- 6 books I loved as a child
- 6 unforgettable books for all children
- 4 fantastic adventure stories for children
- 3 must-reads for adults – though published for young adults
- 4 picture books to love for ever!
- 4 timeless novels
- 3 disturbing novels
- 2 masterly wildlife books
- 4 memorable memoirs
- 1 best biography
- 3 powerful poets
- Bonus: Some watery favourites
- New favourites
- Over to you
I find it hard to believe that it’s 40 years this month since my first book was published. What better time for a post compiling my 40 all-time favourite books?
What I remember most about the publication of that first book is my sheer unalloyed joy of seeing it in print! I felt like the proud mother of a newborn child, and would whip the copy out of my handbag to show people at the least opportunity! I don’t do that any more …
That first book was called How Green You Are. It is a story-novel, in that each chapter is self-contained but runs on, with the same characters and sometimes a continuing situation, to make a whole story. I used that technique in several of my later books.
Every chapter begins with something that really happened, and develops into something invented. I call that technique ‘I remember and let’s pretend’, and it’s been my mantra throughout my writing life.
In celebration of the fact that I have 40 years of writing behind me, I thought I would delve into my bookshelves and my memory and share with you 40 books that are very special to me. It’s been even harder than I expected to select just 40 favourite books, but the major criterion is that the books have stayed with me, sometimes physically, since the moment I read them. Over the years I have met many of the authors.
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6 books I loved as a child
1: ‘Emily Climbs’ by LM Montgomery
I loved it because it was about a girl who wanted to be a writer, just like me. I still have my copy, with all my favourite words from the novel written in the back pages.
2: ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ by Charles Dickens
It was a present from my big sister. I worked my way through most of Dickens after that, but I’ve always loved this one the most. My copy with its green leather cover and gold lettering is very well read.
3: ‘The Silver Skates, or Hans Brinker’ by Mary Mapes Dodge
From the moment I saw the picture on the front, I fell in love with this book. I still have my copy from when I was ten. The recent Russian film version Silver Skates bears so little resemblance to it that I thought I was watching the wrong film. Don’t watch it – read the book!
4: ‘Mary Mouse’ by Enid Blyton
I can see it now, an oblong book with a shiny dimpled cover. It’s about a mouse who became a maid in a doll’s house. There are 23 in the series, and my dad used to buy me one every now and then on our way to the library, as a consolation because I was too young to have my own library ticket (you had to be 9!).
5: ‘The Snow Goose’ by Paul Gallico
As a young teenager, I thought that no story in the world could be as beautiful as this. My copy was/is illustrated by Peter Scott.
6: ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri
I loved everything about it; the characters, the setting in the Swiss Alps, the storyline, the relationships. In many ways Heidi is a perfect children’s story.
By the way …
Heidi’s story is based on a real child, Heidi Schwaller, who was brought up by her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. I didn’t want to know that, nor did I ever want to read the sequel, Heidi Grows Up, which was written by Spyri’s English and French translator, Charles Tritten. However, when I was invited to dramatise Heidi for BBC Radio 4 I accepted with great pleasure!
6 unforgettable books for all children
7: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl
This book never fails with children. I read it to my first daughter when she was in hospital for three weeks. Three days after she came out, my son was in hospital for six weeks, and I read it all the way through again to him. Both children adored it, and so did I.
8: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce
I like to think of this as the perfect children’s book. And notice, it has skating in it! (See The Silver Skates). When I first met the author I was tongue-tied, I was so much in awe of her.
9: ‘The Mouse and his Child’ by Russell Hoban
Years ago I was asked to dramatise this book for Radio 4. I hadn’t read it before, and found this story of the clockwork mouse searching for the secret of self-winding completely engaging. I loved working on it, and meeting the author, who signed my copy.
10: ‘The Haunting’ by Margaret Mahy
I was riveted by this story of a boy and his missing great-uncle. It’s a brilliant, scary ghost story. I met the author when we were both on an author tour in Australia.
11: ‘The Stone Book Quartet’ by Alan Garner
I always think of this as Alan Garner’s finest. My husband and I read the whole book aloud to each when we were marooned in a tiny Welsh stone cottage one rain-soaked weekend. Every word resonates with me still. I met AG at a publisher’s party.
12: ‘Isaac Campion’ by Janni Howker
A beautiful book by a superb storyteller. I got to know Janni as a really warm and generous friend as well as a wonderful writer when we both did a lot of work for the Arvon Foundation.
4 fantastic adventure stories for children
13: ‘Galax-Arena’ by Gillian Rubinstein
A really unusual and exciting science fiction thriller. We travelled in Australia together on an author tour.
14: ‘Machine Gunners’ by Robert Westall
A wartime story book that it still one of the best I’ve ever read. He was as wise and powerful as his books.
15: ‘The Seeing Stone’ by Kevin Crossley-Holland
This book is the first of an Arthurian trilogy, all beautifully and excitingly written with Crossley-Holland’s powerful and poetic language. We’ve met many times, and worked together as visiting authors in a school in Istanbul. I was always deeply impressed by the care he took with the young students.
16: ‘Journey to the River Sea’ by Eva Ibbotson
I interviewed Eva Ibbotson for a radio programme before I became a writer, and was inspired by her deep understanding of children. She wrote this exciting novel when she was in her mid-seventies, and that was an inspiration too!
3 must-reads for adults – though published for young adults
17: ‘Troy’ by Adèle Geras
This is such a strong and moving historical novel, of the kind that needs no upper age classification. Adèle is a truly vivacious and generous woman and the author of many books.
18: ‘Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You’ by Hanna Jansen
This is a very powerful story based on one of the author’s adopted children, Jeanne, who escaped from Rwandan genocide when she was ten. Hanna Jansen and I shared a reading tour in Germany, and I was very pleased to get to know this extraordinary woman and to meet Jeanne and many of Hanna’s 16 other children, most of whom are adopted African orphans.
19: ‘The Hollow Land’ by Jane Gardam
This is the first book I read by this wonderful writer, and is still probably the one I admire most. The chapters are short stories which link together as the two boys explore the land with all its history and folk legends. Cumbria, the hollow land of the title, is in itself a powerful character, full of surprises and secrets.
4 picture books to love for ever!
20: ‘What Shall We Do With the Boo-Hoo Baby’ by Cressida Cowell
How many times did I read this gorgeous story to sobbing grandchildren? And it never failed to make them smile!
21: ‘Peepo!’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Of all the wonderful Ahlberg books, this has to be the favourite, taking grandparents back to their own childhood, and toddlers into the exciting world of home. I was so thrilled to share the Carnegie/Greenaway platform with them both.
22: ‘Scaredy Squirrel’ by Mélanie Watt
I thought at first this might be a difficult story for my four-year-old grandson (Austrian, at that!) but he simply loved the silliness and cleverness of Scaredy, refused to be read anything else for months, and eventually wrote his own Scaredy book when he was six.
23: ‘Best Word Book Ever’ Richard Scarry
My children and I pored over every page again and again, never tiring of the drawings, characters and set-ups. I wish we had it still.
4 timeless novels
24: ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Laurie Lee
This is the only book that I have ever read from beginning to end and then immediately read again, and continue to read from time to time.
25: ‘Country Girls’ by Edna O’Brien
I absolutely love the Irish writing voice, and one of my favourite prose authors is Edna O’Brien. The Country Girls was the first of hers that I read, and I longed to be able to write like her, with such lyricism and observation. I met her in Edinburgh, and thought she was as beautiful as her prose.
26: ‘The Gamekeeper’ by Barry Hines
He once said to me: “Write about your own back yard. Write as if every word costs ten bob.” It was wonderful advice. This is my favourite of his books. I read it when I was on holiday with my teenaged children, and was so much impressed by it I kept reading whole passages out loud to them.
27: ‘The Go-Between’ by LP Hartley
One of my favourite books of all time, and it made an equally good film. The situation that Leo finds himself in is so convincingly drawn that the whole story has stayed in my head for years.
3 disturbing novels
28: ‘The Secret River’ by Kate Granville
I read this book three years ago and was so moved by it that I spent the rest of the year reading her other books, many of which are also about the first white settlers in Australia.
29: ‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing
The first novel of a giant among authors, and I still think of it as her best. I felt I was in Africa while I was reading it, and I couldn’t stop talking about it and it implications.
30: ‘Hawksmoor’ by Peter Ackroyd
I found this chilling, strange, highly atmospheric novel impossible to put down or to forget.
I’ve now also made another blog post about disturbing novels.
2 masterly wildlife books
31: ‘Crow Country’ by Mark Cocker
I’m surrounded by crows. They raid the nests of smaller birds in my garden, they gossip and argue and clatter from morning to night. But Cocker’s book taught me to be fascinated by them, and to respect their intelligence.
32: ‘The Wild Places’ by Robert McFarlane
This was the first McFarlane book that I read. I think I have them all now, but will always like this the most, and admire the man who loves the natural world so intensely and writes about it so poetically.
4 memorable memoirs
33: ‘The Summer Book’ by Tove Jansson
This is my favourite of Tove Jansson’s books because it shows such close observation of nature, and the delicate and particular relationship of an elderly artist and her granddaughter on one of Jansson’s beloved islands in the Gulf of Finland. It is a novel, but I think of it as a memoir (even though she was never a grandmother), particularly since meeting Tove Jansson’s niece, Sophia, who told me she was the Sophia of the story.
By the way …
There is also The Winter Book, which is a collection of twenty short stories by Tove Jannson. Among other topics, they reflect her on childhood and her island home, where she lived with her partner Tuulikki Pietilä. Although she is best-known for her strange and much-loved Moomin books, she was also a satirist and political cartoonist.
34: ‘Taken Care Of’ by Edith Sitwell
The book is as zany, intellectual and idiosyncratic as Sitwell’s poetry, and, I believe, as Sitwell herself! I borrowed it from a friend and never gave it back because I couldn’t bear to part with it. It is a brilliant and humorous, sometimes devastatingly opinionated account of the great writers, artists and musicians of her period.
35: ‘Paula’ by Isabel Allende
I had never read a non-fiction book as searing as this. Allende’s prose is always wonderful and powerful, but this book about her daughter’s illness gripped me and moved me so much that for weeks afterwards I couldn’t read novels, saying that if non-fiction can be as powerful as this, what’s the point of fiction?
36: ‘I Am I Am I Am’ Maggie O’Farrell
…And then I read this book, and the same thing happened. O’Farrell’s novel-writing is always deeply moving, but in this memoir her recall and description of her own near-death experiences are almost unbearably poignant and beautifully told.
1 best biography
37: ‘Dickens’ by Peter Ackroyd
Ackroyd is such a skilful writer that his biography of Dickens reads like a Dickens novel. I don’t apologise for including the same author in two categories, as I am heavy-hearted about having to leave out two more of his books – London and Thames, so well-researched and deeply atmospheric that they also qualify as biographies.
3 powerful poets
38: ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ by Ted Hughes
Hughes was a large, shambling, charismatic man with a such a distinctive voice that it’s impossible to read his poetry without hearing him speak it. Of all his mighty collections this, his first, remains my absolute favourite.
39: ‘Collected Poems’ by Gillian Clarke
Gillian Clark and her voice are indistinguishable from each other, warm as buttered toast. Her poetry is lyrical and wise and wonderful. I had a cassette of Hughes and Clarke reading their poetry with me when I spent a week in hospital in France, and they were rich company indeed.
By the way ….
Gillian Clarke is the co-founder of the Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre, in Cricieth. Short writing courses and retreats are held there throughout the year, along the lines of the Arvon Foundation, and some of our most established writers have been there as tutors and as students.
40: ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas
My English teacher brought a record player and an album into the classroom and said: “This isn’t on the curriculum, but I want you to hear it.” I’ll never forget that lesson. I sat rigid, hardly daring to breathe, almost crying with excitement. I had never heard anything to visual, so visceral, so wordful before, and never will again.
Bonus: Some watery favourites
A few years ago, this list of my watery favourites appeared in the Guardian. There are some overlaps (pardon the pun!) here.
Why haven’t I included any books that have been published in the last five years? I’m planning a summer reading blog that will do just that – and it will be just as hard for me to select my favourites!
Over to you
Well, these are my 40 all-time favourite books. Do you have any thoughts about them? Would any of them have been included in your own favourite 40?