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The best children’s books: a Spectator Christmas survey

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

J.K. Rowling

Poignant, funny and genuinely scary, The Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of my favourite books as a child and the story has lingered in my imagination ever since. Blue iced cakes always put me in mind of Cruella de Vil’s experimental food colourings, and whenever our dogs whine to get out at dusk I imagine them joining the canine news network, the twilight barking. There’s simply no resisting a book containing the lines ‘There are some people who always find beauty makes them feel sadder, which is a very mysterious thing’, and ‘Mr Dearly was a highly skilled dog-puncher’.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall

There are countless children’s books that I loved, so it is a close-run thing, but on reflection my favourite has to be Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I loved it as a pony-mad child and now, in my dotage, I still cry over the death of poor Ginger. I still have my childhood copy — very battered these days and with a smell that takes me straight back to my earliest years, when my father would read it to me. Even now, I continue to discover in it elements that I missed when I was small: the paean to the beauties of Norfolk; the cleverly constructed relationship between people, animals and nature; the author’s concern over our weakening connection to the countryside; the extraordinary understanding of equine and human psychology. For me, Black Beautyproves the truth of C.S. Lewis’s famous quote: ‘No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.’

Jacqueline Wilson

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild was the first book I bought myself with my pocket money. I loved the cover of this early Puffin paperback, a beautiful green, my favourite colour, with an illustration of the three adopted Fossil sisters in white tutus, dancing in their pink ballet shoes. I longed to have ballet lessons myself but had to make do with prancing around our flat in my pink bedroom slippers, hoping I was pirouetting. It’s a good job I had a vivid imagination. I loved the book not just because of its stage-school setting, but because the three girls were such vivid characters. There’s blonde, pretty Pauline, good at acting, though she gets a bit above herself when she has her first lead part. Dark, plain Petrova hates acting, hates dancing — she loves motor carsand aeroplanes. Little red-haired Posy is theonly talented dancer, a mischievous child but with an adult dedication to ballet.

The book was first published in 1936 (a child’s version of Streatfeild’s adult novel The Whicharts). I puzzled over the Fossil sisters being thought poor, when they lived in a huge house on the Cromwell Road with a nanny, a cook and several maids, but it didn’t matter in the slightest. This story of three girls earning their keep on the stage was touching and inspiring. I read it in one glorious day, and I’ve reread it many times since.

Justin Webb

I hated being a child. Almost all my memories are gloomy. I was fat. I was lonely. My home life was scarred by the knowledge that my real father — Peter Woods, reading the news on the TV — inhabited another planet while my mother and I lived with a step-father both of us couldn’t stand.

On a holiday to north Devon when I was maybe ten or 11, I remember a night of intense sadness, a feeling of being crushed by the sheer weirdness of it all. I began to read a book my mum had bought me: Knights of the Cardboard Castle, by the Wombles’ author Elisabeth Beresford. A work of no great literary merit, it’s a story of children from the big city, relocated to a new town and finding a prefab building which they must defend from being demolished. There’s a kindly janitor. A posh girl. A brave boy. In the end they all go home for tea. No fantasy. No wizards. No nonsense. Just a world of conflicts resolved, adventures safely completed, and a loving home somewhere in the background. Knights of the Cardboard Castlerescued me. I read it again and again — well into my teens. I still have it. I always will.

Ian Rankin

I don’t remember too many books from childhood. I was never introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Wind in the Willows. Instead I had comics and Christmas annuals (The Broons and The Victor for example).I do vaguely recall a few Enid Blytons and the occasional Ladybird book (cheap and apparently educational), but the birth of my elder son finally introduced me to classics such as Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum and the wonderful world of Dr Seuss. I would read these out to my son at bedtime, as gripped by them as he was. Even now, more than 20 years later, I can probably recite Green Eggs and Ham and Fox In Socks with few, if any, prompts.

Chris Patten

The first historical fiction that captured me when I was about ten or 11 was by Arthur Conan Doyle: Sir Nigel and The White Company, with views of medieval history just a tad different from the tutorials that I later had at Balliol from the marvellous historian of chivalry Maurice Keen.

From there I leaped ahead several centuries to the Napoleonic wars with C.S. Forester at the helm. His sequence of Hornblower novels, following Horatio from his first posting as a midshipman to his final promotion to Admiral of the Fleet and peer of the realm, kept me going for years.

The novels are based loosely on real characters and recorded events. The idea began with Forester reading an old copy of the Naval Chronicle. Despite his lack of money, self-confidence and political connections, Hornblower’s courage took him to the top. I must have read all these books two or three times.

Myleene Klass

‘You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.’ I don’t think there is another children’s book quite as empowering as Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr Seuss. Using the exquisitely fun language that he’s loved and recognised for, the book encourages perseverance in the face of adversity and, while acknowledging things won’t always go your way, cheers you on to move your mountain. Adults love it too.

Anthony Seldon

Aged six, I fell in love with Cinderella at the annual Christmas pantomime my parents took us to and was convinced she had been looking directly at me. I became captivated by theatre. But it wasn’t till I was given the mesmerising and beautifully written book The Enchanted Island: Stories from Shakespeare by the poet and novelist Ian Serraillier that I encountered Shakespeare. I was entranced, and it began a lifelong love affair that continues with the Royal Shakespeare Company to this day. I am still utterly and hopelessly enchanted.

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John Carey

The Winnie-the-Poohbooks — because the characters, though pretending to be stuffed animals, are clearly human. Everyone has met a Tigger and a Wol and an Eeyore and a Rabbit — probably more than one. For me, the best episode is when Kanga and Baby Roo arrive in the forest and the other animals plot against them to persuade them to leave. Rabbit does the plotting, of course. When Kanga’s attention is distracted for a moment, Pooh pops Piglet, who is roughly the same size as Baby Roo, into her pouch, and runs off with Baby Roo. When Kanga gets home, she pretends not to notice, and makes Piglet take a bath, which he never does normally, and gives him Strengthening Medicine, warning him that otherwise he will grow up small and weak like Piglet. A.A. Milne tells it with masterly comic timing. If you have not read it, treat yourself.

Alan Johnson


Whatever happened to the Western? When I was a boy there were so many heroes on horses that it seemed they would dominate popular culture for ever. We all had our favourites. Roy Rogers was too squeaky clean for me, the Cisco Kid too ebullient, the Lone Ranger too ridiculous. My hero arrived in a tatty paperback, Shaneby Jack Schaefer in which I read: ‘“There’s something about him,” Mother said. “Something… Dangerous.”’ There certainly was to the mother’s relationship with the father, although I wasn’t aware of the erotic subtext at the time. I only saw a stranger in black defending the good homesteaders in their battle with the bullying prospectors trying to drive them off their land. I knew nothing then of the film adaptation. When I eventually saw little Alan Ladd ride into cinematic view, wearing a white hat and with about as much brooding presence as Andy Pandy, I was mortified. It taught me a lesson: always read the book rather than watch the film.

Robert Tombs

Listening to a friend recently recount the vindictive and self-righteous harassment with which everyone in a managerial position is now seemingly assailed, some lines of verse came into my mind: ‘Mistletoe killing an oak—/ Rats gnawing cables in two—/ Moths making holes in a cloak—/ How they must love what they do!’ I thought I’d look up the dimly remembered original, and realised it’s in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

I hadn’t read it for years, and was immediately captivated. Its scope (Roman soldiers, medieval architects, Norman knights, smugglers, ironmasters) and the freshness of the imagination are a delight. So is its willingness to give child readers big subjects and unsentimental endings. It’s hard to say whether the poems are there to illustrate the stories or the stories are pegs for the poems, which are particularly brilliant. The idea that faint tracks through the wheat, churches, woods and ancient mills still embodied history I found riveting as a child. I still do.

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Simon Heffer

I fear it is hardly original, but the Just William books were a highlight of my childhood. Between the ages of about seven and 11 two or three turned up each birthday or Christmas. Since I was distressingly conformist as a child, William Brown was the vicarious rascal I rather aspired to be. Indeed, most little boys aspire to be that, which is why Richmal Crompton’s character has been so popular with generations of children and, indeed, their parents. She also had the knack of writing for children as though they were adults, and yet incorporating them into the books’ inevitable conspiracy against grown-up authority. Also, happily, these were written before an era when children’s authors felt the urge to preach, virtue-signal and engage in the gratuitous acts of instructional self-righteousness that make so much literature for young people today thoroughly repulsive.

Rob Rinder

For me, it’s that timeless ode to optimism, Pollyanna. Eleanor H. Porter’s book is the tale of an orphan, Pollyanna, who moves to a small town to live with her aunt. On arrival, she discovers that its citizens are all under the aforementioned aunt’s dictatorial thumb but by the end — through goodwill and kindness — Pollyanna has brought everyone together and generally performed a lot of life enrichment. As a Jewish, gay boy in 1980s suburbia, I always felt this bizarre connection to stories of orphaned girls and their struggles. I adored seeing them start as outcasts, then rise to the top with wit and jaunty gumption (in fact, Pollyanna only just manages to beat out Anne of Green Gables and Annie to secure the top ‘penniless orphan’ spot in my heart). Their cheeriness from the fringes meant the world to me. It actually seems absurdly unfair that Pollyanna’s name has become a cynical term for the naive or unrealistically happy — she just shows spirit and joy (even in adversity) and constantly seeks the best in people. Right now, we could all do with being a bit more Pollyanna-ish.

Jonathan Sumption

​​Most children’s books are designed to appeal to those who buy them, i.e. parents. Hence the enduring popularity of Roald Dahl, who has a good story but is said to have hated children. I suspect the feeling may be mutual. A survey among a statistically insignificant sample (my family) suggests that parents enjoy reading books with moral lessons that leave their children cold. They are old classics like Zagazoo by Quentin Blake, a parable about the awfulness of children and a warning against gender-stereotyping, or Gerald Rose’s The Tiger-Skin Rug, a moral tale of animal welfare. My grandchildren have been brought up on such fare, but prefer a more old-fashioned morality. One of them, aged four, voted for The Wind in the Willows, ‘because the frog goes to prison’, and quite right too. My own all-time favourite is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are for its wonderful illustrations and terrifying narrative. That is what I read to my children. Pure self-indulgence, and much good did it do them.

Marcus Rashford

I have to be honest, I didn’t engage in reading until I was around 17. I just didn’t see myself in the characters. It didn’t seem like books were written for children like me. Hence, I ended up creating my own that focused on acceptance, acknowledgement and representation. The first book that did really engage me, though, was Relentless by Tim S. Grover. I must have read it at least 25 times. It teaches you how to balance your thinking when it comes to the highs and lows of life and your career. I read it, annotated it — and I go back to it to measure my progress against it again and again.

Timothy Garton Ash

Tintin is superb. I devoured all the books in my early teens, and the intrepid Belgian reporter must be partly responsible for why I’ve spent much of my life travelling in foreign parts. Hergé drew directly from the real world, and his detail is wonderful. The three-page potted history of Syldavia in King Ottokar’s Sceptre is the most brilliant parody of east European nationalist historiography. I love the failed Latin American putschist who is in despair when Tintin insists his life be spared. ‘No, I must be shot! That is the proper thing.’ Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Bianca Castafiore… need I go on? Nonetheless, when The Spectator asked ‘What is your favourite children’s book?’ my instant reaction was The Wind in the Willows. I still have my 1959 hardback edition, a presentfrom my grandparents, with the superb illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. Aside from giving me unrealistic notions about badgers, it cemented in my mind a comforting, romantic, idealised picture of England. The book was first published in 1908, so Kenneth Grahame was actually depicting Edwardian or late Victorian England, but it still has power over me more than 100 years on. Despite all evidence to the contrary, somewhere deep inside I still say: ‘This is England.’

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Kathleen Stock

When I was 12 I bought a secondhand copy of The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, and fell into it entranced. There’s been hype about it since, but to me it was a lucky find. It’s the story of proud, brave, ever-so-slightly vain orphan Maria and what happens when she arrives at her ancestral home, Moonacre Manor, along with her dyspeptic governess Miss Heliotrope and amoral spaniel Wiggins. She finds magic and adventure, mysteries to solve, and a mission to reconcile and restore. The book is suffused with huge comic warmth and affectionate irony. There is tension and drama, and even darkness. It’s wonderful.

Brian Blessed

My favourite children’s book is The Magic Carpet’s Guide to Earth’s Forbidden Places,written by Patrick Makin and illustrated by Whooli Chen. Come, join hands with me on the magic carpet and let us fly to Earth’s remotest corners and discover sights unseen for hundreds of years! All you have to do is bring your sense of wonder. What a pure way to travel. I’ll see you at Paradise Ranch at Area 51, for tea with the friendly aliens.

Claudia Schiffer

My favourite childhood books were The O’Sullivan Twins series by Enid Blyton, which were called Hanni & Nanni in Germany. I loved following the boarding-school antics of the twins and their friends, from solving mysteries to midnight feasts. My grandparents had a bookshop and I spent so much time there obsessing about everything Enid Blyton. I still have all the original books, because I treasured them so much.

Peter Tatchell

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carol is a fantastical, extraordinarily creative story that fuelled my boyhood imagination and my love of adventure. Reading that book gave me a mental escape from the boring drabness of 1960s suburbia and from my straight-laced, puritanical Christian upbringing. I related to Alice’s boundless curiosity and openness to new challenging experiences. Her resolve, defiance and bravery, despite the bizarre and often frightening twists and turns of her escapades, won my admiration. As well as being great fun, this book encouraged me to explore what could or might be, as opposed to what was. Perhaps it was one of the influences that unconsciously helped trigger me to dream of a different, better world?

Theresa May

Arthur Ransome was an enigmatic figure — will we ever really know if he was a double agent? But I knew nothing of his background when I first picked up Swallowdale. I was immediately captivated. Here were children having adventures the likes of which I could never imagine sitting in a country vicarage. I so longed to be Nancy Blackett — one of the Amazons — but this could never be as I couldn’t swim and had never been in a boat. In reality I was more like Susan Walker, the one who made sure they all properly dried off when they’d been in the water and worried about where the next can of Pemmican would come from. What captured me was the wonderful outdoor life the children enjoyed, free from adult supervision. Indeed, I wonder if the first spark of my love of walking in the Swiss Alps was lit by reading of the children climbing Kanchenjunga. This was a world of hidden valleys, moorland and lakes, of woodcutters and charcoal burners, of nature and exploration — something often denied to today’s children, who are brought up in such a careful world. Swallowdale evinces adventure, resilience, pragmatism, inventiveness and, above all, friendship. I recommend it to all.

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Tom Holland

My favourite book as a child is still my favourite children’s book today. If anything, indeed, the experiences of the past two years have served only to enhance my appreciation of Moominland Midwinter: the most personal and haunting of all Tove Jansson’s great series of Moomin novels. Her previous narratives had been set in summer; but in Moominland Midwinter, as she herself explained in 2000, she ‘stopped writing about what was deeply loved and guaranteed to continue the same, and tried to write a book about how hellish things can be’. In the dead of winter, Moomintroll wakes up from hibernation. This has never happened to any Moomin before. Moomintroll tries to wake his mother, but ‘she just curled into an uninterested ball’. So out he goes into the cold. Everything has changed. Moomin Valley is buried beneath snow. The sea is an immeasurable, frozen darkness. Staring at it, Moomintroll cries: ‘I’m cold! I’m lonely! I want the sun back again!’ Which of us, since the coming of Covid, has not felt something familiar? Moominvalley in winter is a frightening place. Death comes to it in the form of the Lady of the Cold and the enigmatic Groke. Yet death is not the entire story. There is beauty too, and friendship, and adventure. Moominland Midwinter is a great work of fiction because, while it looks loneliness and grief in the face, it still triumphs over despair. It is a novel about hope.

Gyles Brandreth

My favourite children’s book is Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. I read it before I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, although, of course, it’s the sequel. And I read it for a reason: I was seven and, for the first time in my life, I realised I was in love. In 1955 I was a little boy living in Lower Sloane Street in London and that Christmas my parents took me to our local theatre, the Chelsea Palace in the King’s Road, to see their Christmas offering. It was Alice Through the Looking-Glass, starring 14-year-old Juliet Mills as Alice. The moment she stepped on to the stage I was in love. I had never seen a creature more beautiful or more interesting. I was enchanted — and demanded ‘the book of the show’ for Christmas. I read every word, even though I can’t have understood much of it. That didn’t matter. I had the book, which meant I could have Alice at my bedside, always.

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Ian McEwan

Tomi Ungerer, who was born in Alsace in 1931 and died two years ago, was a brilliant artist and one of the greatest illustrators of our age. He served children well with more than 30 books. The museum named after him in Strasbourg houses among much else his vast collection of pre-war painted tin toys. His work ranged from almost impossibly obscene but hilarious drawings (for adults) to witty tales for the young, often making likeable heroes out of the sort of creatures children might recoil from, like snakes and bats. My favourite is Flix, a dog born to cat parents. It turns out that his feline great-grandmother had a secret affair with a pug and now the canine genes have surfaced. Luckily, Flix’s parents adore him. He grows up in Cat Town, learns to climb trees and eat mice. He is something of an outcast among the cats his own age, but he’s blessed with a kindly dogfather who teaches him dogspeak. Later, Flix falls in love with a beautiful cat whose life he saves and they marry across the divide. He becomes a politician, campaigning to end cat-dog segregation. Parents who suspect a too-moral tale should be reassured. Ungerer’s droll coloured illustrations and deadpan narrative sweep all before them.

Chris Eubank

Strangely, I lived my childhood book as I had little to no interest in the school curricula because in my young mind, what I knew was far more important, which was to protect, defend and shield the children who were weak. I thought my classroom was far more important than the scheduled ones, such as history, maths, cooking, and drama. The classroom I oversaw kept an eye on the predators and the bullies. I took it upon myself to manage what was going on in the halls and on the playground. This was inspired by what I was going through at home. It was truly unbearable and so it wasn’t going to be perpetrated against children on my watch, even though I was a child in age, I was clued up enough to feel and see what was going on with the power struggle in the playground. Having gone through the government care system, the assessment centres, borstals and boarding schools for juvenile delinquents, my skills were honed and sharpened by cruel inner-city tenement yards. My childhood favourite book was real reality, a world of degradation where my objective, at least subconsciously, was to hold my dignity intact while traversing a mean-spirited environment where nothing in your pocket, and sometimes in your belly, was the norm. My real life’s children’s book encourages strength of character, valour, courage, integrity and all of these virtues will mould a child into a gentleman.

Maureen Lipman

I have just re-read, via audiobooks, my old favourite Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It is quite different every decade. This time I was amazed by how late any kind of levity appears. Perhaps I only recalled the happiness she finally found with Rochester and conveniently forgot the awful downtrodden years with her aunt and cousins, the painful years at school, the bleakness of her teaching years, the satisfaction of her turning down the pious cousin’s proposal and the terrible revelations of the existence of Bertha Rochester, Rochester’s very much alive wife. This time I was more aware of the Alpha male side of Rochester and this time I questioned more his keeping Bertha in the same house as himself and his ward when he clearly had the option of housing her elsewhere. Am I nit-picking? I still cried, I still relished the loving rapport between Jane and her beloved Rochester when they finally achieve harmony, but I understood fully why Jean Rhys wanted to give Bertha Rochester her side of the story in Wide Sargasso Sea. The two books should be read together . If I had a book club that is what I would arrange. With food!

Melvyn Bragg

Richmal Crompton’s genius gave us the world of Just William: a young bullock in an idyllic English suburb as delightful as an ornate china shop. In 38 books, William attempts to destroy the world around him, without malice and without success, but with a determination that is irresistibly funny. Although they are written for children, I have reread many of the stories over the last few days and have been in stitches. To get where his fantasy dictates he must go, William tells colossal lies of 57 varieties, all of which are so irresistibly and unforgivably funny. There are not all that many characters in English literature whose hold is as tenacious as that of the 11-year-old boy called William Brown. I suppose in some ways I wanted to be him. He never grows old. He will never grow stale.

Peter Tatchell

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a fantastical, extraordinarily creative story that fuelled my boyhood imagination and my love of adventure. Reading that book gave me a mental escape from the boring drabness of 1960s suburbia and from my straight-laced, puritanical Christian up-bringing. I related to Alice’s boundless curiosity and openness to new challenging experiences. Her resolve, defiance and bravery, despite the bizarre and often frightening twists and turns of her escapades, won my admiration. As well as being great fun, this book encouraged me to explore what could or might be, as opposed to what was. Perhaps it was one of the influences that unconsciously helped trigger me to dream of a different, better world?

Emily Maitlis

The story I always think of at this time of year is called Grimble at Christmas. It’s about a young boy who is left alone by his eccentric parents who head off to, I think, Peru for two weeks. They leave him biscuits written on in green ink that say ‘do not eat this biscuit it has been written on in green ink’. And ‘do not forget to feed the cat’ (they don’t have a cat). And it is about sublimely eccentric families behaving in sublimely eccentric ways at a very conventional time of year which was what my mum secretly adored and empathised with. The drawings are by Quentin Blake — who remains my all time and ultimate hero — and the story is by Clement Freud. I told Emma, his daughter, a friend, a few years ago that it was my favourite children’s book and it was so extraordinary to share it with someone who understood her own family’s unconventionality as well as my own.

Griff Rhys-Jones

I once read a fake cardboard book to my daughter in a TV sketch. I turned four pages and closed it. ‘Well, that’s another ten quid gone’. My kids were generally pretty demanding. ‘Daddy, no, don’t do any of the funny voices!’ Yup it’s wounding to be an actor papa. Two picture book masterpieces though are Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Each Peach Pear Plum by the Alberghs. Lovely reading together. Later in my childhood we were captured by Narnia and emerged as modern atheists. So much for sinister intentions. But the best children’s stories must surely be the dark originals — The Tinder Box or Grimms’ Tales. Books should take you to unsettled places and encourage exploration of new worlds from the get-go. The “dog with eyes like saucers’ still does the trick Truth to tell, however, my nomination for best of all is probably Hilaire Belloc The Chief Defect of Henry King and other non-soggy Cautionary Tales. I know. They only make adults laugh, but better to laugh than to force grown up nostrums and modish platitudes on young minds in the guise of ‘proper instruction’. We have become the pedagogues he satirised.

Malcolm Rifkind

As a native-born citizen of Edinburgh I am rather hesitant in nominating Robert Louis Stevenson as my favourite author. He once wrote that ‘Edinburgh has the vilest climate known to man. The weak die young …..and the healthy often envy them their fate’. However, I forgive him as he also wrote Kidnapped, one of the best children’s books, in the English language, ever written. It is action packed, with two dashing heroes, one sporting silver buttons. There is a villain, inevitably called Uncle Ebenezer, whose attempt to deprive his nephew of his inheritance is, of course, foiled. The story races through the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands in the time of the Jacobites in the 18th century. It is fun, exciting and dangerous; all the ingredients that any boy (and, nowadays, any girl, too) will enjoy and remember all their lives.

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