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The Best Children's Books for your Shelves

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The best children's books: 0-2 year-olds

The Guardian, Tuesday 11 May 2010

From Eric Hill's Where's Spot? to Rod Campbell's Dear Zoo, Julie Eccleshare delights in her top reads for 0-2 year-olds  

Julia EccleshareJulia Eccleshare  


The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Eric Carle

One pickle, one cup cake, one slice of watermelon – small fingers have never been able to resist the tiny hole through which the very hungry caterpillar crawls or the luscious food he savours as he does so in his growing journey from a tiny caterpillar to a great big fat one. The necessary "pop" all adults just have to make to make sure he metamorphoses into a beautiful butterfly makes this the easiest book to share with the very smallest listener.  

Dear Zoo: Rod Campbell

A perfect flap book, Dear Zoo raises anticipation and then satisfies it absolutely when the flap is lifted. I'm not sure that I'd trust a zoo to come up with exactly the pet I would like, and I'd be right; an elephant is too big and a frog is too jumpy. All have to be sent back. But patience is rewarded. In the end they do send exactly what is wanted.

The Baby's Catalogue: Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Loads of looking at all the things that babies and their families do all day long. Babies feeding, sleeping, playing; mothers and fathers working and resting; siblings teasing and caring. Everything that happens in the world of a baby is kindly observed in this near wordless picture book.

Where's Spot? Eric Hill

The delights of a simple game of hide-and-seek are explored in the bright pages of this flap book. It is dinner time but where is Spot? The search is entirely good humoured, with no sense of parental irritation at his disappearance!

We're Going on a Bear Hunt: Michael Rosen

A big bold story perfectly matched by Helen Oxenbury's illustrations, it captures the happiness and excitement of a family day out. Armed with all the things they need, the family sets off, splashing through water, squelching through mud, swishing through long grass. They're not scared! Or are they? The double-quick, headlong journey home is equally brilliant – and so is the snug ending.

Mr Gumpy's Outing: John Burningham

On a hot, sunny day, generous Mr Gumpy treats his animal friends to an outing on the river. Mr Gumpy tells them all not to muck about. But . . . guess what? Things do not go according to plan. Perfectly paced and sparely told, there are enough clues in the illustrations to enable young listeners to predict the catastrophe and relish it.

Owl Babies: Martin Waddell

Absolute terror and absolute reassurance are perfectly balanced in this stunning picture book, illustrated by Patrick Benson. How the three baby owls look after themselves and each other as they deal with their anxieties while their mother is out hunting is impossibly moving.

The Odd Egg: Emily Gravett

The simple bold joke of The Odd Egg gives Duck a satisfying last laugh. Told almost entirely in pictures with a sequence of cut-down pages adding to the drama, adults will enjoy it most but children will also love the surprise when Duck's egg finally cracks open.

HUG: Jez Alborough

With just the one word of the title dotted through and celebrated repeatedly in all the pictures, this could be cloying. But it is not. It is infused with genuine warmth as each picture tells of loving interactions between different animal families. Monkey's own search for his mother, and the very special hugs she gives, propels the story perfectly.

Handa's Surprise, Walker: Eileen Browne

Knowing the fate of the fruits in the basket that Handa carries on her head while Handa does not gives young readers a great sense of conspiracy. In the best pantomime spirit they long to tell Handa what's happening just behind her. 

The Best for 2-4 year olds 


Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

A pyjama'd rabbit tries to delay lights-out by bidding goodnight to everything in his room. The story unspools in soft, sleepy half-rhymes: "a little toy house and a young mouse"; "a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush". A bedtime classic (brace yourself for the inevitable "what's mush?").

The Elephant and the Bad Baby: Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs

A larcenous elephant and his diminutive passenger gambol down a high street, merrily shoplifting as they go, and collect a train of fist-waving vendors in their wake. Briggs' airy illustrations perfectly balance the clatter of the pair as they go "rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta, all down the road".

The Snail and the Whale: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Forget the Gruffalo. The finest book to emerge from the pens of Team Donaldson-Scheffler is this rich, rewarding tale of a snail with wanderlust and the whale who takes her on a round-the-world cruise. Size isn't everything, the message goes: when the whale is beached, the tiny snail saves the day.

My Friend Harry: Kim Lewis

James takes his elephant, Harry, everywhere: on holiday, on the farm, into bed. As Harry grows more battered, James simply grows – until he has to leave Harry behind and go to school. Lewis smartly underplays the scene when James's mother waves him off at the school gate, but it's a subtle tearjerker.

Where The Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak

Sendak's classic fantasy sees Max, sent to his room for "making mischief", imagining his way into the kingdom of the Wild Things: twisted, toothy and strange. He leads them in glorious "wild rumpus", but tires of rebellion and goes home to find supper waiting for him, "still hot".

Dogger: Shirley Hughes

When Dave's beloved toy dog goes missing, there seems little hope of recovering him – until he turns up at the school fair and big sister Bella helps reunite them. This simple lost-and-found story is deeply satisfying – and Hughes' comfortable, chaotic sketches of late-70s family life will hook parents who lived it first-hand.

Not Now, Bernard: David McKee

The only person who pays attention to Bernard is the monster in the garden – who eats him up, "every bit". Unfortunately, when the monster goes inside, Bernard's parents ignore him, too. The image of the chastened monster plodding glumly up to bed, trailing Bernard's teddy bear behind him, is priceless.

Gorilla: Anthony Browne

The children's laureate's deepest, most yielding book, about a lonely girl's consolatory fantasies. Hannah's father is depressed and withdrawn, so one night she dreams up a gorilla to take his place and escort her to the zoo. Artful references to Magritte and King Kong vitalise the backdrops, and the ending is delicately ambiguous.

Once There Were Giants: Martin Waddell and Penny Dale

This beautiful book tells the story of a little girl surrounded by giants – father, mother, uncle, siblings. She ages through the pages until she too has a daughter, and realises she has crossed over into gianthood herself. Warning: do NOT attempt to read without a tissue to hand.

The Best for   5-7 year olds


The Sheep-Pig: Dick King-Smith

Brave Babe, born a runty little piglet, who is brought to the farm for fattening-up, cheats his destiny by learning new skills from his adoptive mother Fly, the sheepdog. Babe's sheep-working skills are all his own and soon his unique technique of speaking respectfully to the sheep brings him fame as well as saving Farmer Hogget's sheep from harm. Funny and touching.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Roald Dahl

Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory is one of fiction's most tantalising locations and Charlie Bucket's adventure a mouth-watering rollercoaster of a ride. Along with four other children, Charlie wins a golden ticket to be shown around. While Charlie blossoms on the trip, his four companions reach suitably sticky and disgusting ends as punishment for their revolting behaviour. Mr Willy Wonka dispenses prejudiced and violent justice, which children adore.

The Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth: Eoin Colfer

The sometimes horrible but always fascinating way in which brothers treat one another lives on in this hilarious story of how Will's older brother Marty spooks the daylights out of him with a terrible tale of the deadly pirate Captain Crow. The thought of what the bloodthirsty pirate might do sets off a chain reaction of disasters for Will but also a just and delightful comeuppance for Marty.

The Adventures of Captain Underpants: Dav Pilkey

Cartoon illustrations, a chunky format and pants in the title make this an easy choice for new readers. Superhero Captain Underpants hurtles through adventures, seeing off all kinds of opposition from aliens and the rest. Loads of slapstick humour to enjoy in the pictures, as well as easy-to-read speech bubbles that support the longer storyline.

The Worst Witch: Jill Murphy

It's hard enough to be hopeless in any school but, when it is spells that go wrong, the results can have unpredictable consequences. New girl Mildred Taylor doesn't quite get the hang of some of the magical homework set at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. The resulting chaos is delightful and hugely satisfying.

The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon: Mini Grey

Everyone knows that the dish ran away with the spoon but, in this bittersweet rags-to-riches picture-book story, now we know what happened next. The couple sail to New York. Here they make big money as glamorous stage stars but then lose it all and set out on a less glamorous life as criminals. Sophisticated and glorious illustrations make this a visual treat.

Flat Stanley: Jeff Brown

Squashed flat when a billboard falls on top of him, Stanley lives a new and deliciously dotty life, being posted off on holiday – so much cheaper than a plane ticket – and being flown as a kite.

Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire: Andy Stanton

Mr Gum is unremittingly nasty. He hates children, animals and even fun. But there is something he loves: money! So, when he finds someone with lots and lots of cash, he is determined to get his hands on it. Mr Gum's anarchic and outrageous behaviour has much to recommend him.

Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age: Raymond Briggs

Like all children, Ug questions everything. And with good reason. Briggs's Stone Age is solidly stony. Ug wants a soft ball to play with, cooked meat not raw. Above all, Ug longs for soft trousers. (His stone ones are hugely amusing.) A brilliant book about asking why.

The Iron Man: Ted Hughes

From its terrifying opening in which a strange creature crashes down a cliff, then scrabbles to put itself back together from the body parts that are strewn all over the beach, this mythic story is rich in unforgettable images. Underlying them, Hughes raises all kinds of questions about how people respond to anything new.

Finn Family Moomintroll: Tove Jansson

The stories of the Moomins have a timeless charm. Fantasy and reality fuse delightfully; the strong family feeling of the Moomins and the charming details of their domestic life sit comfortably alongside the magic that surrounds them. Here, Moomintroll and his friends have a wonderful set of adventures with a magical hat when they wake up from their long winter sleep.


The best children's books: 8-12 year-olds

From the small genius of The Borrowers to the giants of children's books, the Narnia stories, Lucy Mangan and Imogen Russell-Williams pick their must-reads for 8-12 year-olds


Stig of the Dump: Clive King

This was the first original Puffin published in 1963. The story of eight-year-old loner Barney who befriends Stig, a remnant of the Stone Age hidden in the local chalk pit, has not been out of print since. The two boys grow to appreciate each other's eras and skills as they contrive ingenious solutions to Stig's various problems living out of the junk that is thrown into the pit. A modern classic.

Charlotte's Web: EB White

"'Where's Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother" is probably the most famous opening line of any children's book. He is going to dispatch Wilbur, the runt of the litter, until Fern pleads for clemency. With the help of Wilbur's wise and devoted friend, Charlotte, the spider is able to live out the rest of his days in safety. You may feel like warning your child that Charlotte dies "as spiders do" at the end of the summer. You should resist. It's a book that teaches you that characters can be made to live for ever simply by turning back to the first page and starting again.

The Family from One End Street: Eve Garnett

This episodic collection of the adventures (in the late 1930s) of the multitudinous Ruggles family (seven children, two parents) was one of the first books for this age group to take working-class life as its central theme and to depict it with charm and without condescension. They remain as fresh as the day they were penned.

The Story of Tracy Beaker: Jacqueline Wilson

One End Street was Wilson's favourite book as a child and its influence can be seen in all her wildly popular books, which speak just as directly and unpatronisingly to and about the kind of children underrepresented in young fiction. Tracy Beaker is their totem, an irrepressibly imaginative child (though the staff in her care home say she has "behavioural problems") who writes the story of her life while waiting for her mother to come and get her back.

Matilda: Roald Dahl

It's almost impossible to choose between Dahls but Matilda is one of the most borrowed by children so let us pick her – especially as it helps refute the charges of misogyny occasionally aimed at Dahl. Matilda is the superbright daughter of horrible parents who helps free her schoolmates and her lovely teacher Miss Honey from the tyranny of Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress. All of Dahl's exuberance and cartoon brutality is on display here, just the way kids like it.

Tom's Midnight Garden: Philippa Pearce

Exquisitely written, perfectly pitched and suffused with a gentle yearning, the story of lonely Tom – who discovers that the gardenless flat in which he is staying returns at midnight to its days of Victorian splendour – is Pearce's masterpiece. And if you don't cry at the final scene, well, you'll know you're dead inside.

The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster

Bored, disaffected young Milo receives a mysterious present – a purple tollbooth – and sets off on a journey through Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, cities at war in the Kingdom of Wisdom which has banished the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason. It dazzled, discomfited, enmeshed and then enraptured me.

The Narnia books: CS Lewis

Yes, they're very much of their time and place, an oak-panelled room in the oak-panelled 1950s – and maybe you'll want to drop The Last Battle, where the whole Christian allegory thing becomes crudely explicit, behind the sofa – but until then it's a riot of fauns, talking beavers and dancing dryad in a cracking set of stories.

Harry Potter: JK Rowling

No, they're not great literature. But, like Enid Blyton, they give new readers quick and convincing proof that reading can be fun. For that alone – although I'd argue they achieve more than that – Rowling's boy has earned his Z-shaped stripes.

The Borrowers: Mary Norton

The Borrowers – tiny people, living secretly in the houses of "human beans" and scavenging therein – are a wonderful idea. The story of young Arrietty's growing frustration with life under the floorboards speaks forever to children's irritation with their own circumscribed world. If only we could all pole vault with a hatpin out of here.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror: Chris Priestly

Mesmerising, understated, and convincingly Victorian in tone, these grisly ghost stories are beautifully framed by the mysterious Uncle Montague, telling tales of his sinister knick-knacks to his nephew Edgar over tea and cake. A book for children who enjoy being frightened – and a perfect introduction to Saki and Edgar Allan Poe.

The Lionboy Trilogy: Zizou Corder

This riproaring trilogy crams in everything – dystopian oppression, passionate conservationism, villainous relatives, shipboard circuses and a boy who can speak to cats, all set in a petrol-poor, corporation-controlled future. Charlie Ashanti discovers his scientist parents have been kidnapped by the corporation because they're on the verge of discovering a breakthrough cure for asthma. Charlie must travel to Paris, Venice, Morocco and Haiti, in the company of the lions he has freed from a drug-administering tamer, to set the world to rights. Joyous.

Skellig: David Almond

Michael, worried because his baby sister has been born prematurely, finds a curious creature in the garage of his family's new home. Unethereal in its tastes – which include brown ale and Chinese takeaway – the being nevertheless seems to have wings. Skellig celebrates children's unfiltered, Technicolor perceptions of the exciting world in which they live. A bookshelf essential.


Best children's books: 12-years-old and over

From the much-loved classic Tom Sawyer to the modern classic His Dark materials, Lucy Mangan and Imogen Russell-Williams pick their top reads for children aged 12 and over


Lucy Mangan and Imogen Russell Williams



I Capture the Castle: Dodie Smith

The first entry in Cassandra Mortmain's diary ends with her feeling happier than she ever has in her life, despite her depressed father and impoverished state. "Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge; or it may be due to the thought of eggs for tea." The story of the restoration of a degree of the family fortunes unfolds in the same briskly beguiling voice and appeals to the romantic streak in every teenage heart. Trust no one who does not love this or, of course, 101 Dalmatians.

His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman

Bleak, brutal, warm, lush and exhilarating by turns, fiercely intelligent, compassionate and compelling always, it will undo all the harm or all the good you feel was done by letting your offspring loose on Narnia. That's what reading is for.

The Chaos Walking trilogy: Patrick Ness

An unbelievably thrilling read that nevertheless poses profound questions – about the effects of war, the constraints of love and hate, the competing claims of vengeance and forgiveness – as the epic tale of Todd's efforts to escape various warmongering forces unfolds. Profoundly humane and utterly magnificent.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret: Judy Blume

At a time when the disturbingly affectless Gossip Girl series and Twilight books, with their troubling attitudes towards teenage girls' sexuality, have such a stranglehold, Blume's concentration on the lived experience of adolescence makes the books an increasingly valuable corrective to this prevailing mood, as well as continuing to be great reads.

Goodnight Mr Tom: Michelle Magorian

Any synopsis makes it sound twee – irascible, long-bereaved old man Tom Oakley grudgingly takes London evacuee and abused child Will into his home and their needs and gifts help heal each others' wounds – but it is not. It is beautiful, sad and true. Get it to your kids before it is ruined by being presented as a set book at school.

A Little History of the World: EH Gombrich

Talking of beautiful, sad and true – Gombrich's short, measured jog through the main civilisations and events that have shaped the world is a warm, witty presentation of vital facts in narrative form, which grew out of a correspondence the author had with his friend's young daughter. And a useful reminder that there is lots of fantastic non-fiction as well as fiction out there too.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Mark Haddon

The boy with Asperger's syndrome, who is trying to navigate his way through a family break-up and solve the mystery of who killed the dog next door, provides an unlikely hero whose fresh perspective engages the reader, although he fails to engage with people himself. It's one of those "easy reads" with substance for which there is frequently such a gaping need (see goddamn Gossip Gir) in teenage life.

Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

There is something for everyone (or, OK, every girl – much as we hate to admit the possibility of gender division in readers, we sometimes must) in Alcott's bestseller. Tomboys have Jo, wannabe celebs have Amy, homebodies have Meg and drips have Beth. And, of course, because we all contain multitudes, we love all of them equally according to mood. Except, of course, for Beth. Die, drip, die.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Mark Twain

And a classic for – ostensibly –the boys. Until they are ready for the greater demands of Huckleberry Finn, whet juvenile appetites with Tom, his entrepreneurial spirit and his taste for treasure-hunting adventure. A paean to true boyhood.

Witch Child: Celia Rees

In 1659, 14-year-old Mary Newbury travels from England to the New World, where she becomes embroiled in what are effectively the Salem witch trials. It's a completely absorbing account of what happens when suspicion and rumour fuel secret agendas, prejudices and politics. A book to make you sigh with satisfaction.

Exposure: Mal Peet

This contemporary retelling of Othello – the doomed couple now a black Brazilian star footballer and a pampered young pop goddess – will continue to grip young readers for years to come.

The Sterkarm Handshake/The Sterkarm Kiss: Susan Price

These books cross effortlessly between science fiction and fantasy, depicting life as it might have been in the primitive past with rare and enthralling realism. A British corporation, FUP, has developed the Tube, a means of time-travelling between the 21st and 16th centuries, and made contact with an ancient Scottish tribe. FUP expects no difficulty in negotiating for resources with savages, but the Sterkarms are unexpectedly ruthless – and Andrea, FUP's 16th-century liaison, has complicated matters by falling in love with the Sterkarm leader's son. Not for the fainthearted, and with some decidedly adult language in Kiss, these books never talk down or soften the harshnesses of the past. Unforgettable.

The White Darkness: Geraldine McCaughrean

Sym is a typical teenage girl in many ways, wrestling with a colossal crush – unusually on long-dead Polar explorer, Captain Oates. When her eccentric uncle offers her the opportunity to go to Antarctica, she's delighted – but Uncle Victor's unnerving behaviour and the dark cold of the South Pole are more than Sym bargains for. Bleakly, heroically romantic.


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