Top Twenty Children's Fiction BooksFeb 27, 2022
From the desk of Polly Ho-Yen.
What's your favourite children's book?
The best letter I’ve received about my own novels reads: ‘I’d been waiting for my favourite book to come and now I’ve found it.’ It still feels a bit ‘pinch-yourself-Polly’ that my story connected with a young reader in this way, but what I love about these words is how the letter writer put it: waiting for a favourite book, knowing it’s going to come, and being open to its discovery.
That impulse of searching out a book that feels almost perfect, a reading experience that sweeps you away so entirely it feels life-changing, is heady stuff. I remember it well from my childhood; now in my late thirties, I still have the drive, although these days I realize it’s never about just one book. I like to think of it as a collection, a library I carry with me that is as much a map to my past as it is to my future. Every book you read shapes you as a writer. The ones you love, the ones which irritate you, the ones you want to pass on to your best friend straight away, the ones you keep rereading, the ones you forget; they all leave a mark and help you discover what you do and don’t want to write. But certainly the ones you view as becoming a favourite, the ones you don’t forget, the ones your mind yearns to slip into… They bear special importance. Touching base with your library of favourites can help you make sense of your writing and what you want to do in your own story.
I like to think of it as a collection, a library I carry with me that is as much a map to my past as it is to my future. Every book you read shapes you as a writer.
I’m going to attempt to document what I view as my top twenty children’s books. They are all books that have personally inspired me, but most importantly, they are the books I really enjoyed reading. I was swept up by them, spat out by them, couldn’t stop turning the pages of them.
I’ll go through the books not in any order of hierarchy but chronologically, from when I first read them. Revisiting these titles and their impact upon me feels very much like a loose biography of my life! And while I meander along my bookshelves, I’ll be asking myself the same question for each book I’ve selected: why this one? What about this made such an impression on me? And how did the author do it?
- The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
- A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce
- The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
- Quirky Tails by Paul Jennings
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
- The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine
- The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
- How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
- Skellig by David Almond
- Coraline by Neil Gaiman
- The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
- The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
- The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
- The Last Wild by Piers Torday
- Phoenix by SF Said
- Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
- Storm: The Smashing Afterlife of Frances Ripley by Nicola Skinner
- Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tolá Okogwu
There are some big hitters here, titles that you’ll know, mixed up with a few that might be new to you. It feels quite exposing sharing this list because these are truly the books that made me.
1. The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this. I was given a copy as a birthday gift from my uncle and I remember feeling distinctly put out I’d been given a book as a present. A book! Of all things! Come on! But one night I picked it up, turned the pages and since then I’ve been on countless adventures with Pongo and Missis to rescue their puppies from Cruella De Vil’s Hell Hall. Because this is a romping adventure and that’s what I love about it.
It’s a high-stakes, by-the-skin-of-your-puppies story. But it’s also got warmth and heart by the bucketload. There’s a scene where a starving Pongo and Missis are fed hot buttered toast by an elderly spaniel in a country house which is just balm for the soul. And another where the puppies go to sleep on the hassocks in a church, believing them to be puppy beds made especially for them. I think that Dodie Smith got the balance just right between adventure and tenderness, and cemented my delight in reading a well-placed food scene. Let’s have a moment to remember that it’s dogs who are telling the story; the tale (ahem) is their own. It’s a leap of the imagination and got me hooked on the sheer possibility in stories for children early on.
2. A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce
Another book gifted to me as a kid, this time from my mum when I was a touch more open to receiving books, was A Dog So Small. I took one glance at the cover and decided straight away it was not for me. I put it to one side until one afternoon, bored and with nothing to do, I picked it up and embarked on another years-long re-reading marathon.
The main character, Ben, desperately wants a dog but it’s not possible for his family for many reasons. Instead, he starts imagining he has one: a tiny chihuahua he names Chiquitito. He becomes more and more closed off from the world imagining Chiquitito until at the end, he is jolted back to real life and comes to appreciate the fragile joy, and pain, of being in the present. This is a very short book but the sensitive character of Ben is so well-drawn; his flights into his imagination felt as vivid as my own. I think perhaps this is what worked for me: Philippa Pearce’s brilliant portrayal of what it’s like to be a child. I completely empathised with Ben, in both his yearning for a dog and how he got himself lost in his wild imagination.
3. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
I first knew The Diddakoi when my teacher read it aloud to us every Friday afternoon as a treat. I loved it so much I requested it as a Christmas present – which, when looking back at my memories of the last two titles, seems more than a little surprising. Why this book? Every single character is so fantastically captured – strong Kizzy who is our feisty protagonist; every single adult we meet (honestly, every single one); the bully Prue.
Scenes from this book feel as real to me as my own memories – one that’s truly engraved is the miniature vardo caravan Miss Brooke and the Admiral surprise Kizzy with. They makeover the garden so the caravan is in its own mini orchard and Miss Brooke sews apples onto trees because they wouldn’t be fruiting at that time of the year. They do it out of love, so Kizzy will have a space of her own. I think this book impacted me so much because of the way love and kindness is expressed between the characters. Another terrific one for food: Gran’s cake in the pan, Miss Brooke’s teas, the spread at the Admiral’s. I’m salivating, now.
4. Quirky Tails by Paul Jennings
Bought with pocket money from a school magazine, I only chose this title because an older girl I admired on my school bus told me it looked good. I’m easily led but it turned out well because this collection of short stories was my favourite thing on the planet for a good few years.
Paul Jennings’ writing is astoundingly imaginative and fun, and these stories are a delight. They take such unexpected twists and are so inventive, I think you feel freer from reading any one of them. I felt very heartened when I recommended the book to my dad and he loved the writing too. I remember us talking about which stories we liked best and how they surprised us with the turns they took. My dad is the first person I share my writing with now and I believe the seed for this comes from our back and forth about Paul Jennings’ work.
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Warning - this contains plot spoilers.
My dad brought this along on a family holiday thinking we should try it because it was such a mega hit – though it was for children, even adults were reading it! (At the time I’d never heard of it.) It was the first holiday we’d gone on as a family without my older sister. I, a sulky teenager, was feeling incredibly lonely without her. I settled down to read, not expecting too much; after all, I wasn’t a kid. But I read Azkaban in one sitting, refusing to leave my bedroom, and the next day forced my parents to take me to a bookshop to get the two books that preceded it.
I have been along for the Potter ride ever since, even queuing up at midnight, in my twenties, to get a first copy of The Deathly Hallows. But Azkaban will always be my favourite. Is this just because it was the first I read and I was bowled over by the intricacy of the world-building? Is it because it was presented to me at a moment when I needed a fantastical escape? Perhaps so, but I still maintain it’s the best for its glorious interweaving of past and present. The twists of the plot feel so solid to me – the old rat Scabbers was the wizard who betrayed Harry’s parents… a brilliant and dramatic reveal. I loved how Hermione’s prowess as a witch saves the day and the time-travelling magic she employs. And I was moved by the bittersweet ending; the tantalizing moment when Harry believes he has the chance of a happy home with his godfather before it all comes crashing down. It’s magnificently done and reading it that first time transformed my days, and ultimately made me feel less lonesome.
6. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I completely adore the His Dark Materials trilogy. I read it throughout my teens and even wrote my dissertation at university about it. (Which didn’t diminish my fondness for it!)
The journey and adventure of Lyra and Will is breathtaking. The world-building is both captivating and believable; the way Pullman expands on the real world to build his fantasy has just the right touch for me. He gave me child protagonists with plenty of complexity and spark, and a tender exploration of love that feels a little tied up for me with the boy I first loved. This is another I return to over and over, especially on a bleak day when I want to escape my world; as in the story, he gives you a door to another land.
7. The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine
The person who was to become my best friend gave me this book when we met at university. It’s so good, they told me. I don’t think they even lingered on the fact that it was for children. Aha! Someone who liked books like I did – for the joy of reading a good story. And what a story.
This is sparingly told but the elegance and simmering tension throughout make for a page-turning read. I adore the setting in a grand hotel which creates a cosy yet claustrophobic backdrop for young Natalie’s friendship with Tulip. Natalie’s first attracted to Tulip because of her wicked sense of fun and originality, but as her behaviour becomes more and more unsettling, Natalie tries to break away with disastrous consequences. I’m happy to say that my best friend is not a Tulip although she’s captivated me as much as this title, and I reread this book to this day.
8. The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
A gift back to my best friend. The reason I gave this to her and why I’m including it here is because, for me, it’s one of those ‘the world goes quiet’ reads. As I became a proper adult and my world got filled with more and more concerns (‘what exactly am I going to do with my life?’) I found the fully immersive reading experiences lessened compared to when I was a child. Those quiet afternoons when I’d stumble upon a book and lose myself in it were less frequent, which made books that personally struck me stand out all the more.
There are some dark themes in this book. One of the characters has a mental breakdown and though this is handled sensitively and with warmth, it’s a shock to read. It works in this story because you’re so drawn into the main character’s world, her perspective and understanding of it. This title made me fall in love with a well-told first-person narrative – especially a ten-year-old with their own experience of life.
9. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
This should really live in Young Adult land but it made such a big impression on my middle-grade writing that it would feel just plain wrong not to mention it. For me this one is all about the voice – from the first sentence, I adored Meg Rosoff’s style and was completely pulled into this apocalyptic-esque story. Like His Dark Materials, this book is like a door opening, which sowed the seed in me to create a different brand of apocalyptic stories.
10. Skellig by David Almond
I was late to this book and bought it in a second-hand bookshop with the person who was to become my husband when he recommended I might enjoy it. We’d just moved in together and it was a warm springtime. We read a lot together in those days; after work, we’d head to our local park in Peckham with a picnic blanket and biscuits (biscuits are essential) to lie on the grass and read. I was having more thoughts that I wanted to write myself, and the energy and beauty of Skellig made me feel even more empowered to do so.
There is something timeless about David Almond’s writing and as I started thinking of ideas for a story for children, I would turn Skellig’s pages, hoping the magic of Almond’s words would rub off on me.
11. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
I grinned to myself while reading this book because, despite its sinister plot, I couldn’t help but feel Neil Gaiman had had a really good time writing this.
It’s an elegantly simple story, yet so terrifying; I’ve never looked at buttons in the same way again. I read this just as I was seriously thinking about getting going with my own story and I remember feeling a little buoyed by the fact that Coraline was something like thirty thousand words long, published recently and really good. If I could write a thousand words a day, I’d be finished in a month. That felt doable. I started writing.
(Note: it took me longer than a month. And I couldn’t write a story as succinctly as Gaiman. But it got me started…)
12. The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
This was another I read while I was working on my debut, while also teaching a Year One class. I notice I’m leaning towards a lot of the same words to describe these favourite stories of mine: simple, powerful, moving. The Unforgotten Coat is all of these.
It tells the story of two refugee brothers from Mongolia who arrive in a school in Liverpool. The novel was based on Cottrell Boyce’s meeting with a Mongolian girl called Misheel when he was doing a school visit. When she was taken in the night by the immigration authorities to be deported, her classmates were most troubled by the fact she had left her coat behind because they knew how cold it would be in Mongolia.
I knew I wanted the children I was working with at my school to be able to see themselves in my stories and again, I kept my copy of The Unforgotten Coat close as a talisman and guide.
13. The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
This one may be placed in YA territory, but I was bowled over by the inventiveness and – here it comes again – the power and simplicity of this book. (Sorry.) I took it out from a library in the little Cornish seaside town of St. Ives after I’d just had a phone call with an agent offering representation for Boy in the Tower. I’d had to walk the narrow streets of St. Ives to get reception and after I’d hung up the phone, a little shaky and disbelieving, I had a strong urge to be near children’s books. Finding myself near the library, I ducked in and started plucking a pile from the shelves. I’m thankful that The Weight of Water was there for the borrowing that day.
Crossan inventively tells the story of twelve-year-old Kasienka and her mother as they depart their native Poland, in verse. The spaces in between the brief spare verse make for a poignant and moving read that made me feel both lost in the reading and excited about what I might write next.
14. The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd
This is one of the best mystery stories around for children, full stop. I love the voice of Ted and the tight turns of the mystery. I think it’s pretty faultless and I return to it time and time again for lessons in mystery writing and character. Sadly, Dowd died from breast cancer only one year after her debut novel A Swift Pure Cry was published, in the same year The London Eye Mystery came out. Right up to her death, she was writing prolifically and brilliantly; that felt like a good message to receive.
15. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd
She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time.
—Patrick Ness, in the Author's Note to A Monster Calls
I was excited to see this collaboration, though sad for the reason behind it, and I bought a copy from the bookshop in St. Ives. It was a thing of beauty with illustrations by Jim Kay – which felt like they broke the mould of what an illustrated book could be. I read it in one big rush on Porthmeor Beach while my husband surfed and waves crashed in front of me. When my husband came out of the water, he found me with tears pouring down my face, clutching the book and demanding he read it.
This story is about Conor, whose mother is very ill. He’s been plagued by unsettling dreams since she became unwell, until one night, the dream is no longer a dream and there’s a visitor at his window. The power of this story, I believe, is that it brings you closer to what is truly important. It’s stunning.
16. The Last Wild by Piers Torday
I’d been seeing The Last Wild everywhere. It was the year before my first book would be published and I wanted to read something current while having my second book wobble. As I devoured the pages, I had the same kind of pang when I was reading The Hundred and One Dalmatians: this was an adventure that could go in any direction.
There’s a speaking cockroach before we get to the end of the second chapter, we’re in a world living in quarantine because of red-eye, a deadly virus that has killed all the animals except pests… I was hooked. And it gave me that little push I needed: write a gripping story.
17. Phoenix by SF Said
SF Said wrote Phoenix entirely in a library in Haringey, London, and by his admission, quite slowly. It took him seven years. I first met SF at the Haringey Book Awards which Phoenix won and I couldn’t wait to read my signed copy. It’s an incredible book, a fantastically imaginative and wondrous story about a boy called Lucky who discovers the power of a star inside him.
This review of Phoenix from a young reader struck me: ‘The lesson I learnt from Phoenix is that you should be confident and positive: always believe in yourself because in the end you can be successful if you persevere.’ Alongside my enjoyment of Phoenix, I’m also impressed with how SF Said approaches his writing, how he holds the space for his stories to grow and reminds us all of the mastery of persistence.
18. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Ah, this is glorious! I wasn’t sure where to start with Katherine Rundell’s work as I’d heard good things about all of her books; working as a library assistant in Bristol Central Library, I saw Rooftoppers on the shelf during one quiet lunchtime. We’d just moved to Bristol and I was enjoying the perks of working at a public library – surrounded by books, no late fines – and I’d come home every day with another handful in my rucksack. It was an impossible amount to read and so I could only get through the books that truly held my attention. When I settled down with Rooftoppers, every part of my body relaxed with a ‘yes please and thank you very much’.
It opens with a baby discovered floating in a cello case after a shipwreck, and continues in what I would learn to be Katherine Rundell’s trademark witty, warm and generous style. A cracker of a story.
19. Storm: The Smashing Afterlife of Frances Ripley by Nicola Skinner
Reading Storm felt like guzzling down a load of sweets with none of the tummy or toothache. It’s so sparky, original, brilliantly executed and very, very funny – even though it begins with the narrator and her family tragically dying. Part of me likes it so much because Nicola Skinner can write books that I know I would never be able to. I simply don’t have the pizazz and it’s such a terrific and welcome experience to step into her characters’ worlds.
20. Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tolá Okogwu
Just a few weeks ago I was wildly lucky to get my hands on an advance copy of Onyeka. It’s a thrilling story and combines all the things I love about children’s fiction: brilliant characters, a huge amount of heart, a pacy adventure. Pitched as Black Panther meets Percy Jackson, this first-in-a-series introduces middle-grade superhero Onyeka, a British-Nigerian girl who learns that her Afro hair has psychokinetic powers. I raced through it and felt just as I had all those years ago, after stumbling upon The Hundred and One Dalmatians: that all I wanted was to pick it up again and start rereading.
As I’ve worked my way through my choices, I’m struck by how many people I’ve included who gave or recommended books to me, and then of course the authors themselves. The books feel like the 'mycorrhizae' connecting us all. Author, reader, recommender.
I’m struck by how, when we share a book we love with someone, it’s like saying: here I am, this is a bit of me.
So, from me to you, this is me and I welcome you to consider what is in your personal library. What are your top twenty children’s books? I’ll keep sharing and I’ll continue to wait for more favourite stories to come. They’re out there. I only have to wait … and read.
Polly Ho-Yen is a children's fiction author and a tutor on our famous online writing courses which offer personal writer coaching. Sign up now to finish the book you've always wanted to write.
Explore the website to choose the course and payment plan that works for you, or book a free call to meet one of our award-winning author tutors.