Tuesday, 15 March 2011

My favourite children's books...

After reading The Little Prince the other week for the first time, I got to thinking about what would make it onto my list of my top ten favourite children’s books.

In no particular order, the following immediately sprang to mind...

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
 –  Alan Garner
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pulman
The Cat in the Hat – Dr Seus
Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson
The Little Prince or Le Petit Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Earthsea trilogy – Ursula Le Guin
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – J.R. Tolkein
The Dark is Rising 
 Susan Cooper
The Chronicles of Narnia
 – CS Lewis

I'll try and explain why...

The Cat in the Hat – Dr Seus

In May of 1954, Life magazine published an essay by John Hersey, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, about why American children were having trouble learning to read. Hersey ripped the stultifyingly boring "Dick and Jane" stories of the era to pieces and pleaded for someone to do better. Theodor Seuss Geisel, an ad copywriter, responded with The Cat in the Hat.

The Cat in the Hat 
and its sequel operate on many levels. Yes, they teach us to read. But they also teach us about poetry, politics, ethics, comics, history and con-artistry - not to mention spot removal and indoor kite-flying. All this and the books use just 236 different words. This is experimentation with language and meter/verse at its very best.

Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson
Calvin & Hobbes tells the tale of a young boy whose stuffed tiger is as real to him as the people around him. It deals in the process with philosophical issues about free will and the meaning of life, via the perspective of a child with an extraordinary imagination.

It’s great to share with children for its sheer use of humor, puns, implied meaning, figurative language and sarcasm. 

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Alan Garner
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Garner's other children’s books The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service and Elidor are truly unforgettable. 

Brisingamen is set in and around Macclesfield and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, and tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan, who are staying with some old friends of their mother's while their parents are overseas.

Susan possesses a small tear-shaped jewel held in a bracelet: unknown to her, this is the Weirdstone of the title. As its nature is revealed the children become hunted by the minions of the dark spirit Nastrond who, centuries before, had been defeated and banished by a powerful king.

They have to compete with a wicked shape-shifting sorceress and evil wizard but are aided by a good wizard and his dwarven companions.

Garner didn’t write the book ‘for children’ who don’t spoken down to by it. For this reason people of every age can enjoy the jeopardy and magic of it all the more.

His Dark Materials
 – Philip Pulman
His Dark Materials comprises three books, Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). Pullman has written an epic with the entertainment value to capture a mass audience, which simultaneously taps into the same profound themes as Homer and the Bible. 

It's a story with a dark and powerful undertow – a creation myth for the 21st century.
His Dark Materials has its origins in the writings of Milton, Blake and Kleist, but if that sounds literary and erudite, don't worry, it’s a page-turner too. 

The books attack such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrate love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity and human intelligence. It alludes to a broad range of ideas from fields such as physics, philosophy, theology and spirituality. 

The Little Prince
 or Le Petit Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Outwardly a children's book, The Little Prince makes various profound points about life and humankind. It looks at how and why we find joy in friendships, nature and the things around us and reconcile ourselves with the inevitability of death and loss.

In it, the narrator tells of being stranded in the Sahara Desert (which actually occurred to the author on a pioneering flight) where he meets a young extraterrestrial prince. In their talks, the author reveals his own views about simple truths and the follies of mankind.

The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula Le Guin
Earthsea is the setting for six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and includes The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore.

In A Wizard of Earthsea a young goatherd Ged discovers his talent for magic and is sent to the school for wizards on the island of Roke. There his pride leads him to folly, and the loosing of a terrible evil on the world and an epic quest to restore balance.

In The Tombs of Atuan, a priestess discovers an intruder in the forbidden labyrinth that is her domain. She chooses to turn her back on everything familiar, in exchange for an uncertain future.

In The Farthest Shore something is leaching the wizardry and joy out of the world. Arren, the young prince of Enlad, joins Ged on a quest to find the source of the evil. Their search will take them to the raft people on the open sea, then across the wall into the dry land of the dead.

A Taoist conception of "Balance" underlies Earthsea: the use of magic is dangerous, and can destabilise the natural order. They are also, first and foremost, spellbinding "coming of age" stories with memorable characters.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 
and Through the Looking Glass  Lewis Carroll
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was written by the Oxford maths lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells of a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar creatures.

The books also critique the new mathematical theories and approaches which were gaining currency in the mid 19th C. Lewis goes on the attack using an approach familiar from Euclid – reductio ad absurdum – where the validity of an idea is tested by taking its premises to their logical extreme. 

This is seen best in the scene with the Caterpillar where Alice's size fluctuates wildly with every second that pasts. Proportion, rather than absolute length, was what mattered in Alice’s above-ground world of Euclidean geometry. In an algebraic world, of course, this isn’t easy as can be seen when Alice's neck elongates alarmingly.

The books have given rise to some of my favourite phrases delievered by the White Queen to Alice, "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day". 

 The White Queen offers Alice "jam every other day" as an inducement to work for her:

"I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!" the Queen said. "Two pence a week, and jam every other day."

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, "I don't want you to hire ME - and I don't care for jam."
"It's very good jam," said the Queen.
"Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate."
"You couldn't have it if you DID want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day."
"It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"" Alice objected.
"No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know."
"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing!"
The Queen's rule is a pun on a mnemonic for remembering the distinction between the Latin words "nunc" and "iam" (sometimes written "jam"). Both mean "now", but "nunc" is only used in the present tense, while "iam" is used in the past and future tenses. In more recent times, the phrase has been used to describe a variety of unfulfilled political promises on issues such as tax.

The comment by Humpty Dumpty also sticks in my mind:

“Words mean exactly what I want them to mean, neither more nor less”. It was once a history of the English language university exam question, suffixed with the daunting instruction to “discuss”! 

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – J.R. Tolkein

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," is one of the most memorable and charming lines in the history of literature. 

The Hobbit continues in this beguilingly unpretentious, delightfully funny and splendidly restrained way. Bilbo's journey from his cosy village across risky territory to the Misty Mountains with their goblin-infested caverns, and to the dragon-haunted Lonely Mountain beyond, provides the geographical and narrative matrix for Frodo's quest in the sequel The Lord of the Rings.

Moreover, The Hobbit is a neat little parable about the first world war. Plucked from his rural idyll and catapulted into a brutal and totally unnecessary conflict, Bilbo soon discovers the futility of old-style heroism, and learns that the best place for him is out of it all. He manages to get walloped on the head, and spends most of the battle unconscious — just as his creator Tolkien caught trench fever on the Somme, and was safely invalided out of the carnage.

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

The Dark Is Rising is the name of a five-book series of fantasy novels (published 1965–1977) which depicts the struggle between the forces of good and evil. The series is based on Arthurian myths and Celtic and Norse legend.
Will Stanton, the main protagonist in the book, exists in two separate worlds. He is the last of the Old Ones, a circle of magical men and women who exist throughout the ages of the world fighting a constant battle against the powers of the Dark.

Traveling back and forth in time, witnessing the invasion of Wales by the English and observing the construction of a Roman amphitheatre in England, readers are given a history of the British Isles that is remarkable for its unconventionality. Both Herne the Hunter and Arthur Pendragon playing roles of vital importance in the fight against the Dark in this gripping tale.

The Chronicles of Narnia
 – CS Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven fantasy novels for children written 1949-1954 and published 1950- 1956. Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative and some heavy handed and clunking. 
But despite this and a few unpleasant social attitudes it embodies, Narnia makes the list as nothing else springs to mind right now.

Well, that's all from me for now as it's way past my bedtime for a Monday! 

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