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The Children’s Choice: What are the best books out there?

‘I can promise reading will change your life for the better,’ writes beloved children’s and YA author Judy Blume. ‘You’ll be smarter, savvier, you’ll have a way to connect with people of all ages, and you’ll never be bored. What could be better?’

Just as Judy Blume passionately expounds, all of us know the benefits of reading for children and the magic that can ensue when a child sits down with a good book. What are the best children’s books for young readers? A current and thoroughly enjoyable list of recommendations from author Rebecca Stonehill. 

Often, books are waved beneath children’s noses as parents and teachers alike steer young people towards certain authors and genres. And while there’s naturally a place for this, I’ve wondered for a while what the most engaging books are out there, not according to the adults, but to the children themselves.

I started to ask around, including call outs on social media, requesting that adults ask the children in their lives a very simple question: What is your favourite book of all time? I also put the question to my friends’ children, to nieces and nephews, to my own children and their friends and even kids in the park over a number of months with results ranging from the predictable to gratifyingly surprising. Alongside this, Norwich library – which lends more books out per year than any other UK library – kindly provided me with the names of the books most borrowed by young people for their 2019 Summer Reading Challenge.

What I’d like to share with you now are the books most widely enthused over; an unfiltered children’s choice rather than adults saying, this is what you should be reading. I’m a passionate advocate for young people following their own secret trail of books and adults taking a step back in the libraries and bookshops. After all, we never, ever know where this trail may lead.

Young Children

Oi Frog! By Kes Gray and Jim Field

This gorgeous, award-winning rhyming book is a treat for children and parents alike, as an appealing cast of animals decide where to take their seats. (What do lions sit on? asked the frog. Lions sit on irons, said the cat.) If your child loves this book, thy can also enjoy Oi Dog! Oi Cat! And Oi Duck-Billed Platypus! Wonderful family fun.

The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The dynamic duo, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler were mentioned time and again. Their award-winning combination of engaging, rhyming prose and vibrant illustrations have delighted young audiences for many years now, with this seemingly unstoppable team bringing out new books all the time.

While a number of their books cropped up, the one that was mentioned the most was The Snail and the Whale. This charming story charts the journey of a snail that hitches the ride on a whale’s tail, eager to see as much of the world as he can. But when the whale is beached in a bay, what can his tiny friend do to save his life? An altogether perfect book to help young children believe you are never too small to make a difference.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

First published in 1969, the fact that one ravenous caterpillar’s exploits still regularly tops best-selling children’s book charts bears witness to this book’s enduring appeal. Small hands are encouraged to journey through the holes made in the fruit by the caterpillar, accompanied by Carle’s whimsical, instantly recognisable artwork. With its gentle repetition and satisfying ending, The Very Hungry Caterpillar will, I suspect, remain a bestseller for many years to come.

Mog & The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

Yet again, it was the classic books that have already delighted a few generations of children that came out top, with Mog and The Tiger who came to Tea comprising the books most regularly mentioned. There are a whole series of books about Mog, a lovable, forgetful cat whose adventures are sure to delight young children. With the latter book, published a year before The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the doorbell rings at Sophie’s house and as she wonders who it could possibly be, the very last thing she expects to see on her doorstep is a huge, hungry tiger! This is a wonderful story about an ordinary young girl living an extraordinary experience.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury

This tale about a family of five’s day out through different terrains to search for a bear is both lovable and light-hearted. Rosen’s use of onomatopoeic words will be a great hit with young children, and the way the story builds up in tension and excitement as they get closer to the bear, accompanied with Oxenbury’s glorious illustrations, is simply masterful.

Early Readers to Growing Confidence Readers

The Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne

First published over twenty five years ago, this prolific series (there are fifty-four books) follows brother and sister Jack and Annie who discover a magic tree house in the woods and are whisked away to numerous different historical, fantastical and wild settings. Here, the adventure continues, ranging from the Titanic to the Wild West to the Arctic. Accessible and engaging, alongside helping children to build upon their growing reading skills, they will also be learning about a wide variety of topics without even realising.

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

I remember adoring the exploits of Silky and Moonface as a child and Enid Blyton’s appeal to the young readers of today – love her or loathe her – endures. First published in 1943, the series has recently been updated (for example, Fanny has become Franny!), with three children and their cousin scrambling up a magical tree in the forest where they tumble from one land into another. But will they ever make their way back to the land they know? 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl’s best selling formula of magical mayhem and cheekiness was mentioned a number of times, but it was Matilda that came out on top. It’s not hard to see why: for Matilda, it seems that the whole world is against her, not least her parents who think she’s a waste of space and her headmistress Miss Trunchbull who has a number of vile punishments to dish out to her pupils. But bookworm Matilda is about to show the world that she’s not going to be bullied a moment longer. 

Billionaire Boy by David Walliams

With a clear nod to his writing hero, Roald Dahl, David Walliams’ laugh-out-loud books have been a phenomenal success. The book that was mentioned the most in my survey was Billionaire Boy, the hilarious tale of twelve year old Joe Spud who is filthy-rich (his father is the inventor of a wildly popular loo roll). He has everything he could ever wish for, even his own bowling alley. But he doesn’t have a friend. He convinces his Dad to enrol him in the local comprehensive school – will he find the friend there he wants above all else? A hilarious story guaranteed to entertain your child, it also touches on some important themes such as bullying and self-esteem. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series by Jeff Kinney

Kinney’s best-selling series of books follow the exploits of Greg Heffley in diary style with his ‘own’ drawings. Greg just wants to fit in, get on with his life and play video games. But everyone around him has other ideas: he’s constantly having to deal with tiresome siblings, embarrassing parents and worst of all: school. This series has been a huge hit, a modern ‘Adrian Mole’ with young people the world over empathising with Greg’s recognisable challenges.

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

New York Times bestselling author Kate DiCamillo has won two Newbery medals and countless accolades in her captivating books for young people. A number of her books were mentioned in my survey, but this one was the most popular. Orphan Peter wants to find his sister and when a fortune teller arrives in his town, he knows it’s time to het some help. But the fortune teller’s answer is not one he is expecting: An elephant! An elephant will lead you there! So Peter accepts the challenge…but will his sister be at the end of his unlikely trail?

Tom Gates Series by Liz Pichon

A huge thumbs up to Liz Pichon who has created the lovable, chaotic character of Tom and for making reading so hugely fun. Her doodles and illustrations are as equally engaging as the text and certainly help the stories to flow beautifully. The winner of numerous awards, Tom Gates will have young readers laughing out loud and taking up their own notebooks to try their hand at their own drawings and embedding doodles into their stories and diary entries. 

Warrior Cats Series by Erin Hunter

What happens when an ordinary house cat named Rusty joins a clan of wild cats living in the forest? The Warrior Cat series embraces a generous sprinkling of treachery, loyalty, friendship and adventure and while online reviews appear to engender a somewhat ‘marmite’ (love or loathe) opinion, for feline fans with a love of fantasy and adventure stories, you probably can’t go far wrong.

Competent Readers

Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling

These books really need no introduction. Over the past twenty years, Harry Potter has become a household name in a way that its creator could never have envisaged. The series has sold over 400 million copies and been translated into 68 languages and if your child hasn’t already tapped into its magic, why not give it a go? I know a number of parents who are sceptical about Harry Potter and keen for their children to read books that are ‘better written’ or not what ‘everybody else is reading’. But I would say, if it encourages your child to read, embrace Harry and Hogwarts for all its worth.

Alex Rider Series by Anthony Horowitz

Filled with adrenaline and high-octane adventure, this best-selling series follows fourteen year old Alex who is recruited into the world of espionage against his will. Alex’s life is at risk and the stakes are high; if he doesn’t fulfil the missions he is tasked with, it’s not only him who will suffer. Horowitz has created a savvy teenage boy hero for the twenty-first century and his series will appeal to young people who like action stories with exciting backdrops (think: Russian ice fields, abandoned coal mines and Cairo’s city of the dead).

Percy Jackson Series by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson wants to be normal, but how can he possibly be normal when he’s half-human, half-God, a.k.a ‘half-blood’? In Riordan’s epic, action packed adventure stories, he has brought Greek Mythology alive for young people in a way that no preceding or subsequent author has achieved. A phenomenally successful series with a cast of intriguing characters, once children are hooked on the Percy Jackson series, there will be no stopping them and they can even delve into Riordan’s other series featuring Roman, Norse and Egyptian mythologies if they are eager for more.

In the words of author Neil Gaiman, ‘Somewhere, there is a book written just for you. It will fit your mind like a glove fits your hand. And it’s waiting. Go and look for it.’ He is absolutely right; take your child to a bookshop or library, step back and watch the magic unfold as they step on to their own, very personal written word adventure. Keep letting your children chose their own books alongside the ones they have to read for school.