Classics every child should read

From gripping adventure to the deliciously scary, Anna Carey recommends 10 top childhood reads


Anne of Green Gables
By LM Montgomery
This story of a red-haired orphan taken in by two elderly siblings in Canada’s Prince Edward Island has delighted readers of all ages for nearly a century. Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert want an orphan boy to work on their farm, but the orphanage mistakenly sends them Anne Shirley, a bright but impulsive girl with a wild imagination. Montgomery’s style can verge on the flowery, but Marilla’s sternness stops the book from getting sentimental, while Anne herself remains a brilliant portrait of a neglected child whose ability to dream has helped her survive.

Mortal Engines
By Philip Reeve
Reeve’s Mortal Engines quartet are probably the best fantasy novels of the last 20 years. Set in a superbly realised distant future in which cities have become mobile, moving on giant wheels over the ravaged surface of the earth and capturing other cities (thanks to the principles of “municipal Darwinism”), the first book in the series is a gripping adventure, as a teenage boy called Tom falls off the mobile city of London and reluctantly teams up with a wild, scarred girl called Hester Shaw, an unforgettable antiheroine.

Ballet Shoes
By Noel Streatfeild
Don’t be fooled by its pretty title – Noel Streatfeild’s first book for children is a surprisingly down-to-earth look at children training for a life on the stage. Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are adopted sisters in 1930s London who attend a stage school out of financial necessity. If that sounds grim, it isn’t – there’s a reason this book has been adored for over 70 years, and that’s because it’s enormously likeable, thanks to both Streatfeild’s totally convincing depiction of the theatre world and the three heroines themselves.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers By E Nesbit
In her first novel for young readers in 1899, Nesbit basically invented the modern children’s book. The story of the Bastables, a family of impoverished middle-class siblings determined to restore their family’s fortunes, remains astonishingly fresh and undated, despite the fact that its characters live in a world of gas lamps and domestic staff. Lively, dramatic and very funny, it also has one of the best unreliable narrators in fiction. “It is one of us that tells this story,” he says on the first page, “but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will.”

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Age 13¾
By Sue Townsend
No one ever captured the combination of mundanity and emotional melodrama that makes up almost every teenager’s life as perfectly as Sue Townsend in this utterly hilarious, heartbreaking book. Adrian is a would-be intellectual living in the English midlands and, like most of us at that age, he feels that no one understands him – not his best friend Nigel (owner of a coveted racing bike) nor his parents (whose marriage seems to be on the rocks). His only hope is his classmate Pandora, the girl of his dreams.

Charmed Life
By Diana Wynne Jones
This is my favourite sort of fantasy novel: scary, witty, wildly imaginative, and populated by characters who behave and talk like real people. First published in 1977 but still fresh and original, this is the story of Cat Chant, who lives in what feels very like Edwardian England apart from the fact that many people have magical powers. His egomaniacal sister Gwendolen is a powerful witch. When their parents die they go to live with a charismatic and urbane enchanter called Chrestomanci, and a serious power struggle begins.

The Just William books
By Richmal Crompton
I can’t pick just one of the adventures of William Brown, because virtually all of them are worth reading. William may live in what is now an old-fashioned world, but his adventures and his general exasperation at the state of the world are still hilarious, whether he’s at war with his appalling rival Hubert Lane, embarking on an elaborate new game, interfering in his elder siblings’ love lives or trying to do something for the general social good. William’s schemes generally don’t go as planned, yet he triumphs. Sort of.

The Hounds of the Morrigan
By Pat O’Shea
Funny, scary and written in a glorious style reminiscent of both Flann O’Brien and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, this is my favourite Irish children’s book, combining Irish legend with a wonderful sense of the absurd. A boy called Pidge discovers a strange ancient book in a Galway book shop. But dark forces are seeking the book, and soon he and and his little sister Brigit are on a quest, meeting strange new allies as they are pursued by the wonderfully scary ancient battle goddess, the Morrigan, and her pack of hounds.

Goodnight, Mister Tom
By Michelle Magorian
This book made me weep buckets when I was 12, but that’s a testament to its power. Willie Beech, a miserable boy from an unhappy, violent home, is evacuated at the start of the second World War. He’s taken in by a gruff old widower called Tom Oakley, who finds himself caring about the boy despite himself, and Willie finally starts to bloom. This gripping novel deals with serious issues and includes some very upsetting scenes, but it’s also warm and optimistic.

The Wee Free Men
By Terry Pratchett
While Pratchett’s adult books are loved by teens, his tales for younger readers about youthful witch Tiffany Aching are among his very best. In the first in the series, Tiffany’s annoying little brother is kidnapped by the fairies – traditional, terrifying fairies, the tall sort who steal away humans rather than dainty things with wings. She’s helped to rescue him by the Nac Mac Feegle, a tribe of tiny blue men who love fighting. A perfect children’s book – funny, wise and insightful with a resourceful heroine, and a deliciously scary villain, the Fairy Queen.

Anna Carey’s first book The Real Rebecca won the Senior Children’s Book prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her third book, Rebecca Rocks, is out now

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