A look at the top fiction books for children lists

'Our fiction writing' / CC
Photograph: 'Our fiction writing' / CC

A friend, who knows my passion for all things literary, directed me to two recently published lists from the Times Educational Supplement: 100 fiction books all children should read before leaving primary school, and 100 fiction books all children should read before leaving secondary school.

Both lists has raised many thoughts from me. For a start have these lists been created merely for fun or is there a purpose behind it? Will it influence any decisions regarding curriculum? And most importantly for me, why have these specific books been chosen? I will be focusing on the top ten of both lists – as that is always the main focus of any list and unfortunately I don’t think anyone would read the 40,000 words I could write about the top 100’s.

Anyone with children, or those who work with them, will understand the struggle of getting some children excited by literature. With technology as advanced as it is now books can be bewildering to the newer generations, especially if they do not come from a literary home. Many people know how important literature is for many reasons such as developing imagination, analytical thinking, and most importantly independent thinking. Technology has it’s perks of course. For example, there have been many studies into how video games can enhance cognitive skills – and they can be seriously good fun. But personally, nothing can stimulate and entertain like literature and nothing will ever change my mind about that.

Beginning early and introducing very young children to books is an important step on their road to literary discovery. The top ten books for primary school children include some wonderful choices. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak are three excellent examples of books for the much younger child. These classics are visually beautiful and are delivered in a magical and educational way. For those reasons I agree with their place on the list.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Dogger by Shirley Hughes continue the theme of classic children’s books that are well loved favourites. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll are obvious choices for the list as they are wonderful stories with a lot of hidden depth. Another Dahl classic, Matilda, is a marvelous tale of a misunderstood bookish girl though I do wonder what puts it above The Magic Finger and The BFG which have equally encouraging themes within them.

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis is a tricky one, the stories are brimming with imagination and adventure yet can be difficult books to get into unless you are a serious child-reader. I wonder if the stories themselves have brought them to this list or if it is the fame of them. Goodnight Mister Tom is a harsh tale, something that many young children may find upsetting and i’m curious to know whether it is the emotion of the book, the WW2 aspect, or the writing itself that has led it to be chosen.

The top ten books for secondary school children is a little more complicated and where I really start to wonder at the reasoning behind these decisions. The only recent books featured on this list is the Harry Potter series. As surprised as everyone was by my standing on this I believe Harry Potter has earned it’s place on this list. The stories are densely packed with mythology and intelligence down to some of the tiniest details and also pack a real punch when it comes to life lessons. For those reasons I do believe they are a must read. The way these books have pulled a lot of children into the reading world is another reason why I will always have a fondness for them. The franchise that came mainly from the success of the films – which perhaps lack the depth and intelligence of the books – has now overshadowed the literature which is a shame and I can only hope that the books have not been completely lost to the film versions.

I was told recently that Animal Farm by George Orwell should not be on the list as it is dated however I disagree. It is a heavily political book that reflects society in a way that I think will always be relevant. The same applies for the other Orwell novel on the list, 1984, this book may infact have continued to become more and more relevant as the decades order cheap doxycycline pass which is quite remarkable and quite terrifying.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a book that has been ruined for many people by secondary school English which is a real shame given the richness of this book. This tale of society and anarchy is a beautifully written book full of important messages and I think a definite for all children to read. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a stunning novel, and one of the few that has a film adaptation that lives up to the book. The story of racism, standing up for what you believe in, and of growing up is an important classic and most definitely deserves to be part of this list. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger also deserves it’s place. The book resonates on many levels; the story itself, the intriguing protagonist, the incredible writing. It speaks to the older teen in a unique way and is an important stepping stone on the literary journey.

I have never been a fan of the writing of Steinbeck however I can appreciate the story Of Mice and Men, it holds some great meaning and has a lot of emotion and as it is the only novel on either list that has strong black protagonists I believe it definitely belongs. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a wonderful teaching on how not to be. The character arc of Scrooge is a simple, but effective, one and with it’s blend of strong characters, the supernatural, christmas, and its shortness it is a brilliant book to keep children reading. The next Dickens classic Great Expectations is a true classic though I wonder at what it can bring to a child of secondary school age. The book I most have an issue with is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I feel it is mere pretension that has led this book to the list. This for me certainly is dated, it is a classic that a lot of people love but I do not think it has a place on this list. Most of the characters are either intolerable or insipid, and while Elizabeth Bennet shows strength and independence which was revolutionary for the time the story still frustrates me on a feminist level. I would like to know why this is an important book for teenagers to read. I would remove this for Jane Eyre (number 13 on the list) which is a much more powerful, interesting, and relevant read.

I have attempted to be as concise as possible however there is much more to debate. My biggest issue with both top tens in general is how white, middle class it is. There is no variety in terms of culture and only one of the novels feature strong protagonists that are not white. It seems the multiculturalism of the western world is often ignored when it comes to such things. Beloved by Toni Morrison most certainly should have made the top ten yet comes only at 40, with The Colour Purple at 45. When it comes to educating children we need to be aware of incorporating all cultures and all walks of life. This list does not do that. As the list is compiled by 500 teachers it baffles me as to how this has happened.

There are a lot of amazing books within the top 100 but I am disappointed at some of the books that did not make the top ten. The Hobbit (17 for primary school age and 27 for secondary school age), and Lord of the Rings (19 for secondary school age) would have expanded the genres across the top spots making for a more exciting list. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson hits number 33. This would be an excellent addition for it’s discussion of duality of personality, the struggles of the conscious and unconscious mind, and inner demons. Perfect for teenage angst.

While both top ten’s hold some of my personal favourites, I am not convinced of their validity for the current generation. Perhaps this is why so many incredible books are despised due to how they are introduced and taught. It is not about our personal tastes, it is about how they may enrich the life of a child and encourage them to keep reading. As a voracious read from a young age these books would hold no challenge. For many others this list may just have them reaching for their i-pads.

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Christine Lawler 42 Articles
Christine has a passion for literature and has been a closeted writer since childhood. Other passions include theatre, film, and all things geeky. She lives in Glasgow with a cat named Molls and a tortoise named Haruki Kabuki.

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