A youngster’s reading list

Scilla in the Banzoota school library
‘Scilla in the Banzoota school library’ by Quentin Blake in Joan Aiken’s The Winter Sleepwalker

In an ongoing discussion on Goodreads which began a few years ago one reader noted that one of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels — Fire and Hemlock — “mentions a number of books that DWJ probably liked herself.” This noted children’s author, as many authors do, had included quite a few semi-autobiographical details in her fiction; and in Fire and Hemlock one character, Tom, lends or recommends a number of titles to the young Polly. They’re all intended to obliquely reference traditional ballads like Tam Lin, which is about a human rescued from the Queen of the Fairies by his own true love.

In a review of Fire and Hemlock which I posted both here and on Goodreads I agreed: “Jones’ book references — quite apart from their relevance to the plot (as when Tom insists that Polly reads the book on fairy tales he has sent her) — must be a good indicator of Diana’s own childhood and student reading matter …

“Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of the first mentioned (published in 1962, not too long before Jones embarked on her own writing career and which may have been an inspiration); then there’s some E Nesbit stories, Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers of course, and tales of King Arthur (a running theme in many of Diana’s books, most obviously in The Merlin Conspiracy and Hexwood). Another long-recognised influence on Fire and Hemlock is T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, principally the images and structure, though many of Jones’ potential young adult readership would remain less aware of this (as I was, until it was pointed out to me).”

More recently Goodreads reader Ellie usefully listed some of the books referenced, directly or indirectly, in Diana Wynne Jones’ superb YA novel: “Throughout Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Tom sends Polly various books, many of which are intended to inform her indirectly of his pact with Laurel [his fairy bride],” she writes. “This list also includes other titles that were mentioned in passing, and some that inspired and/or influenced Fire and Hemlock.” What’s interesting is that the titles in effect form a useful reading list for young readers, particularly teens, introducing them to a range of books that ranges from folklore to classic literature, from fantasy to crime fiction, from Shakespeare to modern poetry and from children’s classics to scholarly studies.

For your possible interest I reproduce the list below, slightly edited and regrouped under different categories. I can honestly say I’ve only read about half this list, though I’ve dipped into a few of the others. What’s your experience of reading these? How many would you rate as essential reading for a youngish audience? Which ones would you query? I ask out of curiosity — we’ve all been young once, haven’t we, and I hope we are all still avid readers — but I’d guess while there’ll be some overlap many would raise an eyebrow at one or two of Jones’ selections.

Children’s classics
E Nesbit: Five Children and It and The Story of the Treasure Seekers
L Frank Baum: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
T H White: The Sword in the Stone
John Masefield: The Box of Delights
C S Lewis The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Philippa Pearce: Tom’s Midnight Garden
Elizabeth Goudge: Henrietta’s House
Joan Aiken: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Anna Sewell: Black Beauty
Dodie Smith The Hundred and One Dalmatians 

Adult classics
J R R Tolkien: Lord of the Rings
A Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet 
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night
Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers
G K Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
H G Wells: The War of the Worlds
Rudyard Kipling: Kim
C S Lewis: Perelandra
Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe: East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon

Non-fiction and poetry
Sir James Frazer: The Golden Bough
T S Eliot: Four Quartets
Arthur Quiller Couch: The Oxford Book of Ballads

Diana’s novel was first published in 1984 and would refer back to some of her own early reading experience as well as to her studies at Oxford University. As she was born in 1934 we’re talking about the immediate post-war years and the fifties, with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) marking a kind of cut-off point.

42 thoughts on “A youngster’s reading list

  1. I’ve read and know very well the 3 non-fiction/poetry books listed, 5 of the adult classics and none of the child classics. I wonder how many of the child ones in particular would still be considered “essential reading”, or would be seen as coming from a time and culture that has passed. There’s so much new and bright and shiny bombarding kids, stuff that is so heavily hyped and marketed, that I think it would be an unusually bookish child who would read Nesbit, Masefield, Stevenson or White.


    1. “I think it would be an unusually bookish child who would read Nesbit, Masefield, Stevenson or White.” I think you’re right, Gert, though it’s interesting that many writers declare themselves as omnivore readers when they were young.

      A quick search online for the top children’s books of all time was revealing. Whether chosen by industry insiders, educationalists or by sales, less than a handful of books from the list make the grade. A Telegraph list of 100 best children’s books of all time included White’s The Sword in the Stone and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (plus Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew); Diana’s own Charmed Life also appeared:

      A list of 100 best Young Adult books by Time magazine also produced The Sword in the Stone and added The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from Diana’s list. Her own Dogsbody was also included:

      Another Telegraph list of 15 best children’s books of all time only included The Sword in the Stone as a contender which didn’t make the list, though The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe appears. I wonder if White’s novel owed its inclusion in these lists to the Walt Disney animated film of 60s:

      Finally, the UK-based Book Trust only includes two in this list for its 100 best children’s books for Children’s Book Week 2013, and they are The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Lion, the Witch< and the Wardrobe, both in the 9-11 age range:

      I don’t know what all this signifies, other than that heavily the “hyped and marketed … new and bright and shiny bombarding kids” that you mention has indeed edged out the classics, other than what we may now regard as modern classics like Aiken’s and White’s titles.


      1. You have really done your homework. But then I suppose we also have to consider that time moves on- the most popular book for 19th century readers would probably have been improving tales of naughty children being punished and well-behaved children being rewarded.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Um, I cannot find Treasure Island mentioned anywhere in F&H. Maybe a confusion with The Treasure Seekers?

    And I would not consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin a children’s book, certainly not today. Other than that, I’ve read all your children’s list except The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and would certainly say they’re all wonderful books that deserve to still be read today. The increasingly old-fashioned, archaic language of some may be a hump to get over, so they may not appeal to all children, but I hope some will still discover and love them.


    1. My mistake, Lory, I clearly did confuse The Treasure Seekers with Treasure Island, and I’ve now edited out the Stevenson book from the list! I’ve also acknowledged the slip on the Goodreads discussion page and will have to go back to my original review of F&H and correct it there too — so thanks for pointing it out!

      I’m impressed by familiarity with those other titles, and I suspect that you must have been a prime example of the “unusually bookish child” that Gert mentions above! So many writers describe themselves as omnivore readers when young, to whom the archaic language of the old classics was no real barrier — perhaps they just skipped over those awkward passages as I seem to remember I did too! Glad though that some modern classics are appearing, perhaps because they got made into feature films which resulted in marketing the originals in new editions.


      1. I think children today are more and more used to the fast-paced, low-literacy entertainment of movies and videogames, so some of these may be a hard sell, but I don’t think “most children” should be assumed to equal “all children.” Fortunately my son’s education is media-free and very rich in oral language, so I fully expect him to enjoy most if not all of these classics. He has been reading and enjoying Treasure Island as well!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. He sounds to have a good role model when it comes to reading! And of course, so long as children imbibe the reading habit it matters little in the great scheme of things whether they come to those classics sooner or later — I’m only now enjoying what were missed opportunities in my pre-teens and teenage years, and realising it’s better late than never!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I also would note that even though it’s a bit more obscure, Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge is a must read for DWJ fans! As Polly says, it’s about “making things up and they come true,” and it also has a scene where someone orders a list of books for a child. I think it definitely was a childhood favorite for Diana and that she had it in mind while writing Fire and Hemlock.

    It was reissued in 2013 by Girls Gone By in the UK, but is already out of print. Hopefully they might reprint it with that high demand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, do, there’s a recent edition of this generally available. I’d be really, really interested in your opinions when you do read it — whether you’re impressed or whether you’re totally flummoxed!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The influence of books on a reader, and then on that reader as writer — truly a fascinating subject. I do like that wide selection, although for Elizabeth Goudge I would have chosen ‘Green Dolphin Street’ which I found both compelling and disturbing as a young reader. One is wonderfully torn between regret at how the cards had been dealt to the likeable characters, and wonder at how they play out the hands they received.

    I don’t think I’d throw out any of the given titles, but I might include a number including ‘Tom Sawyer’ and some of the Arthur Ransome adventures.

    Authors like Enid Blyton deserve inclusion for the fact that they have the capacity to make readers of non-readers. Regardless of their literary merit, the stories grab attention and imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some classic children’s classics — if I can put it that way — have stood the test of time for good reason, though a few others are more worthy than readable where the modern reader is concerned. But then that also can apply to adult classics.

      Haven’t read any Goudge as yet, but thanks for the recommendation. As for the others, all you need is a film or tv version to revive them for a new audience / readership I think, with all the associated repackaging, hype and occasionally unintentional trashing of their principal merits.


  5. What a great list, Chris. I would actually like Treasure Island added – I read it for the first time recently and thought it was great fun and rattled along nicely.
    Some of the ‘classics’ though just don’t appeal to many modern kids – my son hated Treasure Island when he read it for school for instance and he has an aunt and uncle who when he was younger always sent him ‘classics’ – The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh etc etc – which never engaged him at all. Now, a friend gave him some Mr Gumm books and he read those as if the paper was dissolving in his hands!
    Different times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I suppose my pre-teens may have been spent reading Noddy and the Famous Five, so no change there! But, yes, lots of good stuff here, but maybe — as I’ve suggested elsewhere — more likely to appeal to adults looking for nostalgia.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Christine

    It lovely to see this laid out, authors’ recommendations can say a lot about their work, especially in the case of DWJ. Strangely, though, I read a lot of these before finding my first Jones novel (the Merlin Conspiracy, which my mother gifted to me because of my love of King Arthur). Nesbit has been a favourite for years, purely by accident since my parents picked all of my English language books but had never read most of them. All this to say, I wonder if there is something about these books that inevitably leads people down the same book list. Maybe it’s a love of myth and fantasy? Or a love of a particular kind of character-driven stories? Whatever it is, there must be some reason that my favorite author loved almost exactly the same things growing up as I did.

    (Oh, and I apologize for the comment on an old article, but this was an intriguing post and made me want to say something for a change.)


    1. No need to apologise, Christine, I do love these ongoing conversations all seeming to suggest that something worthwhile had been stated in the first place! The Merlin Conspiracy was actually my own first proper intro to DWJ for the same same reason, the Arthurian connection, which soon led me to reading about 90% of her output.

      Why these books? Maybe because of the notion of childhood as an age of innocence, and that myth and fantasy were suitable preparations for a proper classical education (Latin and Greek language and philosophy) and the imperialist imperatives where exploration and innovation were fed by an early introduction to creative thinking and wild imaginings. (Do we feel an academic thesis emerging from all this?!)

      You mention too how character-driven these stories often were, and this must have chimed in with a Victorian veneration of the Individual as the Great Man (more rarely Woman) determining, as Carlyle believed, the future flow of History; perhaps all this was to contradict the collectivism of socialism where the individual was subsumed within the Masses — I’m only guessing here. But there is a third way, bowing neither to Right or Left, and that is the need for all of us to realise ourselves, to see who we are, how we fit into the scheme of things and what we can contribute for the good of our fellow humans and the environment.

      Whew! Sorry, a bit overblown or what?!


      1. Christine

        Not overblown, just a good attempt at explaining why people love what they love. It’s hard to put taste into words, after all. But I do agree that the Victorian love of the Individual could have something to do with it (or perhaps they share the same root?). Maybe it’s all about finding one’s place in the world and understanding relationships’ messy underbellies. DJW’s books certainly keep fantasy grounded in human nature, and the Malory and White takes on King Arthur emphasize personal history in different yet very relatable ways.

        So it’s a bit of all three of your ideas, I suppose. Understanding old stories is a good way to understand newer ones, and children tend to see things in very different ways (and their first impressions are VERY hard to shake).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. “Understanding old stories is a good way to understand newer ones.” I absolutely agree — and that holds true for all readers, whatever their age. 🙂


      2. earthbalm

        Only just read this reply. Very Taoist :). This is a fantastic series of comment, thanks to everybody who has contributed to the discussion. I read the first Mr Gumm to my class last year and we had a riot (of enjoyment). Though I wouldn’t go out and buy myself a copy.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. earthbalm

    Reblogged this on Earth Balm Music and commented:
    I’m enjoying reading this book thoroughly. Polly is a quality children’s literature character. much in the mould of Dido Twite. I’m not sure of Tom’s intentions at the moment though and I’m thinking that Seb will have a greater part to play as the narrative progresses?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seb is indeed a crucial character, ambiguous at times but subtly drawn — he put me in mind of a certain Loki-like figure in the first of Peake’s Gormenghast novels. So glad you’re enjoying this, Dale!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. earthbalm

        The Gormenghast set is another I’d love to read – it’s on my list. I’m glad I’m enjoying the book but equally glad you gave nothing away in the comment!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, the dreaded spoilers! I try to avoid any plot summaries when I’m reading a novel so that it stays as fresh and as unexpected a journey as possible. But I do like to give some clues as to what kind of journey it is! Oh, and thank you, Dale, for all the recent reblogs, much appreciated, as always. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Can’t keep up with you! I shall re-read ‘Fire and Hemlock’, a strange and lovely book, I’d forgotten the list of reading recommendations. Good to know ‘Wolves’ has settled itself on several of those lists – although Joan never thought it was her best book, she was very proud for instance, of the Felix trilogy, but the memorable title does keep her name out there among all the shiny newcomers, and I hope will lead new readers to go deeper… thank you!
    PS. Elizabeth Goudge is marvellous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too think the Felix trilogy vastly underrated and therefore unknown, Lizza, but all credit to DWJ for appreciating Joan’s output in such a generous way.

      As for Elizabeth Goudge I’m already persuaded by other bloggers that I’ve missed out on not having read her, and you have added to the already irresistable force that has put her near the top of my must-read-soon list!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve only read ten books on that list and they were all read when I was an adult. Somehow, I don’t even want to try reading books like The Three Musketeers and The War of the Worlds. I sense that I won’t like them, but I may be wrong. Still, too many books and too little time ….

    I wonder how many 21st century children would voluntarily read and enjoy all the books on this list? My own kids have only read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 😦


    1. I only read three of the books on the list as a youngster, Daphne, and two of them were the Dumas and the Wells you mentioned you wouldn’t try! I suspect movie and TV tie-ins might encourage kids to pick up Tolkien, Lewis, Baum and Nesbit for example, but I suspect this list would in the main appeal to the bookish omnivore — my granddaughters enjoy reading and have probably read many of the children’s classics, my grandsons (though initially goodish readers) now spend most of their time playing video games on i-pads or RPG online. Like you I will have read those kids classics as an adult, with an adult appreciation and for me not a little reverse engineered nostalgia!


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