As frequent visitors to my site will know, my main passion in life is the work of the Brontë siblings, and more specifically, the early works, or juvenilia of Charlotte and Branwell. The general consensus is that juvenilia are works written by authors who are under the age of twenty, or, in a nutshell, the works of child authors. That’s right, not just literature written for children, but literature written by children. There are however many issues which complicate this definition of the term juvenilia, including the fact that sometimes texts written by adult authors are labelled as juvenilia, including Charlotte and Branwell’s later Angrian stories.
Over the years I’ve pondered exactly what it is that draws me to juvenilia. Is it simply my love of the Brontës? Or is it actually my love of children’s literature more generally? Initially it was my love of the Brontë sisters’ adult works and my delight at discovering there was far more material lurking in their literary canon than just seven novels, that this material far outweighed their novels, and that their supposedly good-for-nothing brother Branwell was equally as talented and creative as his sisters. My discovery of their juvenilia was like winning the jackpot or successfully mining for big, fat, juicy nuggets of gold. Although, as previously stated, there are many adult works in the Brontë juvenilia canon, their childhood works are not just literary curiosities, but evidence of a long literary apprenticeship, and proof that the lonely, isolated children of the Yorkshire moors were perfectly able to take the time to experiment, play, and have fun; many aspects of their youth may have been bleak, but there was also a lot of love, laughter, admiration, respect, rivalry, and creativity to be found in Haworth’s parsonage, the evidence of which lies nestled between the words and lines of their youthful literary creations. Although the Brontë siblings initially wrote exclusively for one another in childhood, it is perfectly possible for adult readers such as myself to enjoy these works, which uniquely are written by and for children. This got me thinking about other children’s texts that can be enjoyed by adults, and whilst there aren’t too many narratives written by children which are available and accessible besides the Brontës’ and Jane Austen’s early works, there are plenty of stories written for children that can be enjoyed and by adults.
I’ve come up with a list of six gems of children’s literature that I particularly adore, and which can be enjoyed by all ages. I’m not going to go into great detail about these texts or attempt to analyse them, instead these are summaries of some truly great children’s books that can also be enjoyed by adults, particularly if you did indeed read some of these in childhood like myself and find them to be just as good as you remember.
Matilda (1988) by Roald Dahl
I can’t come up with a list of children’s literary gems and fail to include the greatest children’s writer of all time, Roald Dahl. Dahl’s books not only kept me entertained for years during my childhood, more importantly they kept me reading and taught me that reading could be fun, making me hungry for more and creating the bookworm that I am today. It was published the year I was born so I have quite literally grown up with this one, and the fact that it still makes it into my top ten books of all time demonstrates not just the power of nostalgia, but the power of Dahl’s story telling and his fascinating, wonderful, and sometimes alarming literary creations. The fact that Quentin Blake’s illustrations continue to feature in modern re-prints is also testimony to his brilliance as an illustrator, and his ability to tap into Dahl’s imagination and bring these characters to life visually. They really were a fantastic and formidable team. Let’s hope Blake’s illustrations are never replaced.
The story concerns a brilliant, intelligent, and precocious child named Matilda Wormwood, a lover of books who is neglected by her lazy and crooked parents in favour of her older, unexceptional brother. When Matilda finally achieves her dream of attending school, she, her school friends, and beloved and gentle teacher Miss Honey, are terrorised by the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda must use all of her learning, cunning, and new found skills to teach the adults who have treated her so cruelly a lesson they will never forget.
The Secret of Platform 13 (1994) by Eva Ibbotson
You may have heard of this one due to its similarities to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), but Ibbotson got there first with her story of a boy who enters a magical realm via a platform at London’s King’s Cross Station. Under platform 13 is a door which transports Ben to a world he had never dreamed of, the Island, which is full of magical creatures, including witches and wizards, and a giant named Hans. However, this door only opens once every nine years, and so the magical figures who spill over into the non-magical realm finally have an opportunity to find their lost prince who was stolen from them nine years ago. Unfortunately, the prince named Raymond is a spoiled rich boy in the form of Rowling’s Dudley Dursley, and he has no intention of going with his magical rescuers. The group must race against time and with Ben’s help, try to return their prince before the door closes, however, in addition to Raymond’s reluctance, his evil mother will stop at nothing to thwart Ben’s plan. Read it and you’ll be absolutely amazed by the similarities with Philosopher’s Stone, however, don’t for one second think that if you’ve read Rowling’s text, you don’t need to read Ibbotson’s; The Secret of Platform 13 has its own story to tell and Ibbotson is a charming and brilliant writer.
The Graveyard Book (2008) by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s book has without a doubt the most curious premise of all the books on this list, and not a particularly child-friendly one at that, but it’s a book I would have devoured in my own childhood, and one that adults can appreciate due to the slighter darker ideas it contains. A baby boy escapes the murderer who is responsible for the deaths of his parents, and finds not only safety, but life inside a graveyard. The story follows Bod as he grows up amongst the ghosts of the graveyard, learning life’s lessons from the dead and fearing the murderer will one day track him down. As time passes, the question of whether Bod will survive into adulthood is finally answered and the ending is one that will stick with you and haunt you forever, but perhaps, not in the way you would expect. Although Gaiman’s Coraline is beautiful and haunting, for me The Graveyard Book is just that little bit better.
Charlotte Sometimes (1969) by Penelope Farmer
Charlotte Sometimes is a real underrated gem of children’s literature featuring a boarding school, time travel, and issues of identity. Arguably a sort of 1960s literary Freaky Friday, the story centres on Charlotte who finds that she has somehow travelled back in time more than forty years to 1918 shortly after starting boarding school. The teachers and students believe she is a girl named Clare, the girl who mysteriously changes places with Charlotte each night, alternating between the past and Charlotte’s own time. The girls never meet one another, but communicate by writing notes to one another across the decades as they try to find out not only what has happened, but how to live as somebody else without being discovered. Complicating things further is the presence of Clare’s younger sister, Emily, and the Great War, which has not yet ended, and the effects of which are all too clear for those left behind. I really can’t rate this book highly enough; it’s fantastic and deep without being overly complicated and too clever for its own good. There’s an absolute sucker punch of an ending too.
Daddy-Long -Legs (1912) by Jean Webster
Webster’s epistolary novel and coming of age tale still feels remarkably fresh despite its age. When Jerusha “Judy” Abbot finishes her education, she is unsure of what to do next and finds herself working in the orphanage she grew up in. When a trustee of the orphanage offers to send Judy to college, she gladly accepts. The only requirements are that Judy must write to her benefactor every month (she calls him Daddy-Long-Legs), and that she can never know his identity. Although Judy enjoys her time at college and develops socially and intellectually, despite the attentions of a handsome potential suitor, and her growing disobedience towards her mystery benefactor, her thoughts are never far from a man she can write to, but must never know. This is no fairy tale, but a story of independence and the transition into adulthood, one which adults can certainly relate to. This is one that will keep you guessing until the very end.
Liar and Spy (2013) by Rebecca Stead
The most recent book on this list, Liar and Spy is a charming and short novel about friendship, games, truth, and reality. The story follows Georges as he moves into a new apartment block after his father loses his job. It is there that Georges meets twelve year old Safer and his younger sister Candy, who recruit him to their spy agency. In between getting bullied at school, refusing to open up to his dad, and missing his mum, Georges is charged by Safer to track down the mysterious Mr. X and discover exactly what he is doing with those suitcases in the flat above. As Safer grows more demanding, Georges begins to wonder exactly what is going on, what he has gotten himself into, and how far he is prepared to go for his friend.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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