30 June 2010

Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books--MY version of the list

I came across a blog post this afternoon (thank you Mitali Perkins) on the site Anglotopia.net (my kind of blog!) listing the Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books. The article, which was posted by a guest blogger, lists "the most popular British children’s authors and their books which have captured the hearts of children (and adults) the world over." I couldn't find fault with the list; every author is indeed beloved, every book a classic--this list is Canon with a capital 'C'. And yet, I found the list to be predictable to the extreme. I guess that's to be expected with something which lists the most popular of its kind. But there was something in its predictability which lacked creativity. Without data to back up the list--such as book sales, or library borrowing statistics--it just seemed to be a catalog of the best-known English writers (and I say English, because Britain is not well represented by this list; Roald Dahl was born in Wales, and C.S. Lewis in Belfast, but that's it. And Francesca Simon, the author of the Horrid Henry series, is in fact American.)

But what bothered me the most with the list was the complete lack of picture book authors. But have no fear--I have remedied that! England (sorry--but my list will also be guilty of an English bias) has produced some of the most innovative, prolific and--according to the borrowing habits of at least the library where I work--popular writers for children.

So, I present to you, in no particular order, my list of 10 of the Greatest British Children's Authors and Books. You may recognize several of the authors. And those you don't already know, I'm so glad to introduce them to you!

1. Allan Ahlberg

Allan Ahlberg, along with his late wife, illustrator Janet Ahlberg, will probably be best remembered for The Jolly Postman, a whimsical journey through a nursery rhyme landscape, via the letters the famous characters write to each other; letters which the reader can handle for themselves in one of the sweetest interactive books going. But for me, their tour-de-force is The Baby's Catalogue, which perfectly captures all of the joys and agonies of a baby's new life--not to mention the life of a new parent--through a catalog of moments and paraphernalia. The book was later organized by topic and published as a series of board books which were just perfect for the little hands of the youngest readers (this is a case where that over-used phrase is just right!)

2. Raymond Briggs
It has always struck me as odd that The Snowman is such a beloved book despite it's downbeat ending. Unlike Frosty, who scampers off before he can melt, with the promise to "be back again some day." there is no such protection for the eponymous character of this Christmas classic. He melts! The little boy is heartbroken! End of story! And yet, beloved it is. All credit to Raymond Briggs' gentle storytelling and captivating illustrations for putting so much joy into a bummer of a holiday tale. Check out his Father Christmas for a cheerier story, although I use the word "cheery" with a caveat; this is no jolly elf. Brigg's Santa is a working class fellow with plenty to grumble about, not least of which is having to get up at an ungodly hour to complete his Christmas Eve mission. Yet it is wholly original and full of charm.

3. John Burningham
If Roald Dahl wrote picture books, I think they would be a lot like the books of John Burningham. His is a world where the adults don't always "get" the children. It's probably because they are already grown-up and have lost sight of the magic and honesty of a child's world. Burningham's Mr. Gumpy's Outing, a cumulative tale which starts with a warning and ends with a picnic, was listed by children's literature guru Anita Silvey as a must-have book. My personal favorite is John Patrick Norman McHennessy, the Boy Who was Always Late, a book which I was so happy to see return to print in 2008.

Note: I had the chance to meet John Burningham about a month ago, at the 2010 Boston Globe Horn Book Awards Ceremony (and I got myself an autographed copy of JPNHtBWwAL to boot.) What a thrill!He was exactly as I imagined him to be--curmudgeonly and cuddly all in one droll package.

4. Helen Oxenbury
Here's an author who perfectly straddles entry number 3 (her husband) and entry number 4 (an author with whom she created a masterpiece.) Perhaps best known as an illustrator, Oxenbury has written a series of books telling the everyday stories in the life of Tom and Pippo, a little boy and his sock monkey. Their "everychild" adventures are comforting in their familiarity. Oxenbury has repeated the formula of infant and toddler experiences in a series of board books.

5. Michael Rosen
Poet, author, and former UK Children's Laureate (2007--2009)--despite all these accomplishments, Michael Rosen will forever be associated with possibly the greatest story-time read-a-loud out there: We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Sublimely illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, this is the definitive version of the rhyme. 'Nuff said.

6. Graham Oakley
I'm on record rhapsodizing about Oakley's Church Mice series, so I won't go on about it at length; regular readers of this blog are well familiar with my feelings on the subject (new visitors can read it all here, here, and here.) 

7. Julia Donaldson
A quick perusal of the current Amazon.co.uk Children's Bestsellers lists shows no less than 5 Julia Donaldson books in the top 25, tucked in between the Twilight and other vampire novels. Spawning a sequel and a tv series--not to mention numerous tie-in toys--The Gruffalo, published in 1999 has been ensconced in the top 10 since it's publication and shows no sign of waning in popularity. Just like We're Going on a Bear Hunt, it's a fantastic read-aloud. Donaldson's longtime collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler looks set to become as long-lasting and indivisible as Dahl/Blake. Check out Room on the Broom, a Halloween treat.

Note: The Gruffalo was recently the subject of a BBC article trying to decipher its enormous appeal.

8. Shirley Hughes
Shirley Hughes' Alfie books are synonymous with childhood experiences; the types grown-ups might take for granted but that are monumental in the life of a child. Even when the experience is unpleasant, such as getting accidentally locked inside the house alone, or trying to comfort a neighbor grieving the loss of a pet, Alfie's world is one of patience and understanding and quiet times spent with his little sister, Annie Rose.

9. Anthony Browne
The current UK Children's Laureate is the writer and illustrator of numerous picture books, a format he defends fiercely. Many of his books feature gorillas; all feature a magical realism that is reminiscent of the works of Chris Van Allsburg. Eye-catching, and sometimes eye-popping, illustrations dominate his books, opening the reader's eyes to the wonder of our world and the power of a picture. Two of my favorites are Gorilla and The Piggy Book.

10. Dick King-Smith
I'm rounding off my list with an author who is not known for his picture books (I think the only one he has written is a non-fiction guide to keeping guinea pigs.) But he is an author who was a glaring oversight from the original list. He is everything that is required from a writer for children--he's written loads of books, he is beloved by children and adults alike, and he respects his readers. A farmer at heart, he has based many of his books in the barnyard. The "animal story"is a classic of children's literature, whether used as allegory or simpel literary device. And Dick King-Smith has written some of the best. He earned international acclaim when his Babe: The Sheep Pig was made into an Oscar-nominated film. But before that there was The Fox Busters and, my personal favorite, Martin's Mice.

So there you have it--my list of the Top 10 Greatest British Children's Authors and Books: Picture Book edition. As always, I'd love to hear recommendations and favorites from you.


Playing by the book said...

As a Brit I'd say your list was great - I'd include all of them on a list of best books/ authors. As to the original list, I'm not sure how much Noddy and Peter Pan are still read. I think most British kids will know Noddy from breakfast TV rather than the books (and then it will be the spin-off books that are most bought, I bet, rather than the original), and Peter Pan? I don't think I know any kid you has read that (although some will have seen the Disney film). I notice in the comments to the guest post there will be a future post about picture books... will be very interesting to see what comes up.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I also considered Lucy Cousins, Emma Chichester Clark and comparative newcomer Emily Gravitt for my list. I lived in the UK for six years, but to be honest, I didn't realize the value of the Brit contribution to children's literature until I began working as a children's librarian. Considering that picture books is where the reading journey of so many kids begins, I felt those authors needed some props!

Thanks for dropping by :)

childrencreativity said...

Nice post about "Top 10 British Children's Authors and Books--MY version of the list" for all creative children, it helps a lot in how to guide our child's in their creativity stage. hope to see more soon, Thanks!

Melinda said...

As an elementary school library teacher, I have to say you have a great list. I would add Shirley Hughes Lucy and Tom's Christmas. I read it to my students every year and now that I have a grandson, I will read it to him. It's so sweet!

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