Story time: the five children’s books every adult should read

The world is rampantly strange … Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Illustration: Maurice Sendak/Penguin

I have been writing children’s fiction for more than 10 years now, and still I would hesitate to define it; it is a slippery, various, quicksilver thing. But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what it is not: it is not exclusively for children. When I write, I write for two people, myself, age 12, and myself, now, and the book has to satisfy two distinct but connected appetites.

My 12-year-old self wanted autonomy, peril, justice, food and above all a kind of density of atmosphere into which I could step and be engulfed. My adult self wants all those things, and also: acknowledgments of fear, love, failure. So what I try for when I write – failing often, but trying – is to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember.

Those of us who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return.

When you read a children’s book, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra. But imagination is not and never has been optional: it’s at the heart of everything, the thing that allows us to experience the world from the perspectives of others, the condition precedent of love itself. For that we need books that are specifically written to give the heart and mind a galvanic kick – children’s books. Children’s fiction necessitates distillation; at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.

Above all, children’s fiction spoke to me, and still speaks to me, of hope. The books say: look, this is what bravery looks like. This is what generosity looks like. They tell me, through the medium of wizards and sexy Jesus lions and talking spiders, that this world we live in is a world of people who tell jokes and work and endure. Children’s books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something, bravery will matter, wit, empathy, love will matter. These things may or may not be true. I hope that they are.

WH Auden wrote, in an essay on Lewis Carroll: “There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children.” I would not suggest that adults read only, or even primarily, children’s fiction. Just that there are some times in life when it might be the only thing that will do.

Five of the best children’s books for adults

The Paddington books by Michael Bond

Stories as parables … Paddington Takes the Test. Photograph: HarperCollins

There’s a vivid and obvious lesson in Paddington, about refuge. Paddington turns up at our door, with nothing to commend himself but his existence and his excellent hat, and we must take him in. We must cherish him, because he lives – and Michael Bond is telling us, like William Blake before him, that everything that lives is holy.

But there’s more: for Bond, I think, structure is a form of metaphor, and the stories can be read as parables. So each individual Paddington story usually has some kind of mishap: for instance, Paddington drops a sandwich; a man slips on it. Disaster! But then the man proves to be a burglar, and his stolen goods spill out at the bear’s feet: triumph! The books tell us that if we zoom out we will see that inside each disaster there is a cog, propelling us towards potential goodness. Baked into the structure of the stories, small as they are, is Bond’s colossal central truth: larger than the world’s chaos are its miracles. Paddington asks us to trust, if only for a brief gasp, for the length of the book, in the world’s essential nobility. The books are oxygen for those, like me, who doubt.

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

 Ferocious heroine … Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, with Nicole Kidman, in The Golden Compass. Photograph: Laurie Sparham/New Line Cinema

Lyra, Pullman’s ferocious heroine, one of the greatest ever written, a girl with quick wit and tooth-and-claw loyalty and a loose hand with the truth, voyages to the underworld. At first, on meeting the harpies who guard the realm of the dead, she lies – tells them what she thinks they want to hear. The harpies go for her, dive‑bombing her and scraping at her skull with their talons. And so instead, she tells her own story: about pain, loss, hope and grubbiness, love and mistakes. The harpies listen. Lyra’s companion asks why they did not attack, this time: “‘Because it was true,’ said No‑Name. ‘Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it. Because it was true.’”

The harpies make a bargain: if each soul has paid heed to the world and has a story to tell of it, and they tell it truly, they will be led through the darkness to the other side. Rigorous attention, wakefulness to the world’s beauty, for Pullman, is what life demands of us. He has that in common with the philosopher Iris Murdoch, another writer I love, who decreed that attention was the foundation stone of love. We must learn, in Pullman’s universe, to watch the world with intense and generous care. We must learn to tell stories, his books say, whether it comes naturally or not – because it is the best and sometimes the only way we have to exchange truth.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

 Stark strangeness … Max Records in Where The Wild Things Are. Photograph: Matt Nettheim/PR

“But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!’

“And Max said, ‘No!’

“The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye.”

There are as many interpretations of Where the Wild Things Are as there are people who have read it, and it means something very different when you are 30 from what it meant when you were three. I think it’s about the ferocity of love; about how we devour each other, and are devoured.

It’s also about, I think, the stark strangeness of the world. Max returns home to find his dinner “was still hot”. According to Sendak, his editors wanted him to cut or change that line, because it was impossible – or at least to edit it, to a more believable, “and it was still warm”. In an interview, he said: “‘Warm’ doesn’t burn your tongue. There is something dangerous in ‘hot’ … Hot is the trouble you can get into. But I won.” The world is, after all, rampantly strange. Children deserve books that are so too.

One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson

A story about finding your place and your people … One Dog and His Boy. Photograph: Scholastic

In a world that prizes a pose of exhausted knowingness, children’s fiction allows itself the unsophisticated stance of awe. Eva Ibbotson escaped Vienna in 1934, after Hitler declared her mother’s writing illegal; her work is full of an unabashed astonishment at the sheer fact of existence. In One Dog and His Boy, Hal, a child with everything he could wish for except love and care, releases five dogs from the cruel Easy Pets agency. He and his friend Pippa and the small sea of dogs go on the run to his grandparents’ home.

On the way, each dog finds the place in which they can be themselves; the Pekingese Li-Chee, who once guarded the temples of monks, lying at the feet of a girl in a foster home; Francine the poodle, a natural comedian, performing in a travelling circus. It’s a story about finding your place and your people; about not pausing or doubting until you find them.

It’s also, like many of Ibbotson’s books, a shot across the bow at an increasingly consumerist world; Hal’s parents shower goods on him, “a gift pack from Hamley’s and another from Harrods … but in the whole of the house there was nothing that was alive”. It’s a sharp attack on the tide of acquisition that threatens to swamp us; to keep your neck above it, the book tells us, you must find something alive to love, be it beast or man, and hold on with both hands. Keep close, because the world will be cold, and frenetic and plastic, and only with each other will we make it.

Peter Pan by JM Barrie

Summing up the riotous, Panian parts of ourselves … Peter Pan. Photograph: HarperCollins

I love Peter Pan for being so entirely itself, not a diluted version of some other, adult thing. It offers up to us its own defiant logic, for Neverland is the place of the free experiment of the imagination. “Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingos flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it.” And I love Peter himself: Peter is joy but he’s also a threat: he’s the id and the ego, the danger of being kidnapped by desire, he’s dark and capricious. He’s Pan.

Barrie would argue that adults cannot go to Neverland. He writes: “On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.” We adults, Barrie tells us, cannot return to that same reckless and freewheeling imagining. I disagree: I think the books summon up inside us the riotous, Panian parts of ourselves. I think, with Barrie’s aid, and with those who have come before and after him, we can sail back to those shores.

There might be another lesson, too. Captain Hook, first name James, is an Old Etonian. Barrie writes: “He had been at a famous public school; and its traditions still clung to him like garments, with which indeed they are largely concerned … he still adhered in his walk to the school’s distinguished slouch.” Hook, in his dying moments, thinks of his childhood: of “the playing fields of long ago … or watching the wall-game from a famous wall”. In Barrie’s play version of the story, it is even more explicit: Hook’s last words are “Floreat Etona”, or “May Eton flourish”, the school’s motto.

James Hook has been told he deserves everything, and when he does not get it, he attempts to bring destruction to Neverland, in the hope that from its chaos he shall rise. He has elaborate hair, “dressed in long curls”, and “he was never more sinister than when he was at his most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding”. Beware, the book tells us, pantomimic Old Etonians with unruly hair, who prize good form above truth, and who would seek to rule.

Originally published in the Guardian

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