Before I move on to the list, I’ll confess: I don’t believe in “greatest x” lists. They don’t make sense to me in terms of issues of taste – I don’t believe in greatness as an innate quality and, even if I did, I find that kind of thinking turns books/art/music etc into a game of Top Trumps. I realise this is actually the appeal, but not being Statto, or Statto-like, it doesn’t work for me.
But I do love criticizing lists, so I must believe it on some level – otherwise I’d just dismiss them with a “meh” or a “pah”. So perhaps I do believe in Top Trumps after all. I just don’t want to acknowledge my inner Statto*. Or perhaps I’d just like to see the title changed from “greatest” children’s books to “awesomest”. Doesn’t cast the same Western Canon shadow and acknowledges the emotional component. Plus, anyone who’s seen How I Met Your Mother must understand that it is a good word that must be used.
Back to the topic of criticizing – perhaps critiquing – lists, I started thinking up my own list in response to the Telegraph’s top 20 children’s books list today:
It’s not as ridiculously wrong as some, and I’m glad it lists Lord of the Rings (some people argue it belongs on grown-up lists, not children’s, but Lord of the Rings was so utterly central to my childhood that it *feels* so strongly like one to me that I feel the world’s upside down if someone suggests it’s not).
But here’s my counter-list (I imagine I’d write a different list tomorrow). Some of these choices may be cheating as they cover various volumes/ranges of books. But, in each case, they operate in a single fictional universe.
1) Lord of the Rings – Tolkien’s plan, to fill in the missing mythology of Britain, was a storming success for me. This story and this world seared itself into my brain as a child and, I suspect, rewired it. It certainly left me with a highly romanticized view of walking. While it’s not a piece of prose I’d hold up as example to children, and the plotting can be meandering… that’s not the point. It’s not a novel, it’s a myth. It just happens to be a myth made up by one person.
2) Just William – all of them. Can I have all of them? The funniest short stories in the English language, and a great introduction to satire for small people. Especially it’s description of the various political parties. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was along these lines:
The Conservatives want to make everything better by keeping it the same.
The Liberals want to make everything better by sort of changing things and sort of keeping them the same.
Labour want to make everything better by taking everyone’s money off of them…
…and the Communists want to make everything better by taking everyone’s money off of them and then killing them.
Doesn’t quite hold true today, but still, brilliant.
3) Road Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes – I still remember the line about Red Riding Hood’s pistol-holstered knickers, and I bet you do too. It was a toss up between this and the BFG for this spot, so that makes…
4) The BFG – evocative, great use of language, really disgusting giants and a lovely cameo for the Queen.
5) The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 – funny because it’s true. Tragic for the same reason. Every 13 year old girl knows an Adrian, and this book allows her to laugh at him if she’s too nice to do it in real life. Every 13 year old boy fears he’s one. Unless he’s so jock-like that he doesn’t read books. (Greatest lists give you licence to make absolute statements based on no research. It’s nice.)
6) Pippi Longstocking – when Buffy says to the First Slayer, “You are not the source of me”, she was quite right. Pippi is her spiritual ancestor – strong, independent, with a hint of alienation and a dash of daddy issues that gives her her kryptonite heel thingie so she’s not perfect. Oh, and I seem to remember there was a monkey in it. Was there? Did I imagine a monkey? Anyway, plenty of animals and anarchy.
7) The Tripods by John Christopher – you might not have read this one as a kid. But if you have/know any children, please give it to them. Brief summary: in the past of the book, aliens invaded and, instead of hulksmashing us, they indoctrinated us.
The book’s world has returned to a more or less medieval way of life, worshipping the mysterious metal “Tripods” (which turn out not to be the aliens themselves, just their mode of transport). The Tripods control humans through the process of “capping” – everyone gets a metal filigree cap implanted into the top of their head, linking to their brain, when they hit adolescence. This provides a steady drip of cerebral koolaid to keep them worshipping the tripods and generally being easy to manage. The book follows the adventures of a rebellious few who remain uncapped, and who fight against the Tripods in the name of free will… and, it turns out, to save the planet from what the Tripods have planned – turning it into a world where they wouldn’t have to wear metal suits, with an atmosphere like their home planet, that would kill every living thing on Earth.
8 ) The Chronicles of Narnia – some people are turned off by the Christian not-all-that-sub-text. But, if you take that as just another myth to structure stories, it’s a great structure. The character of Aslan is a brilliant re-imagining of Christ as a great big scary-ass puddy tat who comes cweeping up on you. Lewis’s theological sci fi’s great for older children, too, though I think I’d be stretching it to call it a kids’ book.
The world-building in Narnia is less total than in LOTR, but it has an enjoyable patchwork quality. Santa Claus + fauns is a fun approach to things, and fits nicely with the Alan Mooreish idea that all fictional worlds are one. Other notable goods: Edmund and Eustace’s redemption journeys; turkish delight (hate the stuff, but Narnia still caused me to think of it in magical terms); Mr Tumnus and his dodgy almost noncelike quality of menace; Jill and her archery. Girl + bow is a good equation. Actually, archery in general has a romance to it and is a good way of avoiding glamourising guns in children’s lit.
9) Babar the elephant – beautifully illustrated, moving stories. Loved the handwritten words, too.
10) In the Night Kitchen – not as famous as Where the Wild Things Are, but a surreal masterpiece. With nudity. And a strange cameo from Laurel and Hardy, trying to bake the hero into a pie. Was it a pie? Also, fascinating yet baffling Americanisms – I’m still bitter I don’t have cake every morning.
*I said at the start of this blog that I wouldn’t explain references, but since I’ve mentioned him twice now… Statto was on Fantasy Football League, with Baddiel and Skinner: