The Ultimate Book Guide: Over 600 great books for 8-12s
Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn (editors) Susan Reuben (associate editor)
Anne Fine, Children’s Laureate 2001-3 (introduction)
A & C Black 2004
I couldn’t resist picking this up secondhand, especially as I love books that I can dip into, for both reliable references and for random rummaging. Despite not being completely up-to-date (what printed publication can ever be?) or truly comprehensive (as far as I can see most of the books are Eurocentric or North American, so very little world literature) this is a volume I shall hang on to — that is, unless I get my hands on the 2009 edition (subtitle: Over 700 Great Books for 8-12s).
This is a guide to be primarily used by the target age audience, so adult readers will have little problem navigating around. The sandwich fillings of the book are the mini-reviews in title alphabetical order (A to Y). Many are written by established children’s authors themselves, from Joan Aiken to Benjamin Zephaniah via luminaries such as Lynne Reid Banks, Malorie Blackman, Quentin Blake, Meg Cabot, Susan Cooper, Helen Cresswell, Anthony Horowitz, Eva Ibbotson, Michael Morpurgo, Terry Pratchett, Philip Reeve, Jacqueline Wilson and Jane Yolen (to name just a few whose names leap out). A nice touch, this: a number are penned by young readers, all competition winners, resulting in their inclusion here.
For each book entry there is, as well as the review, a suggested age-range (eg 9-11) and suggestions as to what to read next, whether sequels, other books by the same author or titles with a similar subject matter, and so on. There are special features as well, on genres as diverse as Adventure Stories (by Joan Aiken), Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales (Catherine Fisher) and School Stories (Andrew Norriss). Other boxes highlight the results of readers’ polls, giving us the top ten of Favourite Books, Authors, Sad Books, Films Based on Books (and also Books that Should be Filmed) and Favourite Characters, for instance.
Just like ticker tape or Breaking News surtitles, running across the top of some pages are Celebrity Quotes from the likes of Will Smith (he didn’t read books, he watched TV), Helen Fielding (she read Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books “feverishly”) and Andy McNab (unsurprisingly, he loved William Golding’s survival story Lord of the Flies).
If you were looking for stern or nit-picking critiques you’d be wasting your time — these are essentially contributors’ recommendations of books they’ve enjoyed, mostly when young but occasionally as adult readers, along with a short synopsis or introduction to characters and/or plot. These therefore are enthusiastic tasters to encourage youngsters (and not a few oldsters) to sample titles they might or might not have heard of, or new authors or genres, and to link them to a wider Anglophone community (there are translations from other cultures, of course, whether Aesop, The Arabian Nights or Jules Verne) so that all can revel in shared experience and enjoyment.
At a quick count I found that I have read well over seventy* of the 600-plus entries (not all single titles, some are sequences such as C S Lewis’ Narnia books or Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series), not including the film adaptations or condensed versions through which we all imbibe a flavour of world literature without necessarily reading the originals. While this selection is addressed to a British audience (and that audience now largely from the turn of this century) there is still much that an international readership can gain from this compendium.
The introduction is by Anne Fine, best known for Madame Doubtfire, adapted as the film ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ and starring the late Robin Williams. I’ve reviewed Anne Fine’s The Devil Walks here.
Reading Challenge category: a book with a number in the title. To be honest, this isn’t a book I’ve read straight through — it is a reference book, after all — but I have devoured a fair few of the mini-reviews and features.
Repost of review first published 15th November 2015
* Now well over eighty