Best of British : is there such a thing as the Great British Children’s Book?

I’ve been thinking about children’s literature and what, you know, makes it what it is today. I’ve thought for a while that we’re living in a second golden age, with the quality of titles being published during and in the past few years. But then I thought that well, maybe there’s something in that but there’s also something in that if I ever think about what’s my British classic, what’s the book that embodies children’s literature, there’s a vast likelihood that it’s one of the classics I grew up with.

We’ve touched on this beforehand (most notably in one of the #kidbkgrp chats on classics) but I wanted to push it further. I want to reason out why I think this is such a Proper Good Time for children’s literature in the UK.  And I think the first thing I need to figure out is if there even is there such a thing as a classic British book? Because if I’m saying this is an amazing time in British children’s literature, I think I need to figure out where we’ve already been.

But is that even possible? Is there a book that you think of and think that this is British children’s literature to a t, that it captures everything about life at the point in time it was written? Is that even possible? Am I asking too much? I don’t know, I really don’t. This is one of those posts that I’m not sure about, not at all, but I think it’s a thought worth articulating in order to understand what we’re living in right now. Because understanding? It’s built on opinion, really. Fact at the heart of it, but with something so personal and instinctive as books, I don’t think that’s possible. So I’m going for opinion. What I believe in.

And I do think there is such a thing as the great British children’s book. I really, really do. It’s a slight, ephemeral beast, but it’s there.

It’s in the children of Noel Streatfield’s books, the domestic/global drama of Michelle Magorian, the saucy/sweetness of Alex T Smith, and the heart and depth of a KM Peyton book.

But that’s nothing precise. It’s not. Maybe it can’t be. Maybe it’s captured in the searingly beautiful nature of books like A Monster Calls and Slog’s Dad. Maybe it’s in the way that these authors go straight to the heart of pain and tell you that it’s okay to feel like that and that you will survive.

But still, that’s still not a thing. That’s not something discernible. 

So I asked Twitter. I asked: “If I were to say Best of British children’s books, what would you say?”

Twitter said:  Shirley Hughes. Alan and Janet Ahlberg. Fleur Hitchcock. Gill Lewis, Joan Aiken, E Nesbit, Beatrix Potter, Antonia Forest, Roald Dahl, AA Milne, Lorna Hill, David Mckee, Helen Oxenbury, Enid Blyton, 

Specific titles  / series mentioned were: Last Daisy Chain. Cops and Robbers. Dirty Bertie, Just William, Swallows & Amazons, Narnia, Ballet Shoes, Danny, A Little Princess, Paddington Bear, Thomas the Tank Engine, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Milly Molly Mandy, Swallowdale, Exile for Annis, Goodnight Mister Tom, The Dark is Rising, The Little White Horse, The Railway Children, The Story of the Amulet, A Stitch in Time, Carries War. 

What does this tell us? Well, it’s imprecise, and skewed, as all the best off the cuff surveys are, but do you know what I think it tells me? I think we’ve been living in a golden age of children’s literature for quite some time because if I can toss off a question like that on Twitter and get those sorts of books recommended, then my GOD yes, we are living in good times, and books are AMAZING things and if you have not read Tom’s Midnight Garden yet, then I give you official permission to go away and read it RIGHT now.

So is there such a thing as the great British children’s book? You’re damn right there is. It’s hard to identify (for it may feature birds, china plates, horses or naughty schoolboys doing anything ranging from time travelling to train riding through to saving magical worlds) but once you find it, it stays with you forever.

My thanks to @DamyantiPatel, @KatarinaRay, @chloesackur, @Pollylwh, @clairemccauley, @stephanieburgis, @laughinglibby, @aitcheldee, @donnako1, @alibrarylady @lolinthelibrary, @bookwormsarah, @emmawritesbooks, and @jowearsoldcoats for their suggestions.

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