Choosing the 100 best books is as difficult as choosing the 100 best sweets
Published on: 11 Hydref 2013 Author: Celia Rees
For Children's Book Week, author Celia Rees tells us about the books she would include in her own best books list.
The Best Hundred Books from the last hundred years? What difficult choices. Rather like choosing the Hundred Best Sweets. Are mint humbugs better than liquorice allsorts? Or flying saucers better than wine gums? How about chocolate limes and sherbet lemons? Or do we choose Haribo or Chupa Chups, because that's what everyone's eating now?
What does 'best' mean? Which books have been left out? Perhaps the list's importance is to act as a departure, a starting point for discussion and exploration.
My own list would include:
A.A. Milne - Winnie-the-Pooh
Richmal Crompton - Just William
Eve Garnett - The Family From One End Street
Gene Kempe - The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler
Jan Mark - Thunder and Lightnings
Beverly Clearly - Ramona the Pest
Rosemary Sutcliff - The Eagle of the Ninth
John Masefield – The Box of Delights
I'm not selecting these books out of personal preference, or because they are special favourites of mine, but because they challenged perceptions of what a children's book should be like, they had longevity and they have been hugely influential on other writers.
Some of these books shouldn't need an advocate. Winnie-the-Pooh has all the characters you will ever need to know in life. William will always be funny, as will Ramona, because of the authors' pinpoint observation of a child's life. The Eagle of The Ninth transformed children's historical fiction; every British fantasy writer owes a debt to The Box of Delights.
A book like The Family From One End Street might have faded but it should not be forgotten. Published in 1937, Eve Garnett's novel questions the class assumptions and snobbery endemic in the children's fiction of the time. The book follows the ups and downs of an ordinary family. Threats do not come from robbers and smugglers (who were always working class, anyway) but from the vulnerability caused by poverty. Her greatest achievement was to say to children who did not go to boarding schools, live in big houses, have servants or their own islands, You can be in books, too.
And they were. As an English teacher in a comprehensive school, I was using One End Street in the 1970's, 40 years after it was published, At the same time, we were reading the gender bending The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler and Jan Mark's Thunder and Lightnings. Jan Mark was an extraordinary writer who went on writing with the same power, passion and common appeal until her untimely death.
Why are these authors still important? Because they took their readers seriously. They wrote well and refused to compromise because to do so would be to talk down and to patronize. They shared the sharpness of their observation with their young readers. Their books are funny, touching and profound by turns because they ring true to a child's experiences, a child's emotions, and serve to set them on the way to a better understanding of themselves and the world around them, the world as it has been and the world as it could be.
In my own category, 12 – 14+, I would have included:
- Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War or I Am The Cheese.
- Aidan Chambers, Letters from No Man's Land or Dance on My Grave.
Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War was first published in 1974 and could well be the best young adult novel ever written. It has regularly been in the top three of the American Library Association's Most Challenged Books, which has to be a recommendation in itself. It is thoroughly uncompromising in style, narrative structure and subject matter. Brilliant, honest, powerful writing that says to the teen reader: 'Here. Read this. I won't let you down, but I won't make it easy.' It is challenging in the right and proper sense of the word, rather than shorthand for 'difficult'. Older teenagers should be challenged, need to be challenged.
Cormier's novel, I Am The Cheese, was one of the first young adult books to use the first person continuous present, but it is used not just to inject immediacy and empathy, but to introduce layers of complexity to the fragmented and fragmenting consciousness of the main character. The telling is anything but straightforward. The reader has to figure out what's going on, which is what makes the book so compelling.
Aidan Chambers is another writer who pushes boundaries. His books deal with hard subjects: love, loss, sexual confusion and orientation and have complex, intricate narrative structures. Like Robert Cormier, Aidan Chambers makes demands on the reader, but this is as it should be. If we are to give older teenagers the literature they deserve, then the best books written for them should not just reflect the complexities of their lives, but also equal the quality of writing to be found in the best of adult fiction.
If I were to make just one choice, it would be The Chocolate War. I owe Robert Cormier a huge debt, as do others on the list. He is one of the main reasons I began writing for teenagers. For me, Cormier is The Cheese. He stands alone.