Having read Andy Miller’s ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’, a book in which he changes his life by reading fifty classic books, I’ve been forced to take a long hard look at my own reading habits. Like most people I am not entirely honest about the books I read. Sometimes it’s just easier to say I’ve read a book to ease a conversation along, rather than kill it stone dead with an embarrassing confession that I’ve not read To Kill a Mockingbird or the Lord of the Rings (which of course I have*.)
It’s just so much easier to lie about reading Jane Austen than it is to actually read Jane Austen. ‘Oh yes I’ve read Emma. Didn’t get on with it.’ Didn’t get on with the first page more like. I’m pretty happy being a literary liar, it’s served me well. But Miller’s book did implant in me the idea that perhaps I’m missing out on a lot of good books. So I’ve drawn up my own ‘list of betterment’: Fifty children’s books I really should have read but haven’t. I’ll do the adult version of this challenge when I grow up.
From a long list of around 80, a quarter of which I’m ashamed to admit I already own, I’ve come up with this final selection of books for children (as well as some adult books like Gormenghast which are widely read by young adults) .
What’s interesting looking down the list is how close it is to many of the ‘Greatest Children’s Books Ever’ lists that appear from time to time. As many of my favourites never appear on those lists, I’m a little suspicious about many of the books that do. Are they there because they’ve always been there? Do children really read them? Maybe people choose them because they’re improving? Maybe. Or I could be missing out on something revelatory, a book that saves my life.
So here goes (please don’t judge me too hard).
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
- The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula le Guin
- Blackhearts over Battersea by Joan Aiken
- Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
- Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson
- The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
- Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
- The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
- The Changes Trilogy by Peter Dickinson
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
- Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
- Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
- Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
- A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
- LIfe: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
- The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
- Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang by Ian Fleming
- The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
- Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
- Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
- The Family of One End Street by Eve Garnett
- Are you there god? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
- The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
- The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban
- Smith by Leon Garfield
- Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
- The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
- Emil and the detectives by Erich Kastner
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
- The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis
- Uncle by J.P. Martin
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
- Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff
- Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
- The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
- The Fantastic Four vol. 1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
- A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet.
2018 update – I have read 11 of these so far. No lie!
11 thoughts on “The List of Betterment”
i try to work in a few “classics” each year as i always seem to come across a book i never had to read in school that i should have or one that all of my writing friends absolutely love that i’ve never cracked open – my attempt to fill in the cracks of my literary education, i guess. most of the time, i really enjoy the books. (except i may be one of the few who wasn’t crazy in love with catcher in the rye.)
love your list of books, here – some i’ve read and some i have on my radar to read (just picked up anne of green gables at the bookstore). others, i may have to check out!
That’s a far more sensible way to approach reading classics Valerie. What’s on your to be read list? I loved Catcher in the Rye – but I read it as a 16 year old, so that’s not surprising.
Thought provoking post Jake! I really like it. I’ve recently found that a good way for me to read some of the older (children’s) classics I’ve never read is to choose them for bedtime reading with my kids. I especially enjoy it when I read books which are new for all of us, as we share the journey of discovery. A book I’ve found helpful in helping me choose what to read is 1001 Children’s Books you must read before you grow up. So this year we’ve read things like Tom’s Midnight Garden (which I had never read before, and am SO glad I’ve read now). As a book blogger I do feel a constant drive to read and keep up with newly published books, living little time for books published even just a year or two ago, let alone 50 or 100 years ago, but carving out a bit of space with my kids to do some of the older books is working wonderfully.
And if I’m going to confess, one of the things that shocks children I talk to books about is that I’ve never finished the Harry Potter series. I got to book 4 and failed to pick up the next one. Nor have I seen the later films. My excuse now is that I’m waiting for the Jim Kay illustrated series 🙂
Interesting you should say that. One of the things that spurred me on to do this was reading Five children and It to my children and loving it, to the extent they demanded we read the sequel.
Think you’ve read the best of the Harry Potter books, so no shame there!
You are going to have fun!
Great list. I’ve enjoyed seeing how many I’ve read and being reminded that there are so many terrific books I haven’t. I’d love to see the list of your favourite books you have read, especially as you never find them on other people’s lists. All the more to choose from!
Thanks Griselda. Thinking of compiling an alternative list of books that should be on the greatest books lists. Watch this space!
My husband has never read ANY classic children’s lit (he read nonfic as a kid) and he’s starting a book club with our 10 year old! They’ve read Treasure Island together and loved it.
Finally found this list — how did I miss it? — and am going to see if I can use it as a template for filling in gaps in my reading, such as the Morpugo and the Kastner. Great selection, Jake.
I’m coming to your lovely list rather late, indeed I just found your blog in the past few weeks. I feature a booklist on my blog most Thursdays, and today I used your list.