There are so many better ways to spend thirteen quid on children’s books than on Meghan Markle’s The Bench; how about something that children might actually enjoy, which isn't written to gratify the vanity of the author? Here are a few of the ones that I liked and that your children (or you) might like.
The Pirate Twins by William Nicholson is just as good as the splendid Clever Bill, which also features a brave and kind little girl called Mary. But The Pirate Twins is more subversive. One day on the beach, Mary found the (very small) Pirate Twins, so she took them home and fed them (oysters and cake) and bathed them and taught them to dance (the sailor’s hornpipe) and read (S for Sailor) but they were piratical to the core and put things in the cat’s milk and even played dominos in bed. It’s a masterpiece of brevity, has a happy ending and is beautifully illustrated.
I’ll fix Anthony by Judith Voigt is based on the simple premise that quite a few siblings actively loathe each other…here a younger brother makes no bones about it: 'Mother says that deep, down in his heart, Anthony loves me. Anthony says that deep down in his heart he thinks I stink.' And so… 'When I’m six, I’ll fix Anthony'. It’s all about revenge, and it’s very funny.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is about what happens when a small creature pinches a bigger creature’s hat. No good comes of it. Deadpan illustrations, macabre and funny. Children get the joke.
In the Beginning by Jan Pienkowski is a collection of bible stories from the Old Testament, the ones simply everyone should know. Jan P is a genius illustrator; these are among his best….some are funny, as when Adam names the animals, matching labels with creatures; all are captivating. The text is from the Authorised Version, but sparingly used, so it doesn’t scare young readers.
It’s my contention that the original Alice in Wonderland is too obscure and period-piece for most young children. So instead of the full version, try the shorter one that Lewis Caroll abridged himself, and was also published by Macmillan. It’s called The Little Folks’ Edition, but don’t let that put you off; it has all the best bits.
The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley is one of my very favourite children’s books, a highly mannered account of what happens when the son of Aladdin goes to seek The Land of Green Ginger which flies from place to place and never lands in the same place twice – that involves releasing a button nosed tortoise from enchantment. And to win the hand of Silver Bud, he has to beat wily princes TinTac Ping Fu and Rubdub Ben Thub by means of a magic carpet. Fabulous illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. Make sure you get the unabridged version.
Buy all of Barbar, Tintin and Asterix. Barbar is so off-message as regards colonialism it’s funny, but you know what…it’s still brilliant graphic art; ditto Tintin. Asterix, as translated by the sublime Anthea Bell, is funny and clever and the best introduction to the Romans you’ll ever get.
Quentin Blake's Patrick is the great man’s first picture book, and it is about an Irish traveler who plays music that turns the world to colour. There are no words. It doesn’t need them.
Curious George by HA Rey and Margret Rey tells of the adventures of a naughty little monkey who was kidnapped by an unscrupulous American in the jungle and taken back to the US, where he manages to escape the zoo and has a lovely time creating havoc. My son really loved this. Do not be deceived by the spin offs; get the original.
Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl is a subversive book of poetry that depends on you knowing the basic fairy tales, which our author unhesitatingly undermines. They’re horrible of course, but very funny. My favourite is Little Red Riding Hood who, when the wolf tries his funny business, whips a pistol from her knickers, and 'bang, bang, bang she shoots him dead'. Serves him right.
Cautionary Verses by Hilaire Belloc: no childhood is complete without these moral tales, illustrated by the great BC Bentley, about the fates of children who defy the best advice and end horribly. They are among the immortals. Can anything be wiser than the counsel of Henry King, who would keep eating string?: '"Ah my friends, be warned by me/ That breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea are all the human frame requires". At this, the wretched child expires.'
The Turf Cutter’s Donkey is the work of Patricia Lynch - a sublime Irish children’s writer who combined fantastical adventures for her child protagonists with the old fashioned virtues of loyalty and courage. Her books for older children, like The Bookshop on the Quay, are just as good. She and Eileen O Faolain (try The Singing Cave) are my favourite Irish authors for children.
Nicolas, by Rene Goscinny. The author is best known for writing the Asterix books – an immortal pairing with Albert Uderzo – but his short stories about a little French schoolboy and his adventures are terrific too. Very funny pictures.
The Box of Delights by John Masefield is perhaps the perfect children’s book, or it would be if it weren’t for the ending. It’s about Kay Harker, returning home from school for Christmas, who gets mixed up with an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawkins. Hawkins gives him a magical box to protect from wicked Abner Brown and his gang, disguised as inmates of a seminary, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. My favourite character is probably cousin Maria, who keeps pistols, and wants nothing better than the chance to use them. Wonderful, and better than the previous book, The Midnight Folk.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is the story of an orphan girl called Maria Merryweather who goes to live with her cousin and guardian Sir Benjamin, in Moonacre Manor. She is accompanied by Miss Heliotrope, her governess and her dog Wiggins, who is beautiful and selfish. She discovers the legend of her family’s past and seeks to right the wrongs committed long ago and she falls in love. And she finds that the little white horse she sees in the grounds isn’t quite what he seems. It’s a charming book which JK Rowling loved, and it’s probably one for girls.
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner is about how brave Emil travels to Berlin, gets his money nicked on the train and is adopted by some native Berlin boys to get it back. It’s a sublime tale of masculine solidarity (though there’s a very feisty girl) and pluck and kindness. It’s also an unconsciously heartbreaking vision of an alternative Germany between the wars.
The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnar is, if you’re Hungarian, the equivalent of Emil, above. It’s about rival street gangs, territorial rivalry and the truth that you can make a difference to great events even if you’re quite small. Sorry…this sounds like Meghan, but it’s really not.
The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day Lewis is yet another account of rival boy gangs (sorry) but this is about how they collaborate to pay off the debt of one of their number and get on the wrong side of adult villainy. It’s really a working out of the Three Musketeers principle (they’re reading it in class): all for one, and one for all. The illustrations, again by the peerless Edward Ardizzone, are fabulous.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. How do I love Joan Aiken (though not her short stories so much)? There’s her wonderful, wonderful alternative history of Britain, where good king Jamie Stuart sits on the throne and the evil Hanoverians plot to overthrow him. This book is the sublime beginning of the series, but it really goes into orbit with Black Hearts in Battersea when we meet the immortal Dido Twite. Joan A was a writer of such fertile imagination, she wrote lots of terrific things. Check out The Whispering Mountain, Midnight is a Place and the superb duo set in Napoleonic Spain, Go Saddle the Sea and Bridle the Wind.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton is, in a way, a kind of Gulliver’s Travels take on the world of big people from the perspective of very small people – and whose borrowing accounts for the way that we big folk can never find things – but it’s straight, not satirical, and utterly convincing. The first book is the best but there’s a whole series once you’re hooked, as you will be.
Eusebius the Phoenician by Christopher Webb concerns a Phoenician from Tyre who brings a dead captain back to Scandinavia and he obtains a crew of bloodthirsty Vikings to assist his search of the Cup of Life and Arthur’s Camelot. This is a fabulous story, from the glory days of the Puffin imprint. It’s out of print but shouldn’t be.
The Dancing Bear by Peter Dickinson is another title from Puffin in the 1970s, presumably commissioned by the great Kaye Webb and also out of print. A wonderful story about what happens to a well born Byzantine girl when barbarians sack her town and she makes her escape with a slave, a dancing bear and a grumpy ascetic saint. Bring it back in print.
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber: 'Once Upon a Time in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold aggressive Duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda.' So begins this story of blackest villainy and impossible feats and the task set by the Duke to his niece’s suitor, the minstrel: 'In nine and ninety hours to find a thousand jewels.... When you return the clocks must all be striking five.' Fabulous, if you like that sort of thing.
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien is an account of poor Mrs Frisby, a mouse whose home is threatened and whose youngest son Timothy is too ill to move. So she enlists the help of mysterious, super-clever rats who came out of a laboratory much more intelligent than they went in.
The Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford doesn’t even pretend to be well written but it’s compulsive reading, about an English boy called Jack Fletcher, orphaned and cast up on the coast of seventeenth century Japan, who undergoes training as a Samurai, makes friends and enemies and gets caught up with the intrigues of the place. The author is a martial arts expert; the fight scenes are terrific.
Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroud is set in an England that is infested with ghosts and the only people who can deal with them are teenagers – adults can’t see them. So Lucy Carlyle joins the smallest ghost hunting agency in town, Lockwood & Co, and she and her two colleagues, handsome Anthony Lockwood and hungry George Cubbins undertake missions to rid their clients of infestations, armed with iron filings, lavender, swords and undaunted spirits. It’s a terrific series. My favourite character is a sardonic skull.
Elidor by Alan Garner. Fantasy as a genre isn’t for everyone but if you’re that way inclined, go for the best, Alan Garner, whose stories are bound up with his terroir – the land and legends of his native Cheshire. The Owl Service is another good bet; so too is The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, his first.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham is perfect English prose. The chapter titled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the most beautiful passage in children’s literature.
I take it you’ve already got your Moomintrolls (Moominland Midwinter), your Mogs and Tiger Who Came to Tea, your Maurice Sendak (don’t forget In the Night Kitchen as well as Where the Wild Things Are), your Mary Poppins, your Narnia books (the Magician’s Nephew upends the story of the Fall in terms of gender), your Dr Doolittle (original, unexpurgated versions), your Treasure Island, your Peter Pan (Mabel Lucie Atwell illustrations), your Arabian Nights and Grimm’s Fairy Stories? And Michele Paver's Wolf Brother series?
If anyone tries to give you The Bench, make sure you get the receipt and go pronto to exchange it for one of the above.