Never Mind the Bestsellers…

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…Here’s the Alternative Kids’ Lit Reading List!

The Lesser Known Movers and Shakers of Children’s Literature

Summer holidays and book recommendation posts go together. To be read piles usually consist of the most recent bestsellers to come to your particular genre of choice. I could tell you about these books but the chances are you already know.

So here’s something different. A few forgotten (and free) Victorian children’s books that will rock your world because:

  • Out of the five authors featured, four are women.
  • One could arguably be described as the first author writing in a YA LGBT genre.
  • One is a comic genius whose stories are as fresh and funny as anything you’ll pick up today.
  • One defied all odds: was blinded as a child and escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger before going on to write many children’s books.
  • One was the childhood favourite of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, with both ‘using’ it to influence major parts of their most famous books.

If you’re an adult who likes children’s literature, you need to know these books. If there was a family tree for children’s literature, these guys would be the movers and shakers, there just as it was all getting going. If they’d been late 20th Century musicians, they would have been in the audience for the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in the summer of ’76. Legends and influencers the lot of them and well worth your time.

A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T Meade (1891)

“You are a clever girl, Prissie, and I’m going to be proud of you. I don’t hold with the present craze about women’s education. But I feel somehow that I shall be proud of you.”

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith: feminist and original YA author. She wrote many books in her lifetime and can be seen as a forerunner in LGBT fiction. She was a bit of a marvel.

A Sweet Girl Graduate is right there at the start of women in higher education, sharing it as a fiction and encouraging its readers to think about this world. It’s diverse too. Protagonist Priscilla, unlike the other girls at her college, is poor and struggles to make ends meet. She is quiet, hard-working, has a “careworn” face older than her years and a “too serious mouth”. For anyone out there who rolls their eyes each time they are told yet another  YA female protagonist is extraordinarily beautiful (without knowing it of course), I give you the reassuringly normal Priscilla and her true depth of character as a square peg in a round hole.

Priscilla expects life at her all-girls’ college to be all about study, but soon discovers that forming and maintaining relationships with the other young women there is equally as time-consuming. There is a spirit of intimacy between the girls that’s been described as an early depiction of lesbian relationships. This is a brilliant read and a much-needed insight into late Victorian social history from a woman’s perspective.

Free online text with illustrations 

Holiday House by Catherine Sinclair  (1839)

If you read just one of these books, make it Holiday House.

Sinclair introduces us to Harry and Laura, the Victorian answer to Horrid Henry. They live comfortably in Edinburgh with their doting uncle and grandmother. They are stringently policed by the formidable Mrs Crabtree whose old-fashioned methods of  ruling with an iron fist hold no truck with the children or their guardians. Like Blyton’s hopeless village policemen, she doesn’t have a chance against her young opponents and goes off regularly, like a kettle left too long on the heat.

The first half of Holiday House is a chronicle of Harry and Laura’s amazingly naughty escapades that they happily never learn from. Sinclair’s voice is everything: she writes with a humour similar to the much later PG Wodehouse. Socks will be laughed off. These adventures would go down well in any Key Stage Two classroom today.

Be warned though: the second half of the book drops off into the more usual moral tale and leaves behind the pioneering style of the first half. Sinclair later spoke of regretting this move and wished she could rewrite it. My advice is read up to chapter ten and stop. Even so, this is a classic that should be more widely enjoyed today.

Free online text here.

The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth (1877)


Griselda and the Cuckoo Inside the Clock

Mrs Molesworth was using inanimate objects to travel to magical lands long before Enid Blyton ever wrote about her wishing chair. A wonderful story from the start in which a young girl (Griselda) comes to live with elderly relatives and senses something unusual about the house. It turns out she is right in this first impression as there is magic in the air. Young Griselda finds that the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock can come to life and the clock has the power to take her to fantastic lands. A story of magic and finding new friends mixed with a nice bit of Victorian didacticism, as you would expect.

Link to free online text with illustrations

Granny’s Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne (1857)

Talking of magical chairs, here’s another. Back in 1857 Frances Browne was using this as the key form of transport in her latest book Granny’s Wonderful Chair. In it, Snowflower leaves home to travel to a fine palace where she tells her fairy stories to the lords and ladies present.

It’s a sweet book that will touch your heart and gets even more poignant when put into context. Frances Browne was a remarkable woman who was born in Donegal with no benefit of family wealth. She was blinded by smallpox as a young child but wouldn’t let this hold her back. She loved writing and particularly enjoyed the fairy stories her mother told her. Browne was forced to leave Ireland because of The Great Hunger in 1847 and when you read Granny’s Wonderful Chair you’ll most likely notice references to morality in relation to greed and hunger. This is a beautiful piece of story telling that rings through so clearly that the author might well be reading it aloud to you.

Free online text with illustrations

 The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872)

Princess Irene Explores the Castle

Young Princess Irene lives a lonely life in a castle in the mountains with only her nursemaid for company. One rainy day she is forced to play inside and stumbles upon a series of strange rooms and a beautiful woman who says she is Irene’s great great grandmother. Irene’s world takes a magical turn from here as her adventures take her under the mountains and into the world of goblins, although always under the protective gaze of her newly found relative that no one else believes exists.

Ring any bells? It should do. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien were heavily influenced by it. Both authors cited The Princess and the Goblin as a favourite childhood book and a big influence on their own stories. You’ll spot even more things in common as you read. A fascinating book with the pleasing extra of having an extremely old lady in a position of agency and central to the plot. Best mentally visualised in Japanese Anime style, because it’s that wildly imaginative and distinctive.

Free online text with illustrations

Top image credited  to The National Library of Scotland, with thanks.

Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

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“A high metallic strike made me jump. But it was only the living room clock. It struck twelve, and the last stroke faded away.

And as it faded away, the wind stopped whistling in the chimney. The water stopped gurgling in the pipes. The breeze stopped rustling in the trees. 

I had never known such silence. It was as though the world was holding its breath.”

Christmas Eve, the air just before it snows, getting ready to go out somewhere special. Things that hold a sense of delicious anticipation that make the main event even better. Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters has this from the very start;  a tantalising piece of children’s historical fiction that gives me this exact same feeling. And being surrounded with such a compelling combination of anticipation and action, it’s wonderfully easy to get caught up.

We join Evie as she goes to stay with godmother Anna while her mum’s on honeymoon. Thrown into the unknown setting of Anna’s flat in an old converted manor house, Evie begins to pick up on the history around her and learns about the tragic Sophia Fane: a previous inhabitant who left an intriguing inscription on the window of Evie’s room.

Later that night as the clock strikes twelve, Evie finds herself invited into the past- specifically to 1814 and Sophia’s time. She has a role to play in Sophia’s fate, but even in the past time marches forward. Will Evie manage to help Sophia and still get back to her own time or will she remain trapped in the past?

Evie’s Ghost is a beauty of a book that will have young readers and listeners on the edge of their seats asking for the next chapter. Teachers looking for a riveting class reader will appreciate this and will love the way Helen Peters creates drama and empathy, especially around Evie’s perceptions of the past and the people she meets. There are differences to consider throughout and the author strikes a sensitive balance between noting advantages of the modern world and suggesting sacrifices made for it.

There is enormous value beyond the pages of Evie’s Ghost, especially for Upper Key Stage Two classes looking to study the past in a really meaningful way. Use it to create great drama opportunities in relation to the story, then take it further and encourage children to find their own inner Evie to explore their own slice of local history outside of the classroom and away from the internet.

Evie’s Ghost: perceptive, inspiring, absorbing, and a must for fans of historical fiction.


Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler

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“Ignorance is as harmful as cruelty, despite whatever intentions the person has.”

Finding Black Beauty

Finding Black Beauty by Lou Kuenzler is a sensitive and moving retelling of Anna Sewell’s Victorian novel Black Beauty. Suitable for readers aged ten years plus, this is a wonderful take on a classic family favourite.


Some of you may remember Joe from the original story: an inexperienced but well-meaning stable lad who bonds with Black Beauty. This time Joe is our central character and by changing the perspective of the story, Lou Kuenzler opens up a whole new spectrum of meaning for readers. Joe, we learn, is inexperienced for good reason: he is actually a young girl called Josie disguised out of necessity in order to escape a miserable future.

Having lost her father in a hunting accident, Josie’s world is turned upside down by terrible and sudden grief. As her mother left years ago preferring city life, Josie is effectively an orphan. Then when vile cousin Eustace inherits her home, everything she has ever known is removed piece by piece, the last straw being her beloved pony Merrylegs.

Driven by her love of horses, Josie decides to take charge of her destiny. By cutting off her hair and borrowing suitable clothes, she begins to carry out a plan. She stows away in the cart taking Merrylegs to his new home, hoping to find work there as a stable boy. Here she first meets Beauty and a bond is formed. Josie’s love for the horse reimagines Sewell’s emotional roller coaster through new eyes. The results are humbling. This is such a beautiful book. I was totally captivated by it and I think barely breathed for the last hundred pages. Did I cry? Of course I did! Prepare for this; you will need tissues.

Already a Classic

Impeccably researched and written as a perfect complement to the original, it’s as if Kuenzler has walked amongst the original players. She draws astute parallels between Beauty and Josie that bring them closer together. Both have lost close family in hunting accidents early in life and both were separated from their mothers before they should’ve been, although for different reasons. There’s no doubt they belong together, but will that be possible?

In the original text, Anna Sewell told the story from Beauty’s perspective: an emotive and effective way to tell a beautiful story with priority given in telling to animal welfare. In Finding Black Beauty none of this power is lost, rather it’s given extra strength by the parallels it draws in how Josie’s destiny too is shaped by those around her. To fully appreciate the dual perspective and how both books compliment each other, I’d highly recommend that this is read alongside the original. Scholastic are currently offering the original free when buying this sequel here.

Finding Black Beauty: already a classic in my eyes.

Thanks so much to Scholastic for sending me this book and giving me the opportunity to be part of this book tour.


Girls Behaving Badly: Terrible, Horrible Edie and Skating Shoes

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Girls’ World

I like to explore old children’s books every so often and recently read a couple with a wonderful common link: not so perfect, even a bit naughty, girls. Characters with a bit of something feisty about them have always been far more interesting, hence the reason the perfectly good Jane isn’t our leading lady in Pride and Prejudice. Written for a different time’s children, these books (especially Terrible, Horrible Edie) may have quite a niche appeal, but are the sort of children’s books we used to love. Adults in a reminiscent mood may like to check out too (as I did).

Terrible, Horrible Edie by E.C. Spykman




Terrible, Horrible Edie- an excellent title which has probably  helped its resurgence and had a hand in it being reprinted by The New York Review’s Children’s Collection. As we’re over half way through the year, I think it’s verging on okay to suggest it as a good Christmas present idea being as it’s a very pretty hardback and obscure enough to hopefully not be a duplicated gift. I already mentioned though that this would probably not appeal to all kids. It’s definitely not one to encourage a reluctant reader as there are no pictures and the chapters are quite long. It’s packed with adventure and humour, but it’s subtly presented, even deadpan at times. Originally published in 1960, it does feel rather older than that and Edie is more akin to the Swallows and Amazons than to Charlie Bucket and the chocolate factory massive.


Edie herself is neither terrible nor horrible, but resilient, independent and hungry for adventuring. The story covers her long American summer holiday with her brothers and sisters. They are staying at their aunt’s holiday home on the coast, privileged enough to have a guardian and staff whilst their father and step mother are abroad. If We Were Liars had been written for children and had all the darkness and badness taken out of it, this is what it would look like. Adventures are mostly nature-based, with Edie getting into scrapes out on her boat and helping farmers herd their livestock.

There are camp fires, reprimanded thieves and flooded houses; thick fog, cars bursting into flames and hurricanes. Adults pale in comparison to Edie’s wit and though she is patient with them, she finds it’s best to do her own thing and not concern them too much. It’s beautifully written and made me laugh out loud many times, with its dry humour and clever characterisation. A book worth taking time over.



Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

skating shoes


Another in Streatfeild’s ‘shoes’ series, but rather less known than Ballet Shoes. Like Terrible, Horrible Edie, this is set in a different time and feels older to me than its 1951 original publish date. This time, our friend is Harriet. Harriet has been poorly for a long time and though she is now recovered, she is very weak and unable to return to school. As a way to build up her strength, her doctor suggests skating. Just about the greatest prescription ever given possibly? Children learning about history in schools nowadays are inadvertently given the message that they are better off : safer and better provided for with more fun things to do. And yet here we are with Skating Shoes, presenting a time where children were kept off school to ice skate and it was considered excellent practise. Okay, so schools weren’t heated like they are now and childhood illness was worse etc, etc, but I’m sure I’d have been fairly jealous of Harriet’s turn of good fortune when I was ten years old.


Harriet isn’t actually naughty at all; in fact she’s rather more a Jane than a Lydia or a Lizzie. The interest in this book comes from Lalla Moore (I know! Outstanding name- hard not to picture teletubbies.) who skates at the same rink as Harriet. Harriet is as poor as Lalla is rich. Harriet cannot skate at all and Lalla was born to skating but when the two of them meet, they become firm friends. Lalla gives Harriet life and excitement, whilst receiving in return a longed for involvement in normal, loving family life.

Lalla has a magnificently Victorianesque back story: her father was a famous figure skater who died in a freak skating accident, where he and Lalla’s mother were drowned in an icy lake, pulled under and weighed down by the skates they so loved. Lalla’s infuriating aunt has since brought her up and lives to turn Lalla into the world’s best skater. In order to encourage her, she has been kind enough to retrieve the manky skates Lalla’s father was wearing when he drowned and has put them in a lovely display box in the child’s bedroom so she can look upon them as soon as she wakes each day. Sweet gesture.


Her aunt has denied her a normal life in two ways: firstly by allowing her no friends nor childhood experiences and forcing her to train all the time, and secondly by telling the child how fantastic she is all the time whilst pushing her into the limelight. Under the care of a less skilled author, Lalla could be an absolute nightmare, but Streatfeild makes her engaging and likeable enough for us to stick with her when she inevitably becomes conceited. Like EC Spykman, Streatfeild also uses a supporting cast of relatives and adults masterfully to enhance her story. She really is brilliant, with the local newsagent feeling just as vital an inclusion to understanding Harriet’s world as the skates themselves.


Our high points here aren’t hurricanes or burning cars, but training, competitions and understanding friendships. Slightly less romantic than Ballet Shoes, this feels like a slice of the past and we stay with Lalla and Harriet for an important part of their lives. It feels to me like it’s us who step away at the end of the book and that when we’ve gone, our friends continued to live their lives and enjoy their adventures.

GGGG Old fashioned but not past their sell by dates. Lovely reads for book loving kids and fans of classic fiction.

Hello Old Friend! Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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Come Back to What You Know

If there’s one thing that writing children’s book reviews has not allowed me to do, it’s indulging in the pleasure of re-reading old favourites. Before Booksagogogogogo, I spent much more time re-reading books: JRR Tolkein, Ruby Ferguson, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis to name but a few. For the last year or so, they’ve languished on the book shelf due to an ever-increasing pile of new reads I have waiting.

My heart went back to my old favourites earlier this week though, due to an article I read in the Guardian by the inspiring SF Said. It’s a brilliant, perceptive piece that questions why children’s literature isn’t considered worthy of winning any of the big book awards. These are wonderful books that not only stand up to the scrutiny of re-reading time and time again, they actually improve for it. I’d recommend you read the whole article:

It ends with a list of various authors/ movers and shakers letting us in on their favourite re-reads. How lovely to find out Philip Pullman likes The Magic Pudding! I was really chuffed to see The Little White Horse made the list for Charlotte Higgins- I just love it; it’s the book I’m holding in the About Bec section on here. Those on the list which I haven’t read are now in my sights…

My Recommended Re-read

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

ballet shoes

In the spirit of this article, I’ve been considering my own old friends. Whether you’re discovering it for the first time, or loved it as a child, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild is well worth a little of your time this week. Written in the thirties, it’s the story of the Fossil sisters, babies in need of help who were lovingly collected by Great Uncle Matthew (Gum) whilst on his travels. Each time he returned them to his London home where great-niece Sylvia and Nana her nurse would look after them.

When we first meet the girls, Gum has not been in touch for a long time. Gum’s money has all but ran out and Sylvia and Nana must find a way to make ends meet. Meanwhile Pauline, Petrova and Posy are growing up and developing their own dreams: Pauline wants to be an actress, Petrova (My favourite. It’s important you have a favourite.) loves cars and longs to be a mechanic. Posy is the dancer, a born natural performer.

The story really begins when Sylvia rents out rooms to help bring some income to the household. Rather than being an intrusion, these lodgers enrich the story and the girl’s lives.

You should read/ re-read Ballet Shoes because it is a multi-layered story which stands up under modern scrutiny. London is totally recognisable, as is the family dealing with hard times (although the circumstances aren’t so common nowadays, the effects are much the same). You’ll have your favourite of course, but all the girls are interesting and individual and completely lovable. And if you aren’t big on ballet, if doesn’t really make much difference to the enjoyment of the story anyway.

A book which has and will mostly appeal to girls, being about girls growing up. Dig it off the shelf, re-order and start dog-earing a new copy as soon as possible. GGGGG, obviously.

What are your favourite re-reads? Which books became old friends of yours when you were growing up?


Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman: A Classic Confection

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Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman


“This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. Back then, we all lived on the edge of a great forest. There was a woodcutter. He cut down trees. He chopped the branches off the trees, and he cut the trunks and the branches into logs for firewood, which he would haul on a handcart to the nearest path into the town. It was hungry work, cutting trees.”


For those giving up sugary pleasures this January, Neil Gaiman’s version of Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel might be just the thing to steer you on the path to righteousness. After all, there are few things more effective than the thought of a cannibalistic OAP to keep you off the cake.

The tale is familiar, as you would hope and presents a truly dark but accurate version of the traditional favourite accompanied by  Lorenzo Mattotti’s inky illustrations.


It’s as fearsome as you remember, but all the sharp edges here are gathered in the right places. As with Grimm’s original hearing, we have a mother rather than a step mother. Later versions preferred to disassociate issues of child abandonment with birth mothers, and all including this telling show the father as largely without blame and under some sort of coercive control.

The real challenge with this story, as with all other versions, is hunger. Famine was well-known to early storytellers and is at the heart of this tale. Food continues to be an obsession in children’s literature, especially those delicacies we eat purely for pleasure.

Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house can be seen in Blyton’s feasts, written in the time of rationing where food ruled the pages if not the pantries. Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory and particularly The Chocolate Room with its mint grass and creamy chocolate river continued our obsession with eye-popping excess. More recently, Chris Callaghan’s excellent The Great Chocoplot takes our favourite snack and makes it the victim of crop failure; something that threatens its very existence. The nation’s response in the book is one of panic and hullabaloo of the highest order, which seems about accurate to me. Poverty makes people selfish, but if Dahl is to be believed, so it seems do wealth, power and success.

Grow Up

Hansel and Gretel is my favourite fairy tale as it symbolises the transition from dependence to independence and the tools needed to make this move. At the beginning, Hansel and Gretel are entirely dependent on their parents; their only means of survival is to return to the family home. When this is removed, they become resourceful, working together to do what they must do in order to survive.

When they eventually return home, it is they who bring the means to live comfortably, they who save the day. Gaiman’s retelling conveys this extremely effectively, as do the uncompromising, unpatronising illustrations of Mattotti. Let’s not forget we’re dealing with famine, abandonment and death here.

In a world where fairy tales are associated with Walt Disney, I think it’s important for great writers and artists to remind us how they were originally recorded, as these stories are the building blocks for not only modern fiction, but also for understanding our cultural heritage, stimulating young imaginations, recognising difficulties and deciding on solutions and receiving a moral education that’s spanned centuries.

The Sleeper and the Spindle: Fairy Tales

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The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle


This Fairy Tale…

It’s well known that fairy tales weren’t always considered stories for children exclusively and that adults have long been fascinated with them. Indeed, without the efforts of Grimm, Perrault and Jacobs amongst others to collect and write down the stories of this long held oral tradition, they may have been lost to history.

Gaiman follows a long line of writers by giving us a different interpretation of this tale, which is based on Sleeping Beauty. Not suitable for primary aged children, but for arty teenagers and adults it’s certain to please.

Once Upon a Time…

Once upon a time: three finely drawn dwarfs discover that a magical plague of sleep, once confined to a northern Kingdom, is now spreading further afield at the rate of a mile or so a day, leaving all under its cobwebbed spell. They quickly return this information to their queen, due incidentally to marry her betrothed the next day.

She considers their information, asks some questions and calls off the wedding. She asks for a decent map, arranges for her first minister to be left in charge of the kingdom and sends messengers to evacuate areas at risk. Then she sends for her fiance, tells him to calm down and reassures him that they will still marry, taps him lightly under the chin and gives him a kiss before donning her mail shirt, collecting her sword and some food, climbing on a horse and setting off to get it sorted! YOU GO GIRLFRIEND!

An astonishing adventure occurs. Don’t assume you know the ending already.

But of course you already know Neil Gaiman is a brilliant writer. Combining this with the elaborate and breath taking illustrations of Chris Riddell and the result is more than the sum of its parts: a magical creation. Buy it in hardback if you can, as this is particularly fabulous.