Aldous Huxley may be best known for his iconic 1932 novelBrave New World, one of the most important meditations on futurism and how technology is changing society ever published, but he was also deeply fascinated by children’s fiction. In 1967, three years after Huxley’s death, Random House released a posthumous volume of the only children’s book he ever wrote, some 23 years earlier.The Crows of Pearblossom tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, whose eggs never hatch because the Rattlesnake living at the base of their tree keeps eating them. After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”
Writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein is one of the most beloved — and quoted — luminaries of the early 20th century. In 1938, author Margaret Wise Brown of the freshly founded Young Scott Books became obsessed with convincing leading adult authors to try their hands at a children’s book. She sent letters to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway and Steinbeck expressed no interest, but Stein surprised Brown by saying she already had a near-complete children’s manuscript titled The World Is Round, and would be happy to have Young Scott bring it to life. Which they did, though not without drama. Stein demanded that the pages be pink, the ink blue, and the artwork by illustrator Francis Rose. Young Scott were able to meet the first two demands despite the technical difficulties, but they didn’t want Rose to illustrate the book and asked Stein to instead choose from several Young Scott illustrators. Reluctantly, she settle don Clement Hurd, whose first illustrated book had appeared just that year. The World Is Round was eventually published, featuring a mix of unpunctuated prose and poetry, with a single illustration for each chapter. The original release included a special edition of 350 slipcase copies autographed by Stein and Hurd.
In the 1940s and 1950s, celebrated American author and cartoonistJames Thurber, best-known for his contributions to The New Yorker, penned a number of book-length fairy tales, some illustrated by acclaimed French-American artist and political cartoonist Marc Simont. The most famous of them was The 13 Clocks — a fantasy tale Thurber wrote in Bermuda in 1950, telling the story of a mysterious prince who must complete a seemingly impossible challenge to free a maiden, Princess Saralinda, from the grip of the evil Duke of Coffin Castle. The eccentric book is riddled with Thurber’s famous wordplay and written in a unique cadenced style, making it a fascinating object of linguistic appreciation and a structural treat for language-lovers of all ages.
For a cherry on top, the current edition features an introduction by none other than Neil Gaiman.
In 1922, nearly two decades before the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, poet Carl Sandburg wrote a children’s book titledRootabaga Stories for his three daughters, Margaret, Janet and Helga, nicknamed “Spink”, “Skabootch” and “Swipes,” respectively. Their nicknames occur repeatedly in some of the volume’s whimsical interrelated short stories.
The book arose from Sandburg’s desire to create the then-nonexistent “American fairy tales,” which he saw as integral to American childhood, so he set out to replace the incongruous imagery of European fairy tales with the fictionalized world of the American Midwest, which he called “the Rootabaga country,” substituting farms, trains, and corn fairies for castles, knights and royatly. Equal parts fantastical and thoughtful, the stories captured Sandburg’s romantic, hopeful vision of childhood.
In 1923, Sandburg followed up with a sequel, Rootabaga Pigeons, telling tales of “Big People Now” and “Little People Long Ago.”
Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie has had his share ofacclaim and controversy, but one thing that has remained constant over his prolific career is his penchant for the written word. In 1990, he turned his talents to children’s literature with the release of Haroun and the Sea of Stories— a phantasmagorical allegory for a handful of timely social and social justice problems, particularly in India, explored through the young protagonist, Haroun, and his father’s storytelling. The book received a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Children’s Book that year.
One of the book’s unexpected treats is breakdown of the meanings and symbolism of the ample cast of characters’ names, an intriguing linguistic and semantic bridge to Indian culture.
Ian Fleming is best-known as the creator of one of the best-selling literary works of all time: the James Bond series. A few years after the birth of his son Caspar in 1952, Fleming decided to write a children’s book for him, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang didn’t see light of day until 1964, the year Fleming died. It tells the story of the Potts family and the father figure, Caractacus, who uses money from the invention of a special candy to buy and repair a unique, magical former race car, which the family affectionately names Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Fleming’s inspiration came from a series of aero engines built by racing driver and engineer Count Louis Zborowski in the early 1920s, whose first six-cylinder Maybach aero engine was called Chitty Bang Bang.
The original book was beautifully illustrated in black-and-white by John Burningham and was soon adapted into the 1968 classic film of the same name starring Dick Van Dyke.
Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, the 42-year-old Hughes decided to channel his love of jazz into a sort-of-children’s book that educated young readers about the culture he so loved.The First Book of Jazz was born, taking on the ambitious task of being the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best. Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Hughes even covered the technicalities of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation,blue notes, harmony — with remarkable eloquence that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, exudes the genuine joy of playing.
Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can hear them here.
For more on rare and out-of-print children’s books by famous 20th-century “adult” authors, I really can’t recommend Ariel S. Winter’s beautifully written, rigorously researched We Too Were Children enough.
Melvin Burgess Building a children's library Monday 17 April 2000 17.10 BST
Last modified on Saturday 5 July 200813.25 BST
One minute they are children, the next they are adults. One minute they are reading Frances Hodgson Burnett and the next Angela Carter. Five years ago, most bookshops didn't even have a young adult or teenage section. Now they are bursting to the seams with TV tie-ins and spinoffs and fantasy horror novels. More encouragingly, the last few years have also seen a huge increase in quality writing for young people. Writers such as Melvin Burgess and Phillip Pullman are not simply writing bridging books, but novels that stand alone in their own right and deserve to win prizes in any category of fiction. From these books it is no leap at all into the big pond of adult fiction, merely a swallow dive.
Troy by Adele Geras (Scholastic, £14.99)
You thought mythology was dull? It isn't in this chunky retelling of the most famous Greek story of the all. Geras takes a below-stairs and strongly female perspective to weave an epic drama that she tells with wit, wisdom and a fresh-minted straightforwardness that reminds the reader of an oral storytelling tradition.
Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley (Orchard, £4.99)
The world of the child soldier is evoked in this challenging novel that tells the story of Kaninda, a former rebel soldier in an African war, brought to London as a refugee. But Kaninda is determined never to forget what has happened to him and here he finds a different kind of war going on between street gangs on the Docklands streets. This is one of those rare novels that shows you a familiar world through the eyes of an outsider. A strong, uncompromising book.
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff (Faber Children's Classics, £4.99)
How do young women build lives for themselves when struggling in difficult circumstances? What do we mean by friendship and family? Some of the answers can be found in this American novel, a book about free form lives written in a free form verse style. There is something exquisitely delicate, but also very tough, about it as it recounts the relationship between a fourteen-year-old girl desperate to escape the poverty of her upbringing, and the struggling single mother for whom she babysits.
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (Puffin, £5.99)
A holiday in Cornwall, an ancient treasure map and a search for lost Arthurian treasure. This is the first book in Cooper's terrific The Dark is Rising fantasy sequence, in which the triumph of good against evil is always in the balance. These are books in which the writing is infused with the wildness of the elements. You can buy all five novels in one volume, which is good value at £11, but the print is a bit on the small side. Better to buy each novel as a singleton.
Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman (Scholastic, £5.99)
Lyra must overcome terror and life-threatening perils in her quest to find a friend who has disappeared. Like a modern more grown-up version of Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, Pullman's beautiful, sparely written book is a real page-turner that even the most sophisticated adult would find hard to resist. With the help of her friendly daemon, Lyra travels to the dark North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch queens fly through the frozen skies. A fantasy book to rival the very best, this is the first in the Dark Materials trilogy. We guarantee they'll read the next two, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (Collins, £5.99)
Whisked from his hobbit hole by Gandalf the Wizard and a band of dwarves, Bilbo Baggins finds himself unwillingly caught up in plans to seize the treasure of Smag, a big and dangerous dragon. Originally published in 1937, this was one of the first fantasy novels, and it stands up well against the modern ones: it may not be as scary, but it has wit in its favour. Older readers will move with ease on to The Lord of the Rings.
Flour Babies by Anne Fine (Puffin, £4.99)
Simon and his class are given six-pound bags of flour to look after as though they were real babies. Through this curious school project Simon begins to understand something about the strains of parenthood and why his parents behave as they do.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (Puffin, £5.99)
A memory novel set in Mississippi during the 1930s. Cassie, a young black girl, doesn't understand why the farm means so much to her father. Cassie is a really memorable creation, a determined and strong-willed girl who learns to fight for both her family and her principles in a world of racial hatred and destruction.
The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang (Puffin, £4.99)
Alice has spent two years hiding in a basement, shielded by her loving family from all knowledge of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. But now they have been discovered, and Alice and her grandfather are in a cattle truck being herded with hundreds of others towards their final destination. Pausewang's remarkable book, surely inspired by the Anne Frank story, is cool and uncompromising, as much about Alice's journey of self-discovery towards adulthood as about the holocaust. Like so much in this novel, your heart cracks at the final image of Alice raising up her arms, unwittingly embracing death.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (Puffin, £4.99)
Nobody should grow up without reading what is perhaps the most famous diary of them all. Written between July 1942 and August 1944, it details the growing pains of a young (13 at the start of the diary) Jewish girl hiding with her family from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic. The diary ends abruptly: the family were discovered and Frank was sent to a concentration camp, where she died of typhus. It is impossible not to respond to the guilelessness of the writing and the portrait of a young woman so vividly alive for such a short time.
Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
(Puffin, £5.99) Willie is evacuated to the country as Britain is on the brink of war. A sad, deprived child, he slowly begins to thrive under the care of old Tom Oakley. But then his mother summons him back to London. A wonderful, warm book in which the emotion is always beautifully controlled but deeply felt as it charts the mysterious ways of adults and the pain of growing up.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London (Puffin, £2.99)
Classic adventure story about Buck, a dog born to luxury who is betrayed and sold as a sledge dog. He escapes captivity to become the leader of a wolf pack.
River Boy by Tim Bowler (OUP, £3.99)
"You are not the same person at the end of this book" was the verdict of the Carnegie judges who awarded Bowler's book the Gold Medal back in 1998. There is something distanced yet intense about Bowler's writing style, as though the ordinariness of everyday life has been lifted into a kind of hyper-reality. And that is what it feels like for Jess, whose grandpa is dying in hospital and who refuses to let go.
Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells (Puffin, £4.99)
Swindells's thought-provoking novel deservedly won the Children's Book Award. It is a tough story about Danny, who survives a nuclear holocaust and has to find a way to survive in the most desolate of circumstances.
The Friends by Rosa Guy (Puffin, £4.99)
A powerful story about friendship set in New York, where newly arrived West Indian Phyllisia Cathy strikes up a friendship with the dynamic Edith.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Puffin, £3.99)
Great bleak, romantic novel. Hit your teenage girls with this and they'll never start on Mills & Boon.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (Puffin, £3.99)
Ditto everything said about Wuthering Heights.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Puffin, £3.99)
A great way in to Sherlock Holmes, the faithful Watson and the dastardly Moriarty.
The Scarecrows by Robert Westall (Puffin, £4.99)
Intelligent and menacing novel from another Carnegie award-winner, which tells of a boy and his family brought to the brink of destruction by sinister external forces.
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (Puffin, £5.99)
A tale of sibling rivalry between twin sisters Caroline and Louise, seen from the point of view of the latter, who feels that her sister - the elder by just a few minutes - gets everyone's love and attention.
The Outsiders by SE Hinton (Collins, £4.50)
Published in 1967 when Hinton was 17, this book became an overnight classic. It captures all the terror and excitement of being an American teenager, which feels here like being a cowboy in the Wild West. The violent ganglands of America was also the setting for another Hinton classic, Rumblefish (Collins, £3.99), the tragic story of Rusty Jones, whose one ambition is to be like his elder brother, Motorcycle Boy.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Puffin, £3.99)
The great thing about getting hooked on Dickens is that there are so many of them. In my experience teenagers either love or hate him, and there is absolutely no in between. Puffin also do abridged versions in this series of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. Audiobooks are a good way in - Hugh Laurie does a superb rendition of Great Expectations (Puffin, £7.99).
Talking in Whispers by James Watson (Puffin, £4.99)
A tense, political thriller set in Chile about an outlawed teenager who flees oppression at the hands of the Junta.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Arrow, £5.99)
Harper Lee's great novel about race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s is seen through the eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, two youngsters whose father is a lawyer defending a black man charged with raping a white woman. A really good read, and a wise and compassionate book.
Junk by Melvin Burgess (Penguin, £4.99)
"A love affair you'll never forget" is the promise on the cover of Burgess's brutally honest book about teenage runaways Tar and Gemma - who love each other, and heroin. Burgess doesn't try to hide anything, dress drug addiction up, preach or moralise. He simply writes it as it is from the point of view of 14-year-olds who see all the attractions of heroin and none of the dangers. This isn't an issue book, it is a great novel that you consume in one great adrenaline rush. If you ike this you'll also love Burgess's The Baby and Fly Pie (Puffin, £4.99), a thriller about a group of children living on the streets, and Burning Issy (Hodder, £4.99), a haunting nightmarish tale set in the 17th century when the witchfinder scoured the countryside looking for women to burn.
Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty (Collins, £4.50)
Helen and Chris are on the brink of adulthood, and should have been looking forward to starting college. Instead they are coping with the idea of becoming parents. Carnegie Medal award-winning novel that captures all the intensity of teenage first love and its consequences.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Puffin, £2.99)
Puffin's slightly abridged version helps bring out the pointed wit of Austen's tale. Some just don't get the point until they are in their 20s, although Colin Firth and co have led to a run on this in households with teenage girls.
Author and illustrator Dick Bruna died yesterday, at the age of 89. In celebration, here is an interview he gave in 2008 about how he came to create the £150 million rabbit.
Dick Bruna has already made tea and brought over biscuits, and now he leans forward from a chair in his airy, top-floor Utrecht studio. Spectacular white walrus whiskers twitch expectantly and behind a pair of oval spectacles, his eyes twinkle.
Dick Bruna, the 80-year-old creator of miffy, the £150 million rabbit, leads a life of almost zen-like simplicity - or at least he would if it weren't for the Japanese groupies.
By Horatia Harrod 4:01PM BST 31 Jul 2008
Dick Bruna has already made tea and brought over biscuits, and now he leans forward from a chair in his airy, top-floor Utrecht studio. Spectacular white walrus whiskers twitch expectantly and behind a pair of oval spectacles, his eyes twinkle. This man - Geppetto made flesh - does not look or behave like the head of a global empire worth about £150 million annually. But Bruna is not your typical multi-millionaire mogul. No, he's the creator of Miffy, the world's most popular rabbit (and think for a moment of the competition for that title: Br'er, Peter, Roger...), whose modest adventures have sold more than 85 million storybooks, been translated into 40 languages, and whose clean, simple little face (two dots for eyes, a cross for a mouth) is recognised throughout the world. Hers is the first gaze I meet when I walk into the arrivals hall at Amsterdam airport, staring blankly from a shiny helium balloon. Later, I see her on pencils and building blocks, fridge magnets and school satchels, stitched together in plush and, most spectacularly, cast as a gold-plated statue.