Last week the UK Secretary for Education Michael Gove suggested that children as young as 11 should be reading 50 books a year as part of a drive to raise literacy standards. This raised a lot of eyebrows amongst the British book-loving public, not least as it comes following large cuts in funding for libraries in the UK.
Whilst most commentators of course agreed that reading should be encouraged, many argued against a prescribed list of set length:
“I feel it’s the quality of children’s reading experience that really matters. Pleasure, engagement and enjoyment of books is what counts – not simply meeting targets” ~ Anthony Browne
“The important aim is a reading that should be wide and deep rather than numerical” ~Alan Garner
“When it comes to reading books children should be allowed – and encouraged – to read as much rubbish as they want to” ~ Philip Pullman
In response to Gove’s 50 books a year suggestion, The Independent newspaper published an article “The 50 books every child should read“, containing books for 11 year olds suggested by Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen and others. This list gave me lots of food for thought. Of course I want to do all I can to encourage a love of reading in my children, and one of the ways I do this is by reading lots and lots to them – if they don’t love books when they are 6 it’s unlikely they’ll love books when they are 11 or 16.
So I try to let them read whenever or whatever they want, but I also try to ensure they’re surrounded by superb, stimulating, brilliant and breathtaking (picture) books. But how do I, you, or any other person discover and choose such books?
I approached six brilliant UK-based illustrators and asked them to contribute towards a list of books every child should be read. Tim Hopgood, James Mayhew, Jan Pieńkowski, Katie Cleminson, Viviane Schwarz and Clara Vulliamy all very gamely accepted my challenge of producing a list of 10 or so books each that they love.
This list is not prescriptive, this list is personal. This list does not claim to be the definitive top 50 picture books of all time, although it certainly would create a fantastic library for any child. This list is merely a starting point and this list, hopefully, will generate lots of discussion; I look forward to hearing what you think about the books, authors and illustrators which have been included (and those which have been left out).
Tim says “This is not my top 10 – that would be impossible! My top 10 changes constantly as I discover more and more new (or sometimes old) picture books to add to my collection. And I don’t claim to be an expert on what makes a great picture book. The list I’ve put together is simply 10 books that I find inspiring and enjoyable to look at time and time again and hope others will too!”
I love this book – it always makes me smile just knowing that such an unlikely idea for a picture book was ever published. So what’s it about? Shaker Lane is a scruffy residential area that gets flattened and turned into a reservoir! The illustrations are superb – rather like a set of fascinating portraits -brimming with everyday detail. My copy is nearly falling apart which tells you that my kids loved this book too!
I’m a big fan of Maira Kalman so I had to include one of her titles in my list. This book tells the story of a day in the life of Grand Central Station in New York. It’s packed full of fascinating people and interesting facts – even what kind of sandwich Bob Hennessey the Fire Chief likes best! The whole thing feels rather like a sketchbook you can just dip into and enjoy!
Simple rhyming text that works perfectly with Mary Blair’s charming illustrations.
John Burningham is my favourite author/illustrator. This book reminds me of all those great days at the beach (often grey and sometimes raining!) making up all kinds of adventures while my parents sat dozing in their folding deck-chairs. Superb illustrations with a sparse text leaves plenty for you to talk about with young ones.
A huge bold book, full of numbers, logic, humour and penguins!
This book is great fun. Neal Layton’s illustrations really bring the story to life in a refreshing and lively way. Although the text is quite long the story romps along at top speed. Superb.
A simple story told in a very clever way. I use the board-book edition as a mouse mat! It sits on my desk as a reminder of how to tell a story with very few words!
The delightful tale of a BIG bad mood with delightful illustrations too!
As a fan of Ludwig Bemelmans I could have chosen any of one of the original Madeline series, but this is the one I keep on the shelf near my desk. Stunning illustrations evoke a real sense of adventure.
Anything that gets kids thinking is a BIG hit with me and this book does it non-stop from start to finish. Mad, silly and fantastic!
In choosing his 10 books for this list, James took inspiration from his son. All the following books come from his collection, picture books he can’t bear to part with even though he’s now nearly 12.
Eccentric, beautiful, inventive and witty; the perfect introduction to Moominvalley, with holes cut in the pages for extra novelty value.
The most appealing of all train characters, with beautiful vintage illustrations, and a charming story with read-aloud sound effects (and the most bizarre station names in the world!)
Another classic with glorious illustrations and a clever tale about perception. Everyone loves the Happy Lion, until he finds his gate unlocked and he escapes. He can’t understand why everyone suddenly runs away.
An understated fable about pacifism; an absolute classic about an unusual Spanish bull with an aversion to fighting.
Of Burningham’s many brilliant books, this is the most loved and laughed over and quoted in our house. such a clever idea.
An unexpected joy: the words of St Francis of Assisi become a life affirming, lyrical series of philosophical thoughts. Very useful when young children ask big questions.
I love Lawrence’s woodcuts – the man is a genius. Here his brilliantly crafted work is created in lovely colours and the animal sounds and images will engage the most reluctant child. My son adored this book.
For some reason this is the Sendak book we all loved the most. The lilting and flowing words, the tumbling illustrations. and the surreal world created by night. It sticks in the mind and once made us all get up very early to bake morning-cake for breakfast!
How Uncle Lubin rescues his nephew from the Bag Bird, is a ridiculous and rather wacky story with very few words and a lot of fascinating Edwardian black and whit illustrations. Possibly an acquired taste, my son insists it is his most favourite book in the world.
My son learned to read with these and other “I can read” books from America. There is a warm heart at the core of these books that really makes them special. The whole series is brilliant.
“These are ones I read myself or had read to me as a child during the war (when there were no modern books on offer).”
“And now here are a few more that I read when I was a bit older”
This was a recent discovery for me, and it’s now my favourite Sendak book by a mile! The rhyming text just leaps off the page.
An unusual book about the birds and the bees, with fresh illustrations full of texture. And an excellent bear, of course.
The story of a mouse who played the balalaika. This book is just perfect, and makes me want to climb into the pages.
Johnson was one of the first to draw a character creating it’s own story over fifty years ago. In a sea of picture books that now do this, for me, this simplistic approach is still the best.
I would happily put all of Deacon’s books in this list, but this is a great story, paired with Deacon’s sublime drawings make it unmissable. I’d buy it just for the pyjama sequence.
A classic, just perfect, and my favourite book as a child.
Every child should own a wordless book and add their own text, and this book is a total breath of fresh air.
A witty, sophisticated, and original character, Olivia is a tour-de-force.
I only have the French edition, but I think you can get it in English now (Zoe adds: it is, here). A highly original story about a bear and a clown, full of pops of colour and great landscapes, I really wish I had drawn this.
This proves a great picture book can be just black and white, and the text makes me laugh every time.
“Most of these are classics, because I chose books that I cared about as a child. There are many new books that I love, exciting ones and beautiful ones and ones that change the way people might think about picture books. But I felt like listing the ones that made me think.”
I suppose this is on everyone’s list, and that’s only proper.
This is the book I took out of the library every time I saw it when I was a child. It’s stylish in a way that appealed to me before I could read. It’s expressive. And it’s a story that touched me – about going out into the unknown and finding it very challenging, and how familiar things can become strange and confusing. I was scared for the Lion, and for his happiness, and relieved every time when he is saved. It taught me something about the way other people can see you in a very different way than you expect, which was an amazing idea to very-small-me. Also it’s got a cover that calls to you from a distance, the kind of book that signals: HEY! I’m your friend, come over here and read me!
In nursery, Leo Lionni’s book about Frederick the mouse who collects words and colours was read to us all, and that was an important book, too. But it was everyone’s book. “Geraldine” was my book. The story is similar: a mouse that is different from the rest discovering art – in this case, music. But the music comes from a solemn, mouse statue made of a giant piece of cheese! I felt genuinely awed by this, and worried by the dilemma: can you eat the cheese that contains music? That’s still what I sometimes think, looking at a pot of ink, a scribbled note, a street sign pointing slightly the wrong way: Careful now, there is art in this. Listen and learn and remember and tell, because all things will get eaten eventually, but we may keep their art.
This book is not out yet, but I have seen it, and it is one of my favourite books ever written and illustrated… and I think it will make many people laugh and cry. I can’t tell you more, sorry, but remember this when you see it one day.
This book about a kitten who does not wish to be kissed by his mother frightened me. There is violence and dread in it, from the smallest acts of wanton destruction to hints at the greatest. And it does not end, as you would expect, in the kitten learning to give mother a nice good night kiss. Instead he learns and understands that other people have feelings – and his mother, would you believe it, learns to respect her child. And so the two of them come to a very honest agreement. That made me feel stronger when I read it, so I read it over and over again, and I was happy every time at the end when it said: No Kiss for Mother. And there really was no kiss for mother. I learned about respect – not just to give it, but to expect it, even as a child.
There are so many picture book versions of Puss in Boots – it’s a great story, but there tends to be a saggy bit somewhere that shows that it wasn’t conceived as a picture book. This reworking fits it onto the format like a well-fitted boot, it’s been reduced down masterfully to its essence – every page is a precise, beautiful bit of story telling. It’s wonderfully balanced between fear and joy. The most well-crafted fairytale picture book I can think of. And the characters are wonderful – cat is an incredibly engaging character, fierce and cute, greedy and determined, the shape-shifting monster it defeats is awe-inspiring and his demise is truly shocking.
Pop up books were my special obsession as a child, I collected them, but really I was just trying to find another one that amazed and fascinated me as much as Haunted House. I don’t have a copy here, so I can only write about it from memory – but there was the alien horror that crashed outside the window in one picture and then smashed through and out of the book at you on the next. There was the dreadful fridge monster and the disturbing colour-changing concoctions hidden in the cupboards, and the skeleton that was always broken (I think it was supposed to jump from the bedroom cupboard)… and worst of all, THE THING IN THE BOX IN THE ATTIC SAWING ITS WAY OUT FROM THE INSIDE WITH A SAW THAT REALLY SAWED… the noise, oh the noise! Owning it was like owning an actual haunted house, I could hardly believe I was allowed such a treasure.
This book about a little girl who assembles a birthday present for her mother with the help of a large, lanky talking rabbit was very precious to me as a child. I have noticed that in my life I have looked for friends who are like Mr. Rabbit: reassuring, patient, and ready to take me seriously. And it’s a perfect sun-dappled day out, with a good friend, working on an important project.
A book about a pet Boa Constrictor. Not so much a story as a manual on how to lead a good life, be useful and brave – and also on what you need: somewhere to belong (in this case, a Very Long Bed amongst lush potted plants) and someone who loves you no mater what (in this case an old lady who gets Crictor as a present and after a brief fright gives him a home, and a knitted snake-warmer, and things to do in life). Crictor was my hero, I wanted to grow up to be like him – looking at the book now, still a good role model.
It’s a beautiful book about rabbits colonising a country and displacing the native marsupials. It’s incredibly detailed and atmospheric, and every detail makes you think.
Charming and hilarious, the perfect book for any cats out there feeling anxious about the arrival of a new kitten in the family…
A true classic by picture book royalty; the deliciousness of the story prompted my young son into attempting his first sentence: ‘tiger – tea – with ME!’
Brilliant and unique – how I wish I’d thought of it.
A fresh and very funny voice showing family life warts and all, changing the topography of contemporary children’s books forever.
Reassuring, sweet and low-key; although clearly a wonderfully useful book for pre-school nerves, it also shows – which children know already – that the important things in life are all in the detail.
I read this regularly as a reminder of the gold standard of perfect writing against which everything else should be measured. And marvel at these original illustrations (later versions are a poor imitation).
Stylish re-working, with a light touch, of the all-important theme of welcoming the outsider.
A nostalgic choice, recalling hours and hours of happy browsing for my daughter and son alike, completely absorbed in Scarry’s eccentric world of animals in strange vehicles.
Takes a very real thing, a small boy’s anger, and transforms it into one of THE great magical stories. It’s great to think of another generation of children exploring the wilder shores of their imagination and feelings.
The best of the best. A tale of that most dramatic of heart-in-mouth sagas – a lost toy. Only the stoniest-hearted person could read aloud the happy ending without a wobble in their voice.
James Mayhew loves to tell stories and is passionate about bringing art music and culture into the lives of children. In 1994 he received The New York Times Award for one of the ten best illustrated books of the year for The Boy and the Cloth of Dreams. He writes the very popular Katie series – about a girl who explores the stories behind artwork in galleries, and also the Ella Bella Ballerina books which retell much loved ballet stories. He is currently working on a new book with Clara Vulliamy called Bubble and Squeak. You can find out more about James Mayhew at his own blog, on Katie’s blog or on Ella Bella’s blog. I’ve reviewed several books by James and you can find those reviews here.
Tim Hopgood‘s book Here Comes Frankie won him the Best Emerging Illustrators at the Booktrust Early Years Awards in 2008, You can find out more about him in this interview on the Booktrust site or at Tim’s very beautiful blog. Tim also has a Zazzle shop selling fun stuff with his illustrations on. I’ve reviewed several books by Tim and you can find those reviews here.
Katie Cleminson has just been named as one of Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators of 2011. She’s recently launched her blog and can also be found on twitter. I’ve reviewed several of her books, and those reviews you can find here. I also had the pleasure if interviewing Katie and you can read that interview here.
Viviane Schwarz is another award winning illustrator, also having been named as one of Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators of 2011. Letters from Schwarzville is Viviane’s great blog and you’ll also find she enjoys a tweet or two, often pretty funny ones at that.
Clara Vulliamy has illustrated some extremely beautiful books – favourites of ours include the series with the Bear with the Sticky Paws. As the daughter of author and illustrator Shirley Hughes and her architect husband, Clara Vulliamy was allowed to use her mother’s leftover watercolours at the end of each day; the start of her own path to being an author and illustrator. You can read more about Clara Vuilliamy at Telling Trails and also at her publishers’ website here.
Jan Pieńkowski is well known and loved for his Meg and Mog books, his amazing pop-up books and his silouhette style illustrations. You can find out more about Jan at his website. You can read my interview with Jan from last year here and my review of his most recent Meg and Mog book here.
Thankyou James, Tim, Jan, Katie, Vivian and Clara for contributing to this amazing list.
What do you think of this list? What surprised you about the list? (Although sharing one or two common books, on the whole it’s very different from the top 100 picture books compiled by Betsy Bird at Fuse 8 productions.) What picture books would have been on your own list?