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.

Top Children’s Books: Does Age Really Matter?

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Who Doesn’t Love a List Post?

To coincide with International Children’s Books Day (although on here, every day is children’s books day), the BBC produced a list of the top children’s books ever as voted for by a panel of adults. Fair enough, I’m all for adults voting here- they usually write them, so why not judge them? There was some controversy however, as none of the books listed were published after 1968. I read brilliant, newly published children’s books all the time so thought this was a bit of a shame. Until I produced my own list…

My Top Ten Children’s Books Of All Time:


the hobbit









You’re Old, You Are.

There it is, my list. Each book published some years before I was born, but absolutely and definitely my top ten children’s books ever. Far more traditional than I imagined it would be, and at first I was disappointed about this, but the thing is, for the most part I still own them ( or the parts of them that are bunched together on the bookshelves) and love them dearly. Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach just missed out, as did Dibley resident Alice Tinker’s favourite Jill’s Gymkhana- a sadly underrated book of horsey glory.

So why no titles at least as new as I am? I know the answer here and there are lots of reasons: some were hand-me-downs that arrived with the bookcase, or older relative’s favourites that were passed down hopefully. Telly adaptations led me to a couple. One was a mobile library find I renewed time and time again until months later I handed it back reluctantly; another read to me at school by a very lovely teacher when I was eight and a not so lovely teacher again when I was eleven. I know how each and every book reached me and exactly who was involved. These aren’t interesting stories to anyone else, but to me they mean everything. All of these books however, on discovery, were new in my world and I can say with increased assurity the older I get, that age doesn’t matter.

Nice List, Wrong Title.

I could easily continue this post now with a list of my top ten books for children reading today and the list would be equally wonderful, mostly different to mine and mostly new releases. If I repeated that exercise in six months time, it would have changed. Another year, another list, more children’s books enjoyed as an adult- marvellous stuff! My list though, my personal list, wont have changed. I know this just as I know there will always be a place on my top ten albums list for Blondie’s Parallel Lines and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. They just belong, they are me. They are moments in time, more than the sum of their parts, not the best books of all time, but my best childhood books.

So I can only assume that the BBC judges were judging as children, not adults; looking back at their own early reading. Not finding the ‘best books ever’, but their own precious favourites. If they’re honest, it’s really the own way to do it, as long as it’s kept personal and never done by committee.

Oh, hang on…


Five Role Models for Girls Who Refuse to Play Second Fiddle

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Tiffany ( The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett)

Having read many fairy tales, nine year old Tiffany Aching decides that she wants to be a witch. Finding no evidence in these stories that witches are wicked, she realises the injustice of women receiving this moniker just because they are old and a bit funny looking. Moreover, she doesn’t see why all the good adventures should happen to blonde haired blue-eyed princesses or red haired pixie types whilst those like her with brown hair and brown eyes tend to be assigned a minor role. Born into farming on The Chalk (a region of Discworld) and a talented cheese maker who knows how to brandish a frying pan to great effect, Tiffany boldly takes on the Queen of the Fairies who has kidnapped her little brother. But just in case it takes a while she leaves instructions on cheese turning for her folks, because cheese is important. Tiffany never neglects her roots. Brilliant because she can be haughty, snappy, full of exclamation marks as well as ambitious, intelligent and true to herself. Also a dab hand at controlling tiny angry blue men.

Marianne ( Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr)

Marianne has big plans for how her tenth birthday will pan out but it doesn’t work out as she hopes. Marianne gets sick. She acts like a normal kid in a rotten situation. She gets upset, frustrated, bored, makes badly thought out decisions and tries to put them right. Stuck in bed for the summer, Marianne isn’t herself but then again who would be? Finding she has the extraordinary ability to draw her dreams allows Marianne to live without her illness for at least some of the time, but doesn’t allow her the control she assumes at first she will have. Marianne made my list because she adapts and evolves, shows naive kindness- love it when she draws a string of sausages as a way of providing food but forgets anything to cook them on- and is a good friend.

Maria ( The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge)

Maria is a petite and ethereal thirteen year old with silvery eyes and red hair. Tiffany Aching would hate her. It’s true to say she’s shallow at times and wins no awards for feminism, but this is 1842 and if you can’t find a bit of pleasure in a lambswool pelisse then there really is no hope for you. The archetypal Victorian orphan, Maria endears herself through her talent of finding the goodness where others miss it- case in point being her governess the marvellously named Miss Heliotrope who appears to most as a deeply unattractive stooped creature with an enormous and puce hooked schnoz but is in reality a lovey dovey doughnut. Every inch the central character, Maria is full of spirit and always gets her own way. Luckily for us and the residents of Moonacre, she’s a good egg. If you’re after gritty reality however, Maria and her pals probably aren’t for you. (Try the Newsround site instead.) If you want darling white ponies and like your heroines fearless and fantastic however…

Lucy (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis)

Way, way better in the book than any of the TV/ film adaptations, Lucy like Marianne is a splendid friend. A quiet gift which is often overshadowed when you’re ten by other more obvious and covetable skills, but one which lasts a lifetime and brings its own rewards. A wartime sweetie who walks to the beat of her own drum, Lucy ain’t afraid of lions or naughty witches. She puts up with annoying brothers and a preachy sister and doesn’t get freaked out by blokes with goat legs. Personally I would have loved it if she’d been gifted a sword or even a frying pan (kind regards Tiffany Aching) rather than the magic fixing cordial which puts her in a nursing role rather than on the battle field. It’s wartime Clive- give a girl a chance! We can build bombs and everything! Saying that though, she is rather young I suppose so fair enough. Skills: sensible and kind to mice.

Cassandra (I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith)

Cassandra is a voracious writer who is poorer than a church mouse- rather a pain as most of the time she can’t afford the paper she so longs for. Therefore the story ebbs and flows as Cassandra, our protagonist, runs out of paper (story stops) and obtains more (game on). Seventeen and self deprecating with a uniqueness gained from both her upbringing and her outlook. The family’s poverty causes a necessity to share pretty much everything- clothes, food, beds, bicycles with flat tyres. Cassandra’s writing however is all her own. Overshadowed at times by her volatile and scheming older sister, genius and perennial sufferer of writer’s block father and gorgeous (non-evil though, hooray) stepmother, Cassandra doesn’t see her own charms and is all the better for it. Best moments- sneaky consumption of creme de menthe  and unlikely friendship with the local clergy.