Top 10 underrated children’s books (part I)

This list started with a quotation from WH Auden: “There are no good books which are only for children.” It was so popular that I made it a Top 20, with the second half next week, and a supplementary Top 10 of underrated children’s books by authors famous for other work, which will follow the week after.

The first 10, in alphabetical order by author, then…

1. The Dark Is RisingSusan Cooper, and the other four titles in the sequence, 1965-77. “Retells Arthurian myths, weaves in Welsh folklore, Christian and family quests against an epic good versus evil battle” – Kate Nicholls. “Great characters child and adult, satisfying narrative arc, wonderful evocation of real and fictional places, mysticism, peril. Should be regarded as classic” – Andy Helliwell. “Wintry, Christmassy, ​​yet terrifying. Full of old English myth. And morally complex characters” – Nick Clark. Supporting nominations from Tanya Gold, Rootless Cosmopolitan and Conor Downey.

2. MoondialHelen Cresswell, 1987. “Ghosts, mysteries and time travel, but it’s surprisingly adult in its treatment of loss: the heroine’s father is dead, mother critically ill, and the heroine can’t fix anything; all she can do is lay the dead to rest and hope for the living” – Philip Redhair. Also: the Bagthorpes series. “Still makes me laugh out loud” – Ruth Callaghan.

3. The Otterbury IncidentCecil Day-Lewis, 1948. “Real danger and excitement” – Bill Bennett. “A perfect little evocation of Britain just after the Second World War, with bomb sites and clearly defined baddies” – Fraser Southey. “It was the technology that I loved – tanks and sticky bombs” – YesWestLothian. “A great underrated depiction of children forming gangs and solving crime during the war” – Paul Ferguson. “Loved this book. Very nostalgic, the tank in the book was exactly the kind of thing I daydreamed about building” – Gilman Grundy. Also nominated by John Delaney.

4. The Marlows series, Antonia Forest, 1948-82. “Boarding school stories which are full of nuance and insight” – Stephen Dilley.

5. The Owl ServiceAlan Garner, 1967. “Weaves magic, Welsh mythology, a teenage love triangle and a set of crockery into a haunting and beautiful piece of 1960s folk horror” – Dinah Rose. Also nominated by Scot Ramsay, Carl Gardner and Mike Godwin. Also by Garner: Elidor. “A now neglected fantasy, but utterly beguiling. Features real working-class kids. A crisis in a magical, parallel world to our own begins to bleed into our reality. And it’s up to the kids to stop it” – Scope Davies.

6. The Family from One End StreetEve Garnett, 1937. “One of the few children’s books about working-class families. I loved it because I came from a big, poor family where all the children were loved” – Lady Anne of the Greenhouse. “Realistic adventures of a working-class family which charmingly captures a bygone way of life” – Ipsedixitissimus. Also nominated by Jude Brown.

7. The Load of UnicornsCynthia Harnett1959. “About the arrival of print in medieval London” – Terry Stiastny.


8. The Mouse and his ChildRussell Hoban1967. “Emotional depth about a clockwork toy that Toy Story could only dream of. Freedom, redemption and eternity” – Helen Jeffries.

9. The Phantom TollboothNorton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, 1961. “Fantastic quest full of wordplay and jokes, also friendship and courage” – Ruth Dixon. “The book that Alice in Wonderland should and would have been if Lewis Carroll had had a sense of humor” – Dan Tench (ouch). Also nominated by Mike Martin.

10. Emil and the DetectivesErich Kastner, 1929. Boy robbed on train to Berlin enlists new friends to track down the thief. Nominated by Jude Brown and Mat Greener. “It wasn’t underrated in the Sixties but is it forgotten now?” asked Lady Anne of the Greenhouse. I think so.

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It proved surprisingly hard to judge the distance between reputation and quality – some nominations were too popular to be called “underrated”; others I wasn’t sure were good enough to rank with the classics. Part two next week will feature authors K to W.

Next week: Numbers 11-20 in this list, followed by a third list of underrated children’s books by famous authors.

Coming soon: Jesters, as Boris Johnson prepares to leave the stage.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to [email protected]


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