×

Move Over Harry Potter, Here Are The 13 Classic Children’s Books EVERY Adult Should Read




With their big themes and grown-up subtexts here are 13 classics you should have no qualms about reading on the train


World Book Day
in the UK and Ireland is all about encouraging kids to read, whether in paperback, hardback or digital form.

But it also presents parents with an ideal opportunity to share the experience with their children, by re-reading the books they enjoyed when they were younger.

Or by discovering the books they may have missed the first time round.

Harry Potter might have ignited debate about the rights and wrongs of crossover fiction, but with their big themes and grown-up subtexts here are 13 classics you should have no qualms about reading on a (muggle) packed train…

Peter Pan

JM Barrie
First Published: 1911

Read it because: The boy who never grew up is also a story that will never grow old. Peter Pan is the ultimate ode to childhood and the greatest reminder of what it is to be young. It's also a rollicking good adventure story packed with classic characters and packs an emotional punch with a bitter-sweet ending. It is such a powerful story that the name Peter Pan has actually entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a noun, meaning someone who retains childlike qualities.

Did you know: It actually started like as a play, in 1904, subtitled, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. And the book was originally published under the title Peter and Wendy. So Barrie never actually created a work called Peter Pan (although that is the name under which his novel now appears).

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll

First Published: 1865

Read it because: It is a rich, strange and lyrical ode to the imagination; a fantasy set in a perfectly realised, topsy-turvy world populated by characters that have become archetypes, from the Cheshire Cat to the Queen of Hearts via The Mad Hatter and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The language of Carroll alone makes it worthwhile and the response of The Queen to Alice's assertion that she could never believe in impossible things sums up the book's appeal perfectly: "I daresay you haven't had much practice. When I was younger I always did it for half an hour every day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Did you know: Queen Victoria enjoyed Alice in Wonderland so much that she suggested Carroll dedicated his next book to her. So he did. It was called, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations. It wasn't quite as big a hit with the kids, and history does not record whether or not Her Majesty was amused.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Graeme

First published: 1908

Read it because: Toad of Toad Hall! Yes, Badger, Rat and Mole are all decent coves, of course they are, but Mr Toad's the star: privileged, bumptious and infuriating, but also big-hearted, adventurous, funny (whether he means to be or not) and completely loveable, despite all his foibles. Oh, and unmistakably, irredeemably English. The story itself is a beautiful and bucolic patchwork of tales from a riverbank, as first told by Graeme to his son, Alistair. But, ultimately, of course it is about friendship, loyalty and courage.

Did you know: Chapter seven of Wind in the Willows is called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett pinched to use as the title of his group's debut album.

Buy It Now!

The Jungle Book

Rudyard Kipling

First Published: 1894

Read it because: Probably because you (quite rightly) love the 1967 Disney film (or you're excited about the imminent remake), but there's a lot more to the source material than Mowgli, Baloo and friends. It started life as a series of separate stories published in magazines before being collected in one volume in 1894. It was followed by The Second Jungle Book (some marketing meeting, that) a year later. As well as the 'man cub', there is the nearly as famous fable of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the really nowhere near as famous Toomai, 'the elephant boy'. And then read the sequel to find out how Mowgli's story ends up. Spoiler: it's pretty brutal.

Did you know: The film of The Jungle Book was the last feature to which Walt himself contributed. He was the producer and, in fact, fired the original writer Bill Peet, worried that his adaptation was too dark. He appointed Larry Clemmons as the new head writer, handed him a copy of Kipling's book and said, 'The first thing I want you to do is not read this'.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson

First Published: 1833

Read it because: It pretty much invented pirates - or at least the traditional public perception of pirates. One-legged buccaneers with talking parrots on their shoulders, marking treasure maps with an X and dreading the death sentence of the black spot: they all come from Treasure Island. (And yes, okay, maybe Keith Richards and Johnny Depp have moved the needle a bit in recent years). The yarn is spun in the first person by cabin boy Jim Hawkins, and Treasure Island is actually, at its heart, his coming of age story - albeit one where, by the end, no swash is left unbuckled. And if all that wasn't enough, then 'Long John' SIlver is surely one of literatures, earliest, greatest and most complex anti-heroes.

Did you know: Treasure Island first appeared as a serialised story in the children's magazine, Young Folks, in 1881-82, with Stevenson writing under the pseudonym Captain George North.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

First Published: 1943

Read it because: In France it was voted the best book of the 20th century, it's the fourth most translated work of fiction ever - and it's pretty damn out there. The Little Prince tells the story of a pilot who crash lands in the desert and meets a young boy (The Little Prince) who has fallen to earth from a tiny asteroid. Whilst the pilot attempts to repair his plane, the boy tells the story of his life, taking in themes that highlight the purity of a child's imagination alongside the conceit and absurdity of adulthood.

Did you know: The Little Prince was James Dean's favourite book and in the video to Morrissey's debut single, Suedehead, the singer is handed a copy before setting off to visit Dean's hometown of Fairmount, Indiana.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

The Railway Children

Edith Nesbitt

First Published: 1906

Read it because: It's the most Kafkaesque children's book imaginable and ends with one of the great heartstring-tugging lines in literature. The Railway Children tells the story of a family (their surname is not given in the book) who move out of London to live in seriously reduced circumstances in the Yorkshire countryside. The the children, two girls and a boy, befriend the local station porter, Perks, and regularly wave to the passengers on the trains that speed by. They end up befriending one passenger in particular, known as The Old Gentleman, who is eventually able to prove their father's innocence and secure his return to the family. He arrives, of course, by train, and as the steam clears the platform, the eldest daughter, Bobbie, rushes into his arms, crying, 'Oh! My daddy, my daddy'. At which point you will definitely have something in your eye.

Did you know: The central story of injustice is based on the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal surrounding the wrongful imprisonment on espionage charges of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Amongst those who campaigned for his release was the novelist, playwright and journalist Emile Zola who wrote an open letter to the French president calling for Dreyfus' release, published in French newspaper L'Aurore under the legendary headline, J'Accuse.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

Black Beauty

Anna Sewell

First Published: 1877

Read it because: Sewell's aim was to encourage people to be kinder to animals - but, perhaps accidentally, she also showed us how to be kinder to each other. On the first page of Black Beauty, Sewell declares that the novel is 'translated from the equine' and the tale is duly told through the (metaphorically) unblinkered eyes of the titular hero. In fact, the detail of depth and feeling is such that you can't help but suspect the author was the first horse whisperer. Beginning as a carefree colt and then a proud carriage horse, Black Beauty gets injured, cast aside, suffers hardships and cruelty and then eventually rediscovers happiness - telling a very human tale of trial and redemption in the process. The book contains the quote (via one of Black Beauty's owners, John Manly): "There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham." And that doesn't seem to be exclusively about horses.

Did you know: When Sewell was 14 she was injured in a fall, and because her injury wasn't treated properly, she could not walk unaided for the rest of her life. She relied heavily on horse drawn carriages for transport, which heightened her love of horses and concern for the welfare of animals.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett

First Published: 1911

Read it because: Essentially it's about our unlocked potential and, to use an awful modern phrase that Burnett wouldn't have touched with a barge pole, the power of positive thinking. Mary Lennox is the surly product of a tragic childhood who finds herself orphaned, alone and unloved in her uncle's Yorkshire manor. She gradually opens up, learns to make friends and then has the heart and warmth to help a crying, handicapped boy, who turns out to be her cousin, to walk again and reunite with his father. The Secret Garden is supremely uplifting and is the sort of backstory X-Factor researchers would kill for. It could be a paean to nature and the human spirit, but it's most enjoyable as the story of what all children crave, a secret and 'other' world.

Did you know: Burnett died in New York in 1924 and there is a memorial statue in Central Park of two of The Secret Garden's characters, Mary Lennox and Dickon Sowerby, younger brother of Mary's maid, Martha, and the unsung hero of the novel.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

L. Frank Baum

First Published: 1900

Read it because: It's the first and, according to the US Library of Congress, which should know, "America's greatest and best-loved fairytale". It has a lot in common with many other books on this list: a brave girl from a less than idyllic childhood is plunged by mysterious means into a strange world populated by fantastical characters, survives on nerve and wit and eventually makes her way home. The journey, in this case, is, quite rightly, world famous. It is one of the great journeys, of discovery, comradeship and courage. Oh, and they made a film out of it. A modest little arthouse thing. You probably haven't seen it. But if it is ever on, maybe at Christmas time, do try and catch it. It's rather good.

Did you know: The iconic ruby slippers? In the book, they're silver. MGM (the tiny independent studio behind the seldom seen experimental short) changed them to ruby so they would stand out more on the yellow brick road.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

Winnie The Pooh

A.A. Milne

First Published: 1926

Read it because: It's one of Britain's best-loved books (number seven in the BBC's 'Big Read' survey) and Pooh himself is certainly one of literature's most loveable characters. Plus, everyone knows an Eeyore. Pooh is, famously, a bear of very little brain, but very big appetite and even bigger heart. In Hundred Acre Wood, bathed in dappled sunshine, he and his friends play out an idealised version of childhood, leaving darkness and menace for other books and other days. Here, there is only room for happiness.

Did you know: The bear on which Pooh was based was bought for Milne's son, Christopher Robin, from Harrods, and cost 10/6d.

Lassie Come-Home

Eric Knight

First Published: 1940

Read it because: It's the ultimate love story, if love is about overcoming all hurdles to be with your one and only. Because that's what Lassie does. And that sounds a lot like what love is. Or should be. It's also, of course, about family and loyalty and hope and endurance. It is, in fact, the ultimate feel good story and, like half the books in this list, it uses anthropomorphism to teach us about childhood and the human condition.

Did you know: The film version of Lassie Come-Home featured the second big screen appearance of Elizabeth Taylor.

Buy It Now! [Amazon Link] 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Roald Dahl

First Published: 1964

Read it because: A classic morality tale woven together with the American dream leaves room for the delicious demise of some truly horrid (but undeniably memorable) characters who are Charlie's rivals in the covert battle to inherit the Chocolate Factory. And the enigmatic Willy Wonka presides over everything, a man-child who judges not according to adult convention but by a basic adherence to right and wrong.

Did you know: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of 10 books JK Rowling said every child should read.

By Nichola Trayler, Marketing Director, Wordsworth Editions

Previous/Next Posts