I’ve reached that stage in life where several of my friends seem to have kids turning 8, 9, 10, and looking for books to read.
Since I have no clue what’s cool and cutting edge for these ages, this is a great excuse to indulge in a bit of nostalgia and dredge up fond memories of what I was probably reading in the second half of primary school.
From as early as I remember I read everything I could get my hands on, and since we had a really excellent local library, that was a fairly wide range. The library as I remember it was a series of interconnected portakabins, with a generous kids’ section, and untold treasure troves behind the scenes of books they didn’t have space for on the shelves, but could always produce for you on request.
Obviously the best kind of books were part of a series, and the longer the series the better. A list follows. But I seem to remember a few good one-offs too, so I’ll add them at the end as well.
* Enid Blyton
Enid Blyton goes without saying – obviously after finding the Secret Seven too childish, it was time to move on to the Famous Five, and also the Five Find-Outers and Dog. It wasn’t till later that I discovered the Adventurous Four, who enjoyed some very exciting exploits, and the Secret series (Secret of Spiggy Holes etc). There were also some school stories – Malorie Towers – and a peculiar fairy tale based on the dubious premise of a Magic Far Away Tree.
* The Hardy Boys
American, but an almost infinite series. A pair of brothers whose dad was an FBI investigator and who went round solving mysteries – the good guys always good, and the bad guys suitably villainous. Nancy Drew was meant to be the girl equivalent (dad a lawyer), but was never so satisfying, maybe because of the annoying entourage of boyfriends and a timid fellow investigator – but again the series just ran and ran.
* The Three Investigators
By Alfred Hitchcock, but don’t think horror movies – three boys with lots of ingenuity foiling villainous villains in many different ways.
* Willard Price’s Adventure series
Two boys travelling around the world, collecting exotic animals for their dad’s zoo. Exciting and remarkably informative.
* Little House on the Prairie
Wagons, log cabins, winters with deep snow, survival in the wild West… the advantage of this series is that it’s
semi-autobiographical and grows up as Laura grows up.
* The Chalet School
Weird definitions of “slang” and very exalted notions of schoolgirl honour, but they had lots of good clean fun – and three official languages.
* Monica Edwards
Actually a couple of series, but the characters eventually overlap. Decent kids, realistic scenarios, and satisfying endings.
* The Black Stallion
A long series about a beautiful Arab thoroughbred and the boy who trains him.
* anything by Mollie Hunter
Not strictly a series, but she wrote several historical novels for different time periods (A Pistol in Greenyards on the Clearances, the Lothian Run on the lawless 1700s).
* Anne of Green Gables
Quirky/sensible in an early 20th century type way.
* Jill’s Gymkhana
I never got the pony obsession, but of the possible horsey stories, the Jill books were fairly down to earth.
* Sherlock Holmes
Essential preparation for Cumberbatch’s Sherlock in later life. Also good for encouraging lateral thinking.
* Doctor Doolittle
A sort of vet who could talk to animals, implausible but so cool.
* Rosemary Sutcliff
Historical novels, kind of like Nigel Tranter for kids. The Eagle of the Ninth was a series in its own right, but she wrote lots of other books too.
* Malcolm Saville
A group of friends composed of a wide age range of children from a couple of families, who meet up on school holidays and always end up embroiled in things like helping vulnerable older people stave off crooks and fraudsters – other than the unconvincing dialogue, the characters and plots are very realistic (if set in the gentler world of ?1970s England).
* The Babysitter’s Club
Kidding. I absolutely couldn’t stand these.
Other things I never really got into –
* Swallows and Amazons – I did read them all, but often found them really confusing. Looking at them again quite recently, I discovered that the children’s dialogue does an awful lot of work – when they’re not speaking in code (‘dromedaries’ for ‘bikes’? hello?) many of the scene changes and plot shifts are conveyed primarily through the dialogue – clearly too subtle a technique for me at that age.
* Jennings, Just William, Billy Bunter – wasn’t the kind of humour that appealed, but some kids lap it up.
* Judy Blume, who lots of my contemporaries seemed to like, but I couldn’t make much sense of. Probably completely obsolete for this generation anyway.
* The Hill of the Red Fox
By Allan Campbell Maclean – set in Skye, with bits of Gaelic, around the time of WWII – a thrilling plot with some excellent moments of real tension. Actually he did also write Master of Morgana and maybe some others, but Hill of the Red Fox was the best.
* Goodnight Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian
A malnourished city child evacuated in the Second World War and sent to board with an old man who didn’t really want him, but a friendship springs up and it’s all very touching.
* To Kill a Mockingbird
Did I really read this in primary school? If not, then early secondary, as I’d definitely read it off my own bat before we did it as a set text, in a way which even at the time I knew would have ruined it for me if I hadn’t already discovered it for myself. I still think it’s excellent.
* Watership Down
Actually quite scary in parts. A milder, tamer series on a similar theme which appeared too late for me to really take much interest in was The Animals of Farthing Wood.
* My Side of the Mountain
A boy who ran away and set up his own new life in the wild, making himself a den to live in, foraging for food, and even taming wild animals if memory serves.
* The Desperate Journey
Two children who get evicted in the Clearances and end up heading for a new life in Canada after a gruelling spell in the cotton mills in Glasgow. By Kathleen Fidler, who also wrote lots of other standalone books, I think mostly under the Kelpies brand, which from memory published many intelligent and safe titles by various authors for this age range.
* My Friend Flicka
Story of a boy who tames a wild horse, against his scary dad’s expectations. Actually there might have been a sequel to this, but this is the only one I really remember.
Plus many hundreds more that slip my mind now. Sadly if childhood was spent with nose constantly in book, adulthood so far has been a failed aspiration to continue the same. Roll on retirement.