This writer is a rarity in the recent Waterstone's best children's books list. He's still alive!
It's no mystery, for example, why Roald Dahl is overwhelmingly the most popular of all the authors on this list - at least, among younger readers. What Dahl did supremely well was tell a story. Given a sequence of events, he picked the right line through them with unerring skill. That's not easy to do, but if you can manage it, you'll never lack for readers.
He appears no less than seven times in the under-I6s' top 10, together with JRR Tolkien (for The Hobbit) and AA Milne (for guess what); it's a great tribute to Jacqueline Wilson, the only living author there, that she makes it to number 10: warm and funny and firmly rooted in the real world of families and relationships, her books tell children what they didn't know that they knew.
Do dead people write better books than living ones, then?
Only one living writer, Michelle Magorian, makes it into the overall top 10. Apart from that it's dead men all the way: The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, comes in at number two overall: all right in parts, is my verdict on that. CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, at number one, was published in 1950 (hmm, is what I say), and that nauseating piece of whimsy, Winnie-the-Pooh, at number four, has been simpering at us since 1926.
Further down, but not much, we find Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden and Little Women. Who voted for these? The older readers, probably. It's not really surprising that the younger readers' list features more recent books: they're reading them today, after all, whereas the grown-ups aren't.
What strange creations such lists are, mixing enduring favourites up in one big heap with the sensations of the passing moment. Despite my loathing for it, I have to acknowledge that Winnie-the-Pooh must have something, to have been around for so long. But how long will RL Stine's Say Cheese and Die, or One Day in Horror Land (76 and 79 respectively) last? Some of us benefit, of course: my own Northern Lights appears at a highly respectable 28 (19 in the under-l6s' list), and I shall boast about the fact for as long as I can squeeze any credit out of it. Two years ago I wouldn't have been anywhere near the top 100, and I shall be very surprised if I'm still there in two years' time. It's fairly safe to say that Swallows and Amazons (number seven), Treasure Island (number 40) and The Borrowers (number 61), however, will still be there or thereabouts for years to come, and quite right too.
Of course, it's impossible to look at a list like this without trying to draw up your own top 10. It's easier to arrive at favourite authors than favourite books, though: if you like the flavour of Richmal Crompton, for instance, you wouldn't want to be without all the William books, even though Just William might be the one title that people remember. Anyway, here are my 10, in alphabetical order, with their "Nation's Favourite" rating":
Paul Berna, A Hundred Million Francs (not listed)
Lewis Carroll, the Alice books, both of them (nine and 58)
Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll and the other Moomin books (not listed)
Erich Kastner, Emil and the Detectives (not listed)
Rudyard Kipling, The Just So Stories (10)
Andrew Lang, the fairy tale collections (not listed)
Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding (not listed)
Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons (seven) and the rest of them
RL Stevenson, Treasure Island (40)
To qualify, these had to be books that I read and enjoyed when I was a child, and have read and enjoyed since. But the closer you look, the more difficult to pin down this "favourite" business becomes. I fell in love, for example, not so much with Paul Bema's text in A Hundred Million Francs as with the girl in the drawing on page 14. Richard Kennedy's fluid pen-and-ink line is still, for me, a major part of the delight of that book. (How many of Roald Dahl's readers would like his books quite so much if they didn't have the Quentin Blake illustrations? Some of them would feel a lot less like fun.)
I notice that my top 10 is actually nine, but never mind. We enjoy characters, too, independently of the stories they come in, and children don't only read children's books. I loved the Saint and Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves at least as much as William. And what about comics - Superman and Batman in particular? The tenth place in my list would be occupied jointly by all the stories featuring all of those characters.
And of course we change, and some books don't change with us. I have to confess that for sheer number of readings, the absolute top of my childhood list, the pinnacle of all favourites, would have to be a book called Winks and his New Friends. Out of curiosity, I ordered it recently at the Bodleian Library and read it again. It was absolute twaddlen
Philip Pullman's `Northern Lights' won the Carnegie Medal and The Guardian Children's Fiction award. Its sequel, `The Subtle Knife', is published this month
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