The Essay: John Boyne argues that great books can break through every barrier of age

 

A confession: when I completed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2005, it was the closest I had come to a children's book since 1982 when, aged 11, I decided never to go upstairs in my local library again. Upstairs, after all, was for kids. Downstairs was where the grown-up books were stocked; that was where the real action was: novels about cheating French wives, schoolboys taking a trip to Manhattan for the day, a series of Rabbit novels that had nothing to do with Watership Down.

These books I had heard about and, in my precocious desire to immerse myself in literature, wanted desperately to read. The first book I checked out, blushing furiously as I handed it across to an amused looking librarian, was Anna Karenina. Later that day, already holding strong opinions on whether or not Dolly should take Stiva back, I pulled all the children's books off the shelves in my bedroom and threw them in a box under my bed. The empty wall space was ready for the next stage of my reading.

Almost a quarter century later when my fifth novel, but first children's book, was about to be published, I had an urge to reacquaint myself with some of those books I had loved as a boy and went looking for that box. I wasn't surprised to find it. My mother, after all, would never throw a book away.

Opening that box was like rediscovering my childhood. Each book held a special memory for me. The summer in Wexford when I had devoured Secret Seven adventures: the Seven, who could be quite bitchy towards each other, forever throwing someone out of their club for saying the wrong thing, were a much more entertaining read for me than the rather smug Famous Five. The school trip to Bath when I had boarded a raft down the Mississippi with Huckleberry Finn while sailing with my classmates from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead. The week I had spent in hospital after an appendectomy and my mother bought me a copy of The Magician's Nephew, the first of CS Lewis's Narnia tales, the seventh of which I had devoured by the time the stitches came out.

Those books! Those classics of children's literature. Why had I discarded them so easily, I wondered. They needed to be rescued: returned to their proper places, dusted off, spines out. But first, I had to read them again.

I didn't read them all, of course. But I waved to the passengers alongside The Railway Children as the trains passed through Three Chimneys. I camped out with the Walker children of Swallows and Amazons and joined Emil and his gang of young detectives as they hunted down the thief. And with every book I read, I grew more admiring of these wonderful works and excited that I was about to publish a novel that would I hoped bring my work to a young audience for the first time.

What makes a classic is difficult to define. It's entirely subjective, of course. And the term is employed far too promiscuously. Last year, I read 96 novels in total, eight of which were written for children or young adults, and looking at the list now – yes, I keep a list of books I read; so sue me – there's only one title that I think will be considered a classic in 50 years' time. I read some good books, of course; some very good books. But only one that I think combines arresting language with a central character whose struggle becomes the reader's struggle, an honest, heart-wrenching story that moved me to tears. And that one book just happens to be one of the children's books: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

The phrase "children's classic" contains twice as many words as necessary. It's either a classic or it's not; whether it's written for children is neither here nor there. Indeed, looking at the list of titles published in the new Vintage Children's Classics list, there are some books which have, over time, become defined as children's books when really they're just books, no prefix required. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, for example; the two Mark Twain novels; Dickens's A Christmas Carol; Kipling's The Jungle Book.

These are books that can be read and enjoyed by readers of all ages. I had started typing the phrase "as opposed to", thinking that I would mention some of the books on the list which really could only be enjoyed by children, but looking at the titles I couldn't find any. Perhaps that's exactly what makes these books classics. They feature young heroes and heroines, from Heidi to Cassandra Mortmain of Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle, from Alice to Peter Pan, whose adventures or struggles are equally engaging to anyone who believes that the human experience is best defined and understood through the art of fiction, the power of storytelling, regardless of whether the hands holding the book belong to a child or a centenarian.

The book that stands out for me as a great children's classic, one that fascinated and terrified me as a boy and which retained all its power when I returned to it as an adult, is Ian Seraillier's The Silver Sword. The novel was my first introduction to the Second World War in fiction, to the horrors of the Nazi era and the fear that capture could instill in the minds of its young heroes Ruth, Edek and Bronia. The novel opens with an escape as Joseph Balicki, a Polish schoolteacher who has been taken to a concentration camp for turning pictures of Hitler to the wall, renders a guard unconscious, steals his uniform and makes his way back to Warsaw in search of his wife and children, only to find the city is a shell and his family have disappeared. The story of what has happened is gradually revealed.

It's a marriage of great storytelling with characters that display the kind of bravery and resilience that the best heroes of children's literature do. I owe Seraillier a debt; his novel engendered in me a fascination with the Second World War and the Holocaust that ultimately led me to write The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a novel published 50 years after Seraillier's masterpiece.

I hope for so much from every book I read. And time and again, I find myself disappointed. I look across my bookshelves and see hundreds of titles which in my memory seem merely mediocre or second-rate. Only occasionally does a novel appear for which I feel a lasting passion, a book that I think could in time become a classic. As this new collection of children's classics is published, it's interesting to consider the modern titles that, 50 years hence, will have earned their place. Of course, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a great novel, complex and intelligent, is already there. I could make a strong case for Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses series, for Flour Babies by Anne Fine, for Philip Ardagh's Eddie Dickens trilogy, for Roddy's Doyle's Wilderness. Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson? Yes, of course. And any serious reader who has not read the late Siobhan Dowd is missing out on novels as powerful and moving as any published over the last decade.

Sadly, there remains an unwillingness among adults to engage with literature written for young people unless it has been made into a repetitive series of film adaptations or defined by the trade by that most reductive of terms, the "crossover" novel. When aspiring writers tell me they are writing a crossover novel it makes me want to bang my head – or theirs – against a wall. Do they think that Robert Louis Stevenson got to the end of Treasure Island and turned to his wife Fanny to say that he had completed a crossover novel?

And of course there was that ill-considered remark from Martin Amis a few years ago that only a serious brain injury could make him want to write for young readers: an extraordinary statement from someone who clearly worships good writing as much as Amis does. But as long as writers of children's literature are willing to engage with serious subjects in a fearless way, taking their readers on emotional journeys that remain with them throughout their lives, then work will continue to be produced that proves worthy of the term "classic". In which case, more readers might be willing to venture upstairs in the library once again. The seats are more comfortable up there anyway; I've never passed a bean-bag I didn't want to sit in.

John Boyne's 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' is one of 20 books on the inaugural Vintage Children's Classics list. His 'The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket' is published this month by Doubleday

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'