4 Apr 2023

A stack of classic children's reads for the long weekend

From Afternoons, 2:10 pm on 4 April 2023

There was much gnashing of teeth earlier this year when publisher Penguin Books announced it was 'revising' editions of books by beloved author Roald Dahl - altering his choice of words relating to weight, mental health, gender and race.

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Photo: Supplied

School librarian Catherine Ross says taking a revisionist view of children's literature is "a thorny issue".

"There's all sorts of words and things that are used in certain texts that we certainly wouldn't use now... it's a difficult one. And I think that every book is of its time, and even books 10 or 20 years old, are going to have languages and ideas that we've moved on from.

"Let's face it, we're all individuals. So there's always going to be something that we find offensive, or somebody finds offensive or inappropriate."

She rejects the idea that classic books are perfect "because I think books are about individual tastes and interests." Just because a book was written a long time ago and was read by a lot of people doesn't mean it's always going to appeal, she says.

"I don't think it's a bad thing that if some children don't enjoy The Secret Garden or the Little Princess, you know, that's fine. They can read something else as long as they are reading."

Ross read a lot of 'classic' fiction as a child - books published in the 1950s, 60s and 70s - that she still recommends. She says the following titles are "pretty amazing books that don't feel like classics and and hold up pretty well to a modern audience". 

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper Photo: Penguin Books

"This one is actually the second in a series of five books. When I first discovered it, I read it as a standalone novel and there was no issue. It's an early example of a fantasy story that has been influenced and shaped by well-known mythology and folklore. So it's a really familiar template today that we see in authors like Neil Gaiman, or Rick Lord. Basically, it's just a really good adventure story. It's a lot of mythology that kids will recognise, mostly Arthurian legends and that sort of thing, because it's set in Britain."

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

"This an original example of historical fiction for children set in World War Two, which is amazingly popular, unbelievably, with children today. It's about three Polish siblings who are separated from their parents and have to look after themselves, hiding from the Nazis, in their demolished war-torn city.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier Photo: Penguin Books

They meet an orphan called Yan, and he has a talisman, which is a paper knife that's shaped as a silver sword. And he was given it by an escaped prisoner of war. The children very quickly realise that this prisoner of war that he'd been in contact with is actually their father.

"They decide to cross war-torn Europe and try and get to Switzerland where they've heard that a lot of families and people are gathering to try and to reunite and find each other again. It's another gripping adventure story, but also obviously full of sadness and war."

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce Photo: Supplied

"This is about 12 year old Tom, and he's staying with his aunt and uncle for the summer holidays. And he's a bit unhappy and grumpy because there's no garden, there's not a playground, there's no children to play with. But one night he hears the clock striking 13... so he goes off to investigate, where he discovers a secret garden and a young girl called Hattie. And they quite quickly work out how she is living in the same place, but not the same time, as Tom. So each time he goes back and visits the garden he sees that she is changing and growing older. So that's this quite sad story, of will they be able to stay friends and will they stay together?"

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin Photo: Supplied

"This one will sound very familiar to a lot of people - it's the first book in a series about a boy with amazing magical potential who heads off to wizarding school, where he makes a lifelong friend, a sworn enemy and goes about making lots of bad choices before he goes on to fulfill his potential. But unlike Harry Potter, this one is set entirely in a fictional fantasy world. This is about Ged, who is a poor smith's son is born with a huge magical talent that he manages to use to save his village from invaders. And he's obviously been discovered and he heads off to wizarding school. He takes part in a duel, summoning a monster that scars him, and then sends him off on a deadly quest. It's about finding yourself, about growing up, about fulfilling your potential and coming into contact with or coming to terms with your dark side and your light side as well."

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Book jacket cover of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell Photo: Penguin Books

"This is one of my favorite, favorite books. It's a first person narrative based on events from the author's childhood. Basically, he's used his experience as a foundation to create this beautiful, humorous, warm book. It's about the five years that he spent living on the island of Corfu, in Greece, with his widowed mum and his three older siblings from when he was around 10 years old. The characters are all larger than life and hilarious and all the siblings have got their own little sort of obsessions and crazy kind of characteristics. It's just lovely because the island and the locals, they're trying to work out what the heck to make of these crazy British people that have arrived.

"And then you've got Jerry in the middle of it all at 10 years old, adding to his menagerie of animals that just sort of keep coming. He's either adopting them or rescuing them and the house is absolutely packed with all these animals. It's just a very, very gentle, beautiful little book that I just absolutely love."

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