Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Top 5... Children's Books

Here is my selection for the five best children's books.  I've cheated a bit, and entire series are listed under just one entry in some cases. 

5. The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
Beginning with Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper's five-book series draws on Arthurian legend for its inspiration.  The first book begins innocently enough as a Famous Five-style adventure - a group of siblings find a treasure map while on holiday in Cornwall which might just lead them to the Holy Grail.  The second instalment, The Dark Is Rising, raises the stakes considerably - Merriman Lyon, the kindly uncle from the first book, arrives in the life of young Will and informs him that he is an Old One, and is charged with defending the earth from the forces of darkness.  I won't go into any more detail - suffice to say, Cooper invents a magical but dangerous world in which her young heroes and heroines fight for the triumph of the Light over the Dark.

4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman's imaginative, Gothic take on The Jungle Book centres on Bod, a toddler who wanders into a cemetery after his family is murdered.  While this motif of "the boy who lived" may smack of Harry Potter, that is where all similarities end.  For one, the villain in this single volume is more sinister than Voldemort manages to be over the course of seven.  Raised by ghosts, tutored by a werewolf and protected by what may or may not be a vampire, Bod soon learns a number of supernatural tricks that will ultimately help him track down his parents' killer.  There are also lighter elements, such as Scarlett, a young girl who befriends Bod, and Liza, the spirit of a witch who was buried just outside consecrated ground.  As is usual with Gaiman, the relationships and emotional lives of the characters are never compromised for the sake of plot - Bod grows from a confused and ignorant child into a young man wise beyond his years, and the final few pages gave me a lump in my throat.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Okay, so this may not exactly be a children's book.  But it is a book about children, and a damn fine one at that.  Exploring the innately savage nature of Man through the prism of a group of marooned schoolboys, Golding realistically and grippingly details the decay of manners and civilisation, slowly at first, then with chilling rapidity.  Its denouement is one of the best things I have ever read, even as an adult.

2. Tales From The Wyrd Museum by Robin Jarvis
The Wyrd Museum is an antiquated crypt of a building, located within a labyrinth of side streets somewhere in London.  Owned by the mysterious Webster sisters, it houses a most unusual collection.  When young Neil Chapman and his little brother arrive at the museum, where their father has just accepted a job as caretaker, they have no idea what horrors lie in store.  This trilogy, composed of The Woven Path, The Raven's Knot and The Fatal Strand, mixes ancient mythology, modern humour and elements of genuine fear - the Valkyries in book two are particularly terrifying.  It is first inferred, then dramatically and compellingly revealed, that the museum's trio of elderly proprietresses are in fact the Nornir, embodiments of the Fates, and they have been guarding a secret beneath the Wyrd Museum for centuries.  Neil and the savage, elfin Edie Dorkins, find themselves in the middle of a battle between good and evil that will take them from the blitzed London of the 1940s to present day Glastonbury, and ultimately back to the heart of the Wyrd Museum.  Enjoyably dark and surreal elements include a possessed teddy bear, a pair of talking ravens and creepy-as-hell bird dolls that exert a malignant influence over their owners...

1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling
It is hard to talk about this book in isolation from the rest of the series.  Like many others of my age, I grew up with Harry Potter - literally.  Initially, I began reading the books out of sequence; I picked up The Prisoner of Azkaban at the age of thirteen, the exact same age as Harry in the book.  After that, I read The Chamber of Secrets, which I found lightweight and disappointing (it is by far my least favourite of the entire series).  When I finally got around to reading the first novel, The Philosopher's Stone, I was under the impression that reading about eleven-year-old Potter's adventures would be fluffy and easy compared to the dark twists and turns of The Prisoner of Azkaban.  I was pleasantly surprised; the first book does the incredible job of creating the mythology of Rowling's wizard world with remarkable ease, as well as setting the young hero on his path from the very first chapter where he miraculously survives the death of his parents.  It doesn't get much darker than a double murder, not to mention the Roald Dahl-esque abomination of a family with which Harry endures his early childhood.  From the outset, Harry is an underdog, an everyman.  A hero with no outstanding personality traits, which meant that young boys could imprint their own personalities onto him, inserting themselves into the starring role.  After the third book in the series, events began to take epic, tragic turns.  Classmates are murdered, Voldemort's power grows, the delicate balance between the wizarding world and that of the muggles begins to blur... but it all begins with a baby on a doorstep in the suburbs.

Another trilogy by Robin Jarvis which I very nearly included in this list is The Whitby Witches, about a pair of orphaned siblings who are fostered by an elderly eccentric named Alice.  The youngest of the two, Ben, is cursed with second sight, a power that is greatly coveted by many in the small seaside town of Whitby.  I would also highly recommend Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Complete Works of Saki.

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