Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksSeptember 24, 2023

More children’s books that are still great reads now you’re a grown-up

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Writer and reader Rachael King revisits more childhood reads that satisfy just as much now as they did then. (Read part one here.)

“No book is really worth reading at 10,” wrote C.S. Lewis in his essay On Stories, “which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.” 

Did I expect, as a 10- (and 11-, and 12-) year-old, to be returning, in the distant, unknowable, unimaginable future, to the books I was reading at the time? When I would be old? Fifty even?

Perhaps. Some of the books I read as a child I knew would be with me always. Children’s author Katherine Rundell said recently on the excellent Island of Brilliant podcast: “Kids are the best readers… they take the stories and they go into their blood and into their bones and cartilage, and they walk around with those stories until they die… With adult readers you’re talking to them across the table; with a child reader you are cheek-to-cheek and whispering in their ear.”

Recently I wrote about six children’s books and authors that are worth returning to as an adult reader. It was painful to try and limit myself to six, because there are many more books out there, walking around with me, inside my cartilage and bones – and probably yours, dear reader – that are worth excavating. So, with that in mind, here are four more books or authors from your childhood* that still offer as much if not more satisfaction in your adult years.

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie Medal (for children’s literature) and the Booker Prize. It’s obvious from her very first novel Astercote (1970) that here is a writer who respects her readers and who cares about language and ideas. Astercote is not as well-known as her award-winner The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (which I haven’t yet read) and A Stich in Time, both of which are still in print, but it’s well worth tracking down. In it, you can feel a writer of immense talent just dipping her toe into what makes a good story: atmosphere and intrigue. With shades of ancient plagues and self-isolating communities, Astercote takes on a new discomfort when read in the wake of the world’s Covid response.

Like Astercote, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971) taps into the uncanny: the disturbing stories that are embedded in the land, thrumming just under the feet or in the corner of the eye; stories that seemed to be quite prevalent in popular culture in the early 70s, when pagan worship and folk horror crept into children’s books and TV as well. There’s a real sense of menace and danger here from teenage boys in the thrall of an ancient force, unwittingly unleashed by a well-meaning vicar. 

I preferred these two to the later A Stitch in Time (1976), a time-slip story set in Lyme Regis, where the cliffs are pregnant with dinosaur fossils and ammonites litter the beach. It’s a more sedate book, with gentle humour and a quirky only child in a stilted family unit who talks to inanimate objects (which talk back) and who discovers the messy freedom and joy of the large family staying in the hotel next door. In The Wild Hunt, the landscape more heavily reflects the mood of its young protagonist. In A Stitch in Time, it’s more sweet; the ideas, while more developed – involving clocks and time, and slips and stitches both literal and figurative –  are also spelled out more for the young reader. The other two feel rawer and more visceral, and therefore more interesting.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

“You have to write the book that wants to be written,” said Madeline L’Engle. “And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” 

First of all, I love that A Wrinkle in Time has the audacity to open with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I don’t remember if I read this book as a child – if I didn’t, I can’t think how I missed it. It has a rich, dream-like quality with hard science at its core, as well as speculation about other worlds and the entities that might occupy them. It was the book I thought of most when reading Pip Adam’s astonishing new novel Audition, and the idea that the physical state of a world can be beyond human comprehension and language. 

It was actually a newer book that drove me to read A Wrinkle in Time – Rebecca Stead’s 2009 middle-grade novel When You Reach Me, which is one of the best contemporary children’s novels I’ve read. In it, the protagonist Miranda adores L’Engle’s book; it becomes a talisman in her story, and ties into its timey-wimey twists. It is a joy to read novels that converse with other novels, and which subtly enhance the reading of both.  

Reading A Wrinkle in Time with my autistic child, I couldn’t help but read Meg and little brother Charles Wallace as neurodivergent in different ways. It’s definitely worth a trip back to see the Mrs Whatsit, Who and Which, and the nurturing Miss Beast, who compels Meg to think to herself, “It was she who was limited by her senses, not the blind beasts, for they must have senses of which she could not even dream.”

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera 

I confess I did not read this novel as a child. I was 17 when it came out in 1987; the same year I was gripped by Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Bone People, which took me three attempts to start before I was carried away. I wish I had read The Whale Rider – I would have loved it. As a Pākehā child, I was privileged to have spent some time in te ao Māori, thanks to my father. By the time I was 11, I had been on marae, attended a tangi in Kawhia, and slept in the wharenui at Pākirikiri marae in Tokomaru Bay (not far from Whangara where the novel is set). It was a part of New Zealand life I was comfortable with and always wanted to return to. 

That year, 1987, the Te Māori exhibition arrived from Europe, and on a class trip we were escorted by a kapa haka teacher and welcomed into the space at Auckland Art Gallery and given a guided tour. Afterwards, I wrote in my English journal how moving the experience had been for me and I think it was as much for the connection I felt with those early experiences travelling the country with my dad as for the stories we were told of the exhibits. 

What a gap in my reading that was. Reading The Whale Rider recently, I was surprised to find the book is narrated not by the young girl, Kahu, but by her uncle. Brimming with life and pūrākau, it is evocative, lyrical, moving, and laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to the hard-case Nanny Flowers. I shouldn’t be surprised by these things of course. Witi Ihimaera knew what he was doing. This is not a children’s book, really; it’s an everybody book, and how mind and heart-opening it must have been for non-Māori children at the time, and how affirming for Māori children.

Diana Wynne Jones

The only Diana Wynne Jones book I remember reading as a child, and which I returned to with great satisfaction when I found a reissued copy about 15 years ago, was Dogsbody, in which Sirius the dog star is banished to earth as punishment for some transgression in the starry realm. Reborn into the body of a puppy, he is rescued from drowning and taken home by a girl whose father is in prison for his connections to the IRA. She’s treated badly by her dysfunctional relations, and the neighbourhood kids, because she is Irish. 

Jones writes families so well, with varying degrees of affection and neglect, and with similar quirks and spikes to Margaret Mahy’s families. The Time of the Ghost, with its cryptic point of view and its rowdy set of sisters living in a boys’ boarding school with awful parents, is said to be Jones’ most autobiographical novel. DWJ is harsh on the way the girls look and act – no generic pretty girls here. They’re awkward in their skin and in their heads. One girl is clearly depressed (“grieving”) and is taunted for it. Another is frumpy with an eccentric dress sense. 

The idyllic, pastoral countryside is alive with menace; the girls mock-worship a ragdoll named Monigan, with blood harvested from the dripping noses of schoolboys (“[I] wonder if Monigan wasn’t really a manifestation of our common thirst for excitement, or our suicidal urges, or something”) – all adding up to a complex supernatural mystery verging on folk horror. 

As an adult, I’m attracted to the DWJ books that ground their magic firmly in the “real” world, where the magic encroaches in often sinister ways. That means no Howl’s Moving Castle, and no Chrestomancy books, as widely adored by both children and adults as they are: I’ve gone for the standalone novels aimed at slightly older readers, the ones that Emily Tesh, in her excellent essay on The Time of the Ghost refers to as her “Holy Shit, Diana!” period (1981-1986). 

I came to Fire and Hemlock, another complex puzzle, by way of  an excellent Backlisted episode. It’s loosely based on the ballad of Tam Lin, but also, less obviously, TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets, with shades of Cupid and Psyche. It’s odd and beautiful, unlike anything I’ve read, with one of the greatest protagonists in Polly, who ages from ten to about nineteen in the book. I’m not even sure I quite understand it, and there’s a slightly disturbing relationship at its heart, but the wrongness of it doesn’t diminish the reading experience.

I saw something on social media recently that said you wouldn’t listen to a song or a concerto only once. You have to hear it again and again to pick up its layers, its nuances – so why not the same with books?

When an author writes complex novels like these for young people, it’s for the satisfaction of art well-made – they certainly don’t do it as a gimmick to shift units. As Katherine Rundell said on the Island of Brilliant episode, when she revealed that her new book Impossible Creatures is based on an aborted, blasphemous poem by John Donne: “I don’t tell children this and I don’t plan to… I don’t think it’s a selling point.” 

That writers like Rundell and Diana Wynne Jones and others see no reason not to layer their stories like this is an astonishing gift to children (“cheek-to-cheek, whispering in their ear”) and to those of us who come back to them again in adulthood and discover something new. 

* More recent children’s books to give a go or to pass to your own kids to be absorbed into their marrow include: Tyger by SF Said; The Raven’s Song by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble; October, October by Katya Balen; and Bone Music by David Almond. Future classics, all.

Some of the above books can be purchased (and others ordered) from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

Keep going!