The 20 greatest children's books ever – what the voters say
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5. The Hobbit (words and illustrations by JRR Tolkien, 1937)

The classic fantasy novel The Hobbit is set in Middle Earth, and follows the journey of hobbit protagonist Bilbo Baggins, wizard Gandalf and 13 dwarves. On their episodic quest to reclaim the dwarves’ home and treasure, they encounter conflict and danger, and Bilbo gains a new level of maturity and wisdom. Bilbo Baggins is, says UK-based illustrator Jim Kay, “an unlikely, diminutive protagonist in a beautifully realised world” – the novel is “still a joy to read, and it rattles along at a wonderful pace”.  Children’s author and broadcaster Chris Smith credits The Hobbit with leading him to a whole new world of reading: “Not only is this an amazing story for children, it’s also the ultimate gateway book because it unlocks the enormous world of [sequel] Lord of the Rings. When my teacher read us this book in year nine it blew my mind,  and started me off on a reading journey that’s still going strong, and still feels unexpected 40 years later.” US author Christopher Paolini, meanwhile, describes The Hobbit as “a perfect fairy tale for young and old alike. Tolkien captured magic with this one”. 

6. Northern Lights (Philip Pullman, 1995)

The first of the trilogy His Dark Materials, the powerful Northern Lights is set in a parallel universe dominated by the Magisterium, where Lyra Belacqua – accompanied by her “daemon” – travels to the Arctic to search for her missing friend Roger and her imprisoned uncle Lord Asriel, who has been experimenting with a mysterious substance, “Dust”. Pam Dix, chair of IBBY UK, recalls how the novel  “exploded into the children’s fiction world. Bringing together a multiplicity of concepts in a format that is more than fantasy, more than historical fiction, a new form”. Lisa Sainsbury of the University of Roehampton says: “When Philip Pullman conceived of daemons and created a world for them, he conjured one of the potent metaphors of children’s literature. Northern Lights (and His Dark Materials) offers the means through which to explore the mysteries of childhood and growing up, and renders these experiences through a bold expression of girlhood. Northern Lights makes childhood matter, long after we have moved into realms beyond it.” Writer and journalist Beverley D’Silva praises the novel as “life-changing, cosmic storytelling”. 

7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (words by C S Lewis; illustrations by Pauline Baynes, 1950)

CS Lewis’s fantasy novel is the first – and the most celebrated – of seven novels in the Chronicles of Narnia. A land of talking animals and mythical creatures ruled by the evil White Witch, Narnia is the setting in which four English schoolchildren find themselves, after travelling there through a wardrobe in the country house where they are staying. Their adventures lead them to meet the lion Aslan. “With the publication of this book, we learned that we could enter another world through the back of a wardrobe, and our world was never the same,” says US-based writer Ellen Kushner. While US author Christopher Paolini  writes: “Step through this door into a new world… Isn’t that the basis of so many stories? Lewis perfectly captured that feel, and his characters are lively and memorable, as is the land of Narnia. As with all great stories, the ending is a bit bittersweet, and leaves one yearning for more.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is “just a magnificent book”, says Tine Nielsen of Babel-Bridge Literary Agency, Denmark, “with so many compelling characters, so many layers and so many memories that will stay with you for the rest of your life”.  

8. Winnie-the-Pooh (words by AA Milne; illustrations by EH Shepard, 1926)

Set in the fictional Hundred Acre Wood, the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh follows the adventures of anthropomorphic bear Pooh, and his friends Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo. Its sequel is The House at Pooh Garden. “An unforgettable story of friendship” is how Theresa Rogers, professor of education at the University of British Columbia, Canada, describes it. “Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and the rest are affecting characters that young readers take with them throughout their lives (as have I).” Katrin Lilija, editor-in-chief of Lestrarklefinn, Iceland, also has happy memories of reading the book as she grew up: “Winnie the Pooh is a book I enjoyed with my father as a child. The innocence of Pooh bear has stayed with me since my childhood, along with some memorable solutions and misunderstandings he and the other animals in Hundred Acre Wood make. The story of Pooh is a book I read to my children.” UK author MG Leonard is also a fan: “The humour [and] the perfectly observed idiosyncrasies of each character throughout these gentle stories about growing up are unsurpassed. I was read these stories, then read these stories, and have then gone on to read them to my own children.”

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