Again inspired by Stuff’s list of Fifty Books Every Kid Should Read By Age Twelve, and by Goodread’s Top 100 Children’s Books list, here is my hopelessly-biased (the majority of the books are British, and most are favourites from my own childhood) but still very good list of twelve of the best classic reads for children aged eight to twelve.
As with my list of Classic Books for Younger Children I’ve arranged them in rough order from the simplest to the most complex. As different children develop in reading at different rates I haven’t given a hard-and-fast indication of exactly what age kids need to be to tackle these books: I’m pretty sure I’d read them all (with the exception of J. K. Rowling, whose books came out when I was… a little older) long before I turned twelve, but I was a comparatively advanced reader and definitely still loved all these books at that age. For particularly reluctant readers, and those who are struggling, reading stories aloud can be a great way to keep them interested in books.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. Roald Dahl was an enormously talented author, able to weave together the funny and the touching in wildly imaginative plots which are virtually guaranteed to engage even the most reluctant reader. Reclusive chocolate manufacturer Willy Wonka has promised to open the doors of his mysterious factory to the five children who find the golden tickets hidden in his chocolate bars. Impoverished Charlie Bucket doesn’t have much hope of winning, but luck is a funny thing.
Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Loosely based on the author’s own experiences growing up in the pioneering days of North America, the Little House series follows the adventures of Laura and her family: older sister Mary, younger sister Carrie (and, later, baby Grace), Ma and Pa, and faithful dog Jack. In Little House on the Prairie, Pa sets out with his young family to ‘claim’ a homestead on the Plains, and the family sets out as so many did with only what they can transport in a covered wagon. Dangers, challenges and heartbreak abound, but so too does the love, joy and sense of adventure which serves to bring the pioneer days vividly to life.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling. From Pioneer America to modern-day England, with a magical twist. On his eleventh birthday orphan Harry discovers that he is, in fact, a wizard, and is promptly whisked away to the magical school Hogwarts to begin his wizardly education. The first in a wildly successful series (the last three books in particular are probably only suitable for children aged ten and up), which earned their creator a fortune and were later turned into a series of movies, this boarding-school-romp-with-a-difference has become an instant classic.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. Yes, he’s one of my favourite authors. Yes, I’ve recommended this book before. That’s because it’s just that good. Unlike Harry, the Pevensie kids are completely ordinary… until they stumble into the magical land of Narnia, whose inhabitants have been awaiting the coming of the two ‘sons of Adam’ and ‘daughters of Eve’ who, along with the great lion Aslan will overthrow the evil White Witch and allow Spring to come at last. The classic battle of good versus evil, in the heart of the individual as well as on a grand scale, is beautifully explored in this, as in all seven of Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. Younger siblings are a pain, as nine-year-old Peter Hatcher makes perfectly clear, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them. The fact that ‘Fudge’ (Farley) in only a toddler explains much of the behaviour that so frustrates Peter, as well as the comparative lack of consequences. As an eldest child myself I totally understood where Peter was coming from. A funny and touching read for any kid who has occasionally wished they could just send their younger sibling back where they came from (but would miss them terribly if they did).
Matilda, by Roald Dahl. As I sometimes tell the children I work with, this was the first ‘chapter book’ that I read cover-to-cover in a single day, after I was given it for Christmas the year I was nine. Matilda is a genius, but her horrible parents (and they are quite objectively and exaggeratedly horrible) are utterly ignorant of the fact. Frustrated by her experiences at school, five-year-old Matilda finds another outlet for her energies, in the form of mysterious telekinetic powers, which she employs to help her beloved teacher, Miss Honey, overcome the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull. This is Dahl at his ridiculous best, and features one of his few female protagonists.
Five on a Treasure Island, by Enid Blyton. The first of the twenty-one Famous Five books (I had them all) by prolific children’s author Enid Blyton, this is the book which introduces the Five: brothers Julian and Dick, their sister Anne, cousin George (‘Georgina by rights’) and George’s dog, Timmy. Although dated, sexist and somewhat twee, the idea of a group of kids taking off camping and exploring and having adventures away from adult supervision is perennially beguiling to kids, and the books have become a cultural icon. Don’t expect to read too much about ‘lashings of ginger beer’ though – in truth, the Five’s favourite drink really isn’t mentioned nearly as much as it’s reputed to be.
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. A sort of cross between the Little House books and the Famous Five, My Side of the Mountain is told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Sam Gribley, who has run away from his family’s cramped apartment in 1970s New York City to live on his grandfather’s abandoned farm in the upstate wilds, armed with $40 and all the survivalist knowledge he can garner from books in the public library. Although Sam successfully overcomes the many challenges inherent in his new way of life, even capturing and taming a young falcon which he names Frightful, he comes to realise that he misses the company of human society.
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. This is the first book I can remember reading in which a main character died. Wilbur the Pig is destined for slaughter just as soon as he’s big enough, until barn spider Charlotte vows to save him. This she does by weaving messages asserting that Wilbur is ‘Some Pig’ into her web above his sty. Simple, sad, and charming it’s become one of the best-loved children’s books of the 20th century.
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Recently a nine-year-old boy at work, a real little hard case, asked me whether I’d buy the movie version of The Secret Garden for the children to watch, as he’d seen it at school and loved it. “The movie’s good,” I told him, “but the book is even better.” I’m not sure he even knew there was a book. Like Harry Potter, Mary is an orphan, but for her there is no sudden discovery of magic, no witches and wizards to whisk her off to friendlier places: there is only a cold, empty house and the mysteries of a locked garden and someone sobbing in the night. Instead it is the common magics of childhood – innocence, friendship and hope – which provide the key to a happier life.
The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling. Another orphan, this one a toddler found wandering in the Indian jungle after his parents are killed and subsequently rescued and raised by wolves, the great bear Baloo, and the dignified and deadly panther Bagheera. Named Mowgli (‘frog’) by the wolves, the ‘man-cub’ faces many dangers with the support of his friends, but his human destiny – to return to the world of Men – is one that he must face alone. Darker and edgier than Disney’s silly, saccharine efforts, this is a world of real peril, no doubt inspired by genuine stories of ‘wild’ children that really were raised by wolves.
The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Another book that I’ve written about before, and the last on the list because it’s really aimed at adults, this is a story about a timid outsider who doesn’t let either his timidity or his sense of not belonging prevent him from becoming a brave adventurer and loyal friend. Much like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this is a classic tale of good and evil set firmly in the fantasy realm of Middle Earth.
I loved, and love, these books: what childhood classics would be on your list?