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen Garth Nix’s work write has an interesting, slightly troubling horror aspect to it, the novels Shade’s Children and The Rag Witch in particular, which will keep most children awake for a good part of age nine and ten for fear of nightmares. The Old Kingdom series was a deviation from this angle and begins with Sabriel, followed by Lirael, both novels named after the protagonist. The series deals with the coming of age stories of characters that struggle with everyday concerns in a world of segregation, bias, discrimination, death, fear, and of course, magic.

For complexity and joy in the The Old Kingdom’s Charter and mysticism, the books should be read together, but are equally as wonderful individually. Abhorsen finishes the trilogy off officially, though Nix also wrote several short stories to complement the series. The strong female characters are essential role models and the triumphs of self-confidence and self-belief over evil are inspiring.

The Cross Over: Carol Plum-Ucci – What Happened to Lani Garver? Not necessarily a book for children, this book should be read by all young people entering their teens at the very least. While Plum-Ucci is better known for her novel The Body of Christopher Creed, which holds many of the same ideas, What Happened to Lani Garver? is the young adults’ guidein- the-form-of-a-really-gripping-novel to understanding homosexuality, self-mutilation, eating disorders, peer pressure and individuality and, if you read it right, perhaps even God.

Books can change how we see the world and all of these books shaped me to some extent, some letting in ideas, some letting out ideas. Some opened doors in my head that will never close and some gave me, and so many other nerdy lonely children, friends that we could trust to keep telling their stories and whose lessons we could apply to our own lives without having to make their mistakes ourselves. That is perhaps the best part of reading as a child; the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds, where characters like you make mistakes so that you don’t have to while leaving you with the sense of having experienced the plot yourself. As Norah Ephron wrote in the script of the film ‘You’ve Got Mail’, “You are what you read.” And that starts young.