The List of Betterment


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.

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So here goes (please don’t judge me too hard).

  1.  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  2.  The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula le Guin
  3.  Blackhearts over Battersea by Joan Aiken
  4.  Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  5.  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  6.  The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
  7.  Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  8.  Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson
  9.  The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  10.  Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
  11.  The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
  12.  Watership Down by Richard Adams
  13.  Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer
  14.  The Changes Trilogy by Peter Dickinson
  15.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  16.  Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  17.  The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  18.  Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
  19.  Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
  20.  Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
  21.  A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
  22.  LIfe: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
  23.  The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
  24.  Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
  25.  Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang by Ian Fleming
  26.  The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
  27.  Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd
  28.  Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  29.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  30.  What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
  31.  The Family of One End Street by Eve Garnett
  32.  Are you there god? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  33.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  34.  The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  35.  The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
  36.  The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban
  37.  Smith by Leon Garfield
  38.  Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
  39. The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald
  40.  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  41.  Emil and the detectives by Erich Kastner
  42.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  43.  The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis
  44.  Uncle by J.P. Martin
  45.  Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  46.  Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff
  47.  Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
  48.  The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
  49.  The Fantastic Four vol. 1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
  50.  A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet.

*I haven’t

2018 update – I have read 11 of these so far.  No lie!

11 thoughts on “The List of Betterment

  1. 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!


  2. 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.


  3. 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 🙂


    1. 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!


  4. 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!


  5. 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.


  6. 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.


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