1: Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials
An essential piece of reading for both children and adults, and if you haven’t already at least heard of this classic, I can only assume that you too have been living in the alternate world of Lyra’s Oxford. Soon to be an HBO adaptation (and so the perfect time for a read, or a re-read) His Dark Materials draws on both childhood fantasy and Paradise Lost, crafting a world of daemons, gyptians and witches. A complex work, the trilogy is both thrilling, thought-provoking and occasionally tear-jerking. More than anything, it is a book which has scorched itself into the imagination of children everywhere.
Optional activity: Get your child to write a description of what they think their daemon would be like. Try to imagine what they look like, how they would act and what they would show about your personality. Use as many pieces of vivid description, similes and metaphors as possible!
2: Nina Bawden: Carrie’s War
Set during World War Two, Carrie’s War follows two London evacuees, Nick and the eponymous Carrie. Sent from their home in London to escape the bombs, Carrie and Nick are placed in the care of Mr Evans and his sister, Auntie Lou. Of both literary and historical merit, Carrie’s War is a poignant tale of love, mistakes and forgiveness, full of the vagaries and uncertainties of real life, which the children explore during their time in the Welsh hills. Undoubtedly one of the best loved wartime novels for children, if your own kids haven’t already read this in school, now is the time to pick it up.
Optional activity: Pretend you are a young evacuee who has been sent to the countryside during WW2. Write home to your parents about your new home and lifestyle.
3: Arthur Conan Doyle: The Lost World
A classic which occasionally, as its name might ironically suggest, is a little forgotten, The Lost World is the inspiration for Jurassic Park and the countless dinosaur films hatched from it. The science-fiction novel follows Edward Malone, a junior reporter, on a trip to South America where dinosaurs are rumoured to still be living. Yet getting to them will be no easy feat. Written by Arthur Conan Doyle, more commonly known for Sherlock Holmes, of course, The Lost World is an intriguing adventure and mystery for all young people who yearn for discovery.
Optional activity: Pretend you too have stumbled across a jungle filled with prehistoric creatures! Write a diary entry describing what you have seen and what you intend to do there.
4: Jack London: White Fang & The Call of the Wild
Have you ever wanted to see what a dog’s world looks like? Or traverse the pioneering landscapes of the Yukon? There is, in every child, something that hears the call of the wild, even if this mainly manifests itself in doodles on the walls and a fervent desire to be covered in as much foliage as possible. Jack London’s timeless classics delve deep into the history of pioneering Canada and America, taking a dog’s eye view of life on the frontier and in the wilds of the tundra. An excellent read for all children with a thirst for adventure or a love of animals.
Optional activity: Both White Fang and Buck spend time as people’s pets. Imagine what it might be like to see the world from your own pet’s point of view. Or if you don’t have a pet, make one up! Write a day in the life of your pet, really thinking about how they might see the world differently.
5: Adeline Yen Mah: The Chinese Cinderella
Written by Adeline Yen Mah, this autobiographical novel charts her childhood in Second World War China. After Adeline’s mother dies, her father remarries to a cruel woman who favours her own children, at the expense of Adeline and her four siblings. A sensitive and profound text, The Chinese Cinderella deftly explores family relationships, ambition and loss, while never losing hope for the future.
Optional activity: The Chinese Cinderella is an autobiographical novel. This means that it is the real story of the author. Imagine someone wanted to write a biography of you. What might they write? Have a go at writing your own autobiography!
6: Diana Wynne Jones: Charmed Life
Excellent for children with a penchant for the fantastical, Charmed Life, the first of the Chrestomanci books follows Cat (Christopher Chant), Janet and the devious Gwendoline in a world where the British Government supervises magic. When Cat and Gwendoline’s parents are killed, they find themselves a home in Chrestomanci Castle. Yet their time there is not destined to be altogether peaceful. Watch as Cat uncovers his sister’s treachery and learns, in time, his true role in the realms of magic.
Optional activity: Do you like magic? If you do, write a story with the title ‘The Spell That Went Wrong’. Try and be as inventive and imaginative as possible!
7: The Hobbit
Although during his lifetime, JRR Tolkien was as much medievalist, linguist and literary critic as a children’s author, this is perhaps the book for which he is best remembered. In The Hobbit, his vast knowledge and imagination create the spectacular world of Middle Earth. Funnier and gentler than its big brother, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant adventurer drawn into a quest to defeat Smaug the dragon. A children’s classic for the ages of elves and men, this high fantasy is sure to get your child roaming the landscapes of their imaginations this summer.
Optional activity: Middle Earth, where The Hobbit is set is a world invented by JRR Tolkien. If you were going to invent a world, what would it be like? Try and describe as much of it as possible. If you like, you can also draw a map of your new world!
8: The Silver Sword
Another historical novel this time, The Silver Sword narrates the experiences of the Balicki family in Nazi occupied Poland. When the patriarch of the family, Joseph, is arrested for having turned a picture of Hitler to face the wall, his wife and children must learn to survive the ever-worsening conditions of wartime Warsaw. Set both before and after the liberation of Warsaw, and the end of the war in 1945, the novel provides both a sensitive introduction to the horrors of World War Two, and a compelling family drama filled with strife, uncertainty and eventually healing. A classic since its publication in 1956, The Silver Sword is an essential piece of reading for all children.
Optional activity: Write a diary entry inspired by the book, taking the point of view of a child living in wartime Warsaw or Berlin.
Not many children’s book can boast adaptations into opera, but Skellig is one of the privileged few. When Michael and his family move into a new house, coping with the difficulties of a baby sister born with a heart condition, he is not unexpectedly surprised to find something already living in their garage. Skellig, as he calls himself, looks like an old man, yet there’s something not quite human about him - despite his requests for ale and a Chinese takeaway. Simultaneously following Michael’s growing friendship with Skellig, and his sister’s struggles, the novel deftly intertwines the two plots, leading to a truly beautiful ending.
Optional activity: Have you ever found anything hidden away? Or has something ever surprised you? Think of something that you have found or been surprised by and write a short story describing what happened!
10: Harry Potter
When better than approaching the age of 11 (the year all new students receive their Hogwarts letters) to set off on the path to what is - for many - a lifelong passion. At this point, it is nigh on impossible that any parents reading this won’t have heard of Harry Potter, and a blurb seems somewhat superfluous. But if you are questioning why your child should get to grips with a wand this summer, there are some persuasive reasons. Would you like to prepare them for future Latin classes? Then help them to navigate Rowling’s spells, many of which are directly derived from the language. Could your child benefit from broadening their vocabulary? With seven books and a flabbergasting array of excellent and unusual words, Harry Potter is something I always recommend to start with. And would you like a few minutes of peace, or to tear your child away from the PS4? Let me present you with an infallible option. Just don’t blame me when they insist on wearing house colours when they return to school in September.
Optional activity: Imagine that you went to Hogwarts. Thinking about the sort of things that happen there, I would like you to write a story based on the title ‘The Midnight Wander’.