Here are some of our family favourites, classics that are as magical today, as they were when my mum and dad first read them to me. Whenever I get a present for a new baby, I choose one or two of these books. I know it is a gift they will never grow out of.
I remember being both terrified and delighted by the idea that a walking-talking tiger might ring on our doorbell and invite himself in for tea. Nell (7) says, ‘I love the picture where the little girl goes to a café wearing her nightie’ and Flora (4) likes ‘the mess the tiger makes on the floor’. Children love anarchy!
In this book, you have to make impossible decisions. Would you rather your dad did a dance at school, or your mum had a row in a café? When I read this as a child, it felt really grown up to be asked my opinion and I would consider all the options very carefully. Nell and Flora never tire of this book, although Flora screams ‘None of them!’ when faced with: ‘Would you rather be crushed by a snake, swallowed by a fish, eaten by a crocodile or sat on by a rhinoceros?’ I always say ‘swallowed by a fish’, just like I did thirty five years ago!
was probably ten when this book was published, and I can vividly remember the excitement of finding real letters in a book. Officially it was my little sister’s book, but the humour appeals to all ages. The ripped envelopes show that my daughters love this book a bit too much. Nell’s favourite letter is ‘the catalogue the witch gets’ because of the ‘Little Boy Pie Mix’ and Flora likes the mini Cinderella book, I suspect because it slips in an extra book at bedtime.
By the same husband and wife team, ‘Peepo’ describes a day in the life of a war-time baby. As a child, I loved the detail in this book, particularly the mirror ‘with its rainbow rim’. Flora especially loves the cut out holes because ‘you peek like the baby’. Reading this book as an adult, I’m fascinated by the barrage balloon, uniforms and bomb damaged building that I never noticed as a child. There are things for everyone to spot.
It’s hard to pin down the special appeal of this book, but there is something about the simple lines and primary colours of Pienkowski’s illustrations that make it irresistible to children. When I first read this to Nell, I kept saying ‘I remember that!’ even though I hadn’t looked at the book for over thirty years. So many of the images are permanently imprinted on my mind: the kipper that goes in the cauldron, Meg in her nightie and the big yellow BOOM at the end.
Everything Shirley Hughes does is basically brilliant, but this is our favourite Alfie book. Alfie accidentally gets locked inside his house with his mum and sister on the other side of the door. Disaster! In Nell’s words, Alfie ‘is too worried to open the door himself’ and she likes it when ‘Mrs MacNally won’t let Maureen climb up the drainpipe’. Shirley Hughes totally understands the world of small children: their anxieties, their sense of humour and what delights them.
Nell is currently obsessed with the Tintin books and was very excited to be able to explain why. ‘I absolutely love it when Captain Haddock gets annoyed or whacks himself on the head or drops his pipe. My favourite story is Flight 714 to Sidney, but there are lots and lots of books with different adventures all set in different countries. When I read Tintin, I can see what rainforests look like and snowy mountains.’ When I was younger, Tintin books had the same glamorous appeal as James Bond films, although I did sometimes wonder where all the girls were. Nell couldn’t care less about this. In her mind, she is Tintin.
I have a huge collection of original Topsy and Tim books. Some of these I’ve kept since I was a child and others I’ve bought since. My girls love them and enjoy the recognisable adventures they have: going to the dentists, finding a rabbit in the garden, bonfire night. The original books have really quirky details in them that you never forget. I particularly like Topsy and Tim Go On a Picnic because they make sandwiches out of spaghetti hoops and hundreds and thousands. Recently, I discovered that Nell had written ‘Nell and Flora’ in the front of every single one…including my rare copy of ‘Topsy and Tim in Holland’! We have new Topsy and Tims too, and our favourite is Topsy and Tim: Visit London.
I had to mention one Roald Dahl book and this is Nell’s favourite ‘because Matilda’s is like me: she loves reading and playing tricks’. I can still remember the first time I read Matilda and desperately tried to work out how on earth a little girl like Matilda could defeat the mighty Miss Trunchbull…Roald Dahl’s children are such spectacular heroes.
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane and apologies for all the shocking omissions: Dear Zoo, Spot, My Naughty Little Sister, Milly Molly Mandy, The Famous Five… Sharing a favourite book with a child is like reading it for the first time which is why my husband and I can’t wait to introduce Nell to Harry Potter. We’ve decided to wait until the new Jim Kay illustrated editions come out in October…we are counting the days!