My favourite children’s books shaped my childhood

Contributed by Victor Rees

Books2All resident writer

Fri 13 Nov 2020

Spending my childhood in Italy, I was incredibly lucky to have favourite children’s books in different languages. These experiences helped me develop a passion for reading that I hope never leaves – they also made me realise how vital it is for children to access books and libraries.

With the world looking so uncertain, I’ve found it fun to turn back to some of the early childhood books that stuck with me most, either for their memorable art, exciting stories or sheer imagination. I couldn’t have guessed how difficult it would be to pick just a few examples, but I’d recommend any of the following stories to a parent or teacher looking for something a little out of the ordinary. 

Favourite children’s books 1: D is for Dahl – Wendy Cooling (2004)

Age range: 7 – 10

Books2All blog: My favourite children's books shaped my childhood
D is for Dahl published by Penguin (2004)

Reading Roald Dahl was probably the first time I understood the concept of an author – that a shadowy figure was somehow responsible for all my favourite childhood stories. I could have easily placed any of his books on this list (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator has a special place in my heart), but I think Wendy Cooling’s D for Dahl best showcases why he left such an impression.

The book is a compendium of facts, photos and Quentin Blake’s drawings, arranged A to Z give an insight into Dahl’s life and practice. Reading through it in childhood, I felt like I was being given a secret first glimpse into how writers work – where they get their ideas from, how they need daily rituals and routines. It made me want to go off and write my own stories, but it also taught me that ideas don’t emerge fully formed.

We could have been left with books like James and the Giant Cherry or a version of Matilda where the protagonist dies – I learned that no matter how great an initial idea can seem, it usually needs some work before it comes outright. 

Favourite children’s books 2: The Children’s Book of Myths and Legends – Ronnie Randall and Graham Howells (2001)

Age-range: 7 – 13

Books2All blog: My favourite children's books shaped my childhood
The Children’s Book of Myths and Legends published by Bookmart Ltd 2001

Like many children with an early interest in mythology, I soon heard my first stories of Hercules, Pandora and Icarus. The ancient Greek legends seem to be a familiar starting point for many kids living in Europe, but it was through Randall’s book that I began understanding the incredible variety of international folklore. Dozens of tales from around the world are retold in just a couple of pages, ranging from creation stories to apocalyptic predictions and everything in between.

Condensed adaptations of The Epic of Gilgamesh sit alongside Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Inuit folk tales while also sprinkling in a few Greek classics. Each story is accompanied by Graham Howells’ vibrant art, which emphasises facial expressions as the wild monster designs. So many of these illustrations have stuck with me. I remember the poignancy of Enkidu’s death or being frightened at the image of Cúchulainn, bloodied and strapped to a standing stone. Randall’s collection helped me understand the wealth of stories out there and to look beyond the familiar. 

Favourite children’s books 3: The Vampire’s Assistant – Darren Shan (2000)

Age range: 9 – 13

In Britain, Darren Shan is so well known as the author of horror books for children and teens that he needs little introduction. When I first picked up The Vampire’s Assistant in its Italian translation, I was immediately drawn to the cover. It showed a pretty disturbing werewolf dragging a screaming boy by his legs – of course, I was hooked. I’d never really read much R. L. Stine, but I think Shan’s books suit a similar need that kids have to be freaked out to read something that feels a little bit dangerous.

Before leaving Italy, I donated my copy of The Vampire’s Assistant to my primary school library. Our teachers were Catholic nuns and probably not very impressed. I read some of Shan’s other books and remember enjoying the early Demonata instalments but soon began to feel they were becoming too excessively gory. Maybe it was just a sign I was growing out of these stories – but The Vampire’s Assistant had come at just the right time. I wonder what the nuns ended up doing with my copy, though. 

Favourite children’s books 4: David Attenborough’s Fabulous Animals – Molly Cox and David Attenborough

Age range: 10 – 14

Books2All blog: My favourite children's books shaped my childhood
David Attenborough’s Fabulous Animals published by the British Broadcasting Corporation (1975)

Finding a second-hand copy of this slim book was probably my first ever exposure to David Attenborough. It was published to coincide with a BBC children’s programme he presented in 1975 but always felt strong enough to stand on its own. Molly Cox, who served as the show’s producer, perfectly captures Attenborough’s famous tone and refuses to talk down to her young readers. She provides a surprisingly in-depth look at familiar tales of monstrous creatures, always with a possible factual explanation, such as how dinosaur bones were taken to be evidence of dragons.

The other aspect that kept drawing me to the book was its art. These weren’t modern illustrations commissioned for children but a compilation of historical woodcuts and etchings. It made me feel as though I was leafing through a book meant for grownups, like a bestiary that had slipped through some wizard’s fingers. A departure from the work we most associate with Attenborough, it’s, nevertheless, a brilliant introduction to cryptozoology that explains how humanity’s wildest creations are rooted in the natural world without demystifying them.

Favourite children’s books 5: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver – Martin Jenkins and Chris Riddell (2004)

Age range: 12 – 15

It seems strange how much we associate Gulliver’s Travels with children’s literature, given how political Swift’s original book was. There’s often an attempt to strip away the satire on the human condition, presenting a version that’s more or less sanitised. Luckily, Martin Jenkins’ adaptation is absolutely not that.

I remember gazing endlessly at the details of Chris Riddell’s art; some of the best of his career. Familiar images we associate with Gulliver (strapped to the beach or talking to giants) were made new. Riddell’s credentials as a political cartoonist come to the foreground when he’s asked to depict grotesque high-society portraits or the hideous double-page spread of the immortal struldbruggs that frightened me as a child. 

The art also achieves a clever visual trick, beginning in bright primary colours that gradually begin to saturate – fitting a tone that shifts from high adventure to introspection and madness. This felt like memorable, challenging children’s fare – not an introduction to Gulliver’s story, but an important stepping stone that made me want to go out and read Swift’s novel. 

Favourite children’s books 6: Il Segreto della Famiglia Tenebrax – Elisabetta Dami (2002)

Age range: 5 – 8

Books2All blog: My favourite children's books shaped my childhood
Geronimo Stilton: Il Segreto della Famiglia Tenebrax published by Edizioni Piemme (2002)

Having grown up in Italy, it would feel wrong not to include at least one Italian book. I was just the right age to read the Geronimo Stilton series when it first came out during my childhood. These stories about an anthropomorphic society of mice gained some success in the UK but, in Italy, they were a sensation – 20 years later, there’s still no sign of this slowing down. But, of all the books, the one that always stood out to me was Il Segreto della Famiglia Tenebrax (translated into English as The Secret of Cacklefur Castle).

The story is essentially an investigation of a haunted castle with some very weird inhabitants – imagine the Addams Family if they were all mice. It’s a simple enough concept, with some really memorable illustrations and playful use of different fonts to keep a young reader’s attention. Il Segreto della Famiglia Tenebrax was a great introduction to Gothic imagery of graveyards, ghosts and carnivorous plants, and almost certainly the reason I kept being drawn to creepier children’s stories.

No list of this kind could ever be exhaustive, but I hope it represents a broad enough range to inspire anyone looking for a memorable childhood book list.

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