41 (children’s) books to change my life

posted in: Playing by the book | 18

When you look at your bookshelves what do you see beyond the spines and the dust on the shelves?


For many of the books which matter most to me I see virtual maps leading out of them; Paths and journeys that have ended up or – more often – begun with the book in front of me.

Some books have come in to my life by chance but have then spun me round with such a force it feels like my route onwards has been changed for ever more. Others have have been handed to me with a story of their own and with much love, building ties, threads and colourful strands between me and the giver that can’t ever be broken, however much changes in my life, and even within my relationship with that person.

Picturing these adventures that have brought the books to my shelves, or that have introduced new horizons for my own journeying, I am also aware that there are many directions and destinations and starting points I haven’t tried, that I don’t even know about.

This makes me a very hopeful reader.

Every book has the possibility of becoming that bend in the road, the crest of a hill where a whole new vista suddenly opens out in front of you and takes your breath away.

And so when I read Jake Hayes’ article, 50 Children’s Books to Save My Life earlier this summer when adventuring was in the air, I decided it was time to go exploring.


However, rather than choosing the route myself, I decided to ask friends, family and book-loving colleagues I admire to suggest interesting paths to take.

By signposting their own journeys, not only would I make some amazing bookish discoveries, I’d also build ties and strengthen friendships; reading a book may be a solitary activity, but reading a book loved by someone else starts conversations, brings understanding and builds empathy.


So now I can present to you my forthcoming reading journey.

All of these are books – at the time of asking for suggestions – which I had not previously read (you’ll no doubt raise your eyebrows at some of the classics which appear below). It’s an eclectic and marvellous list, the result of asking for books which meant a lot to the person suggesting them, either a children’s book, or a book which they had read as a child or teenager (even if it was technically something which might be found on a publisher’s adult list).

I wonder what you will make of this list…

  • Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin [suggest by Library Mice]
  • Le Grand Meaulnes (sometimes translated as The Lost Domain) by Henri Alain-Fournier ideally translated by Alan Davidson (OUP & Penguin) [suggested by Ian Beck]
  • A Country Child by Alison Uttley [suggested by Nicola Davies]
  • The Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings [suggested by Dom Conlon]
  • The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston [suggested by Polly Faber]
  • (Un)arranged Marriage by Bali Rai [suggested by Damyanti Patel]
  • For Love of A Horse by Patricia Leitch [suggested by ChaletFan]
  • Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster [suggested by Helen Dineen]
  • The Owl Service by Alan Garner [suggested by Mat Tobin]
  • Half Magic by Edward Eager [suggested by Betsy Bird]
  • Crusher is Coming by Bob Graham [suggested by The Book Chook]
  • A Bridge to the Stars by Henning Mankell [suggested by Nicky Potter]
  • The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban [suggested by Hannah Love]
  • The Pigman by Paul Zindel [suggested by Sarah Crossan]
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White [suggested by 32 Pages]
  • The sign on Rosie’s Door by Maurice Sendak [suggested by Abie Longstaff]
  • Rhymes Without Reason by Mervyn Peake [suggested by Colin West]
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson [suggested by Marcus Alexander]
  • The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett [suggested by Damian Kelleher]
  • Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson [suggested by James Mayhew]
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster [suggested by Jonathan Emmett]
  • Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes [suggested by Julia Lee]
  • Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques Sempé [suggested by Tim Hopgood]
  • The Factory Made Boy by Christine Nöstlinger [suggested by Viviane Schwarz]
  • The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron [suggested by Lisa B]
  • The Big Green Book by Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak [suggested by Jake Hayes]
  • The Happy Day written by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Marc Simont [suggested by Julie Danielson]
  • Swami and Friends by R.K.Narayan [suggested by Choxbox]
  • The Borribles by Michael di Larrabeiti [suggested by Ali B]
  • Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor [suggested by Matt Finch]
  • Warrior Cats: Into the Wilde by Erin Hunter [suggested by my youngest daughter, 7]
  • Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan [suggested by my eldest daughter, 10]
  • Ivanhoe by Walter Scott [suggested by my husband]
  • The Wonderful Farm written by Marcel Ayme, illustrated by Maurice Sendak [suggested by Sophie]
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose by T. H. White [suggested by Annie of Annie and Aunt]
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin [suggested by Anamaria]
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery [suggested by Jayne T]
  • The Guardians by John Christopher [suggested by ReadItDaddy]
  • The Chalet School in Exile by Elinor M Brent-Dyer [suggested by Jim]
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth [suggested by Letterbox Library]
  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (suggested by Se7en+1)
  • bookshelves6

    In fact this list is only half the story; Several contributors couldn’t stop at just one recommendation, so I have a secondary list which is almost as long again!

    I’ve begun gathering and reading my way through these books, inscribing books I buy (I’m trying to buy only from bricks and mortar shops, often second hand, so I have a copy of the list with me in my purse) with the name of the person who suggested it and a note on where I bought it (this was partly the reason behind my trip to Hay last month). I’m gradually building up a very special bookshelf.

    Whilst I have enough to read to keep me out of trouble for many months, if you would like to recommend a book to me, please do so. I already know I would love to read it.

    18 Responses

    1. Carmen Haselup

      What a Beautiful idea! I’m jealous of your adventures. My contribution is Moondial by Helen Cresswell which I absolutely adored as a child. Or, if you’ve read that one, then Just Nuffin by Colin Dann or The Runaway Summer by Nina Bawden. Both have fond childhood memories attached. Enjoy your journey! I’m looking forward to living it vicariously x
      Carmen Haselup recently posted..Little Rebels and Radical Acts of Kindness

      • Zoe

        Carmen, I haven’t read any of these (in a way I feel lucky – I’m sure I’m going to enjoy reading them, and anticipation is such a delicious thing) – thank you so very much for suggestions. I’ve added them to my list in my purse now!

    2. Victoria

      What a wonderful list. I too loved Conrad, the Factory Made Boy and The Phantom Tollbooth. I have thought long and hard about what I would recommend. There are so many. I love Pearl Buck’s The Big Wave and as a child Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard lingered with me for a long time and was the reason I needed to go to Belfast while I was in the UK recently.

      • Zoe

        Thanks Victoria – I have now added your suggestions to my list in my purse as again, these are ones I’ve not read. Amazing to hear of a book that meant so much to you you made a special visit to a location.

    3. Julia Lee

      I love this list! Lots on it that I’ve never got round to, or even heard of. I’m really tempted now to make one for myself. And I think I failed to get back to you with my very top choice of books you hadn’t actually read, so I’m relieved there is an Emergency Back-Up Totally-Must-Try-These-Too Reading List where I hope Alison Uttley’s ‘A Traveller In Time’ is sitting, gently ticking with anticipation.
      Julia Lee recently posted..Dear Zoo without the frills…

      • Zoe

        Julia – I had you down for Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes, but will also think of you when I real A Traveller in Time, which is indeed on a secondary list! I can wholeheartedly recommend you giving this list thing a go – it’s such good fun. And I’m discovering some really amazing books I can’t believe I haven’t had in my life sooner!
        Zoe recently posted..41 (children’s) books to change my life

    4. Katherine

      Fascinating list, some I’ve read and adored, some I’ve never heard of. I have a sudden pang of regret as giving away Daddy Long-Legs when I was younger because it’s a lovely book. Enjoy your adventures!
      Katherine recently posted..A move

    5. Poppy

      I love the notion of “Books that Changed my Life” – how true is this! The selflessness of the prince and the loyalty of the sparrow in Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince is indelibly etched in a place that I don’t know quite where; suffice to say it continues to have a powerful effect on me after 35 years!

      • Zoe

        ooh, yes, I love Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories. Heartbreaking and so beautiful. They’re lovely ones to have deep inside you Poppy.

    6. Shih Huey

      I love your idea, and this list! While I loved many of them, I haven’t read an equal number, so, off I trot to the library.

      My two cents’ contribution: have you tried Elizabeth Enright? I love all her books, but especially The Saturdays. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume is not quite a children’s book, but I read it at 10 and loved it. Noel Streatfeild, Francis Hodgeson Burnett . . Roller Skates and The Year of Jubilee by Ruth Sawyer. . . Eleanor Farjeon . . . The Good Master and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy . . . Madeline L’Engle . . . Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden . . .The Railway Children by E. Nesbit . . . Totto-chan by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (translated by Dorothy Britton). Oops! Too carried away! Will stop now 🙂

      Enjoy your journey!

      • Zoe

        Oh Shih, what a great list. I’ve read some (I particularly like Rumer Godden), but not anythign by Elizabeth Enright so will look her up. Am also intrigued by Totto-chan so will see if I can track that down. Thank you so much 🙂

      • Zoe

        I think Charlotte’s Web gets so caught up with the film in my head! The thing is, I wasn’t a huge reader as a kid. Yes I did read, but it I wouldn’t have called myself a bookworm. But I’ll move them up the list, and add All-of-A-Kind Family – thank you for the suggestion.
        Zoe recently posted..41 (children’s) books to change my life

    7. Mandy

      I adored Cynthia Voigt’s novels as a child; I suspect I was a little young for them when I started them at about 11. If you haven’t come across them I’d begin with Homecoming or On Fortune’s Wheel. As a child I loved the characters and adventure; as an adult I can reflect how formative they were for me in terms of values I admire and covet. Another significant author for me was Tamora Pierce (medieval-style adventure stories with wonderful female protagonists- start with ‘Alanna: The First Adventure’ if they are new to you).

    8. Jenny

      Fabulous idea. I’m just sorry that I’ve only just found this. I’ve missed out on several months of valuable reading! ‘The Owl Service’ had me completely beguiled when I read it as a child. I also loved ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett. I recall being ill with a kidney infection and the mobile library allowed my mother to choose TEN books for me to read. This was in excess of what we were normally allowed. I was on Cloud Nine!

      • Zoe

        Ah, what a great memory Jenny – I can completely imagine the thrill of the extra allowance! My favourite so far of the books I’ve been recommended is The Phantom Tollbooth, though the Reeducation of Cameron Post is brilliant written, and very likely something I would never have found had I not asked for suggestions, so it feels like an extra treat.

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