The most influential / important books in British Children’s Literature since 1960

OK, it’s a strange title but it’s the first topic of my new MA module on British Children’s Literature, 1960 to the present day, and it’s a very vague and hazy area.

We’re spending the next few months looking at various books and authors that have defined and influenced British Children’s Literature since the 1960s and the books chosen form part of a literary canon. The problem is, how do you define a literary canon? I would have a stab at it by saying it comprises books that have been influential and have enjoyed enduring popularity over a period of time, as this indicates that their message never dates or grows stale.

However, books and authors that I choose might not show up on someone else’s list. In fact, our first exercise this week was to say whether or not we agreed with the texts chosen as part of this module, which are:

  • The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff (1959)
  • The Borrowers Aloft by Mary Norton (1961)
  • A Stranger at Green Knowe by Lucy Boston (1961)
  • A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce (1962)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
  • Elidor (1965), The Owl Service (1967) and The Stone Book Quartet (1976-8) by Alan Garner
  • Smith by Leon Garfield (1967)
  • Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden (1973)
  • The Trouble With Donovan Croft by Bernard Ashley (1974)
  • Going Back by Penelope Lively (1975)
  • The Machine Gunners (1975), The Scarecrows (1981), Blitzcat (1989), The Kingdom by the Sea (1990), and Gulf (1992), all by Robert Westall
  • The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp (1977)
  • The BFG by Roald Dahl (1982)
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend (1982)
  • A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh (1983)
  • The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith (1983)
  • Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne-Jones (1985)
  • Bill’s New Frock by Anne Fine (1989)
  • The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)
  • Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty (1991)
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (1995)
  • Junk (1996) and Doing It (2003) by Melvin Burgess
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling (1997)
  • Postcards from No Man’s Land by Adrian Chambers (1997)
  • The Lion-Tamer’s Daughter by Peter Dickinson (1999)
  • Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond (1999)
  • The Stones are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean (1999)
  • Plus Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island (1942 but reprinted often since 1960s).

It’s a lot of reading!

I think we all felt rather ill equipped to be making judgements about who should be included or indeed excluded in a literary canon but we attempted to voice some opinions. The names we would have liked to see included were:

  • Lynne Reid Banks
  • Clive King
  • Alan Gibbons
  • Michael Morpurgo
  • Eva Ibbotson (although not British-born, she lived here most of her life and writes about childhood in Britain)
  • Marie-Louise Jehnsen
  • Colin Dann

I’ve not yet done all the reading on this list, but I would probably have excluded Penelope Lively. Going Back for me was not really child-centred in its narrative approach. Most of it is told in a large flashback and felt too psychologically ponderous for the most plot-driven minds of children.

Our tutor, when responding to our comments to date, said that popular children authors such as Michael Morpurgo and Alan Gibbons and Colin Dann have been considered in terms of ‘their literary value and appear to fall partly outside of this criteria for judgement and into a different kind of canonisation’. She asked us how important literary excellence should be in terms of what we study, which made me wonder if these authors’ books are perhaps not considered really worthy of academic study, and why? I guess I am a ‘popular’ kinda gal – if kids are reading these books as soon as they hit the shelves, and children’s literature is aimed at them, then surely they are the best judges of the best literature for them?

In case you are interested, we were recommended the following book on the matter: Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature: Beyond Library Walls and Ivory Towers. Routledge, 2004.

(NB Just checked on amazon for this book and it’s not easily available and will set you back c. £120 so unless you’re feeling rich you might wish to avoid it!)

I’ll share more of the work as I attempt it but I thought I would get this topic off the ground and ask your opinions.

What children’s books or authors would you nominate to be part of a literary canon since the 1960s and why? Please do tell! 

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Zoe says:

    I’m afraid to say that there are rather a lot of books on your list which I’ve not even heard of, let alone read. Is a book a classic if lots of non academics haven’t heard of it? Which isn’t to say I don’t now want to go and read all the new-to-me books 🙂

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    1. I must say Zoe that the same was true of me too! It’s been interesting reading what makes up a canon, and the course writers do admit that it’s always contentious trying to settle on ones. I think what they try to do when selecting books is to choose according to literary merit as well as popularity, perhaps favouring the former over the latter. It also brings to the fore the perennial tension: that children’s lit is written for children but by adults. But surely children should be the best judges about what suits them?

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  2. nobodyjones says:

    Hmm. I think I’d add KM Peyton in there for sure – but not for Flambards, probably for her Pennington books? They are very, very epochal in their way.

    Something like this is so interesting I think because it reflects so much on an inevitable personal experience of the books. Like Elidor – I love that, but only because I came into it via the TV series which had the *most* beautiful pony galloping across the beach in the opening credits! 🙂

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    1. Funny as I missed out on seeing Elidor probably as I grew up in Canada. I would love to see how they adapted it though.

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  3. judimoore says:

    Many of your course list I’ve never come across either. But then, it’s a long time since I was a child, and I don’t have any children. However, there are two authors I’d add: Kenneth Grahame for “The Wind in the Willows” because it so gently yet firmly tells the reader why they should love the countryside. And JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (which I read at 14) because of what it has to say about the consequences of one’s actions, good and evil, how to tell them apart, and which side to put yourself on. Both are also, of course, beautifully written.

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    1. Hi Judi
      I definitely would add The Wind in the Willows and Lord of the Rings to a canon of children’s literature; in my MA these are included in the 1900-1960 group so they miss this in this grouping.

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      1. judimoore says:

        Goody. I just thought I’d make their case as E Blyton made it into the later group on a technicality :0)

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  4. I know – it’s rather peculiar that. I think it’s because it was reprinted a lot from 1960 onwards but it’s still a bit of a mystery to me!

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