Category Archives: childrens book

“Mary Poppins” by P.L. Travers

One benefit to reading the 501 books is that my friends all know what to buy me for birthdays – books from the list. This one did double service as I read it aloud to my kids so I can give their feedback too.

As with many books which have also been made into films, there’s a large number of changes made between the two versions of the same story. There’s little bursting into song, for a start! But in this case I preferred the film.

I think this was because I couldn’t warm to Mary. She’s depicted as efficient but incurably vain. She never admits to any of the magic stunts she pulls off, and crucially, I found it dull to read aloud. I caught myself editing the text as I went along – trimming boring passages. Each chapter stood alone as an “episode” so there was little ongoing narrative or character development. Apart from a couple of minor characters (the bird lady and the uncle who takes tea on the ceiling) there wasn’t even much by the way of fun dialogue to act out for the children. So for me, this was a fairly ordinary read and wouldn’t go on the “beloved children’s books” shelf.

However, my kids loved it. So perhaps I’m just showing my age. They adored her and begged for a chapter each night. They too have seen the movie and when pressed for a preference insisted that both were brilliant.

For those of you who do like Mary, the good news is that P.L. Travers wrote five other Mary Poppins books after the first one.

(read August 2012)

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“And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” by Dr. Seuss

Firstly, in case you don’t know, the author’s real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel. Quite a mouthful.

Secondly, yes, I read this for the first time as an adult. That probably gives me an odd perspective in this review, but bear with me. And yes, my parents did buy me books as a child and I belonged to a library, but the Dr. Seuss books just weren’t well known in Ireland in the 1970s.

At a mere 27 pages, this is one of the shortest books on the 501 List and is perfect for children being read to, or those starting to read by themselves. My two, aged 6 and 8 currently, love it, although “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Green Eggs and Ham” beat it to the top spot on their personal Dr. Seuss list.

Illustrated brilliantly by the author, the story describes how a young boy embellishes the things seen on his walk home into an amazing, outlandish tale. I love how the child’s imagination is limitless and it reminds me of writing fiction myself. But I found the ending sad, but realistic, when the boy lacks the confidence to tell his strictly factual father the story.

Now for some background to the book, with thanks to a review of Donald E. Pease’s biography of the author. “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” was Seuss’s first published story, in 1937. It certainly hasn’t dated in the interim. Thankfully he was banned, due to a prank, from editing his college’s humour magazine. He obeyed this by submitting cartoons only and building his artistic talent.

As an adult he wanted to wanted influence the politics and society of the cold war environment and chose to do so via zany children’s literature because children have open minds. He used implausible facts to create a plausible world (from a child’s perspective) and called this “logical insanity”.

Whatever it was, and whatever the motive, it worked. His books delight millions and definitely deserve a place on the 501 list.

(read Summer 2011)

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“Boy” by Roald Dahl

All authors were once children, none more so than authors of books for children. They have that magical ability to remember the joys and sorrows of youth. Roald Dahl had that gift by the bucketload and it led to truly wonderful books like “The BFG”, “Fanastic Mr. Fox”, and many others.

I’m lucky, I think, because I never read his books as a child – somehow I missed out on Dahl. However a friend recently got me the box-set of his entire works for me to read to my own children and we’re loving them together. I was delighted to find the two volumes of Dahl’s autobiography in the set – “Boy” (which is on the 501 Books List) and “Going Solo” (which isn’t).

I enjoy autobiographies anyhow, but I particularly relished “Boy” because Dahl sets out to recount only the stories from his childhood which he can still see vividly in his memory as a middle-aged author. The result is a vibrant tale of mischief, school-days, and strange characters he encountered. Having read all his kids’ books recently it was easy to spot a few things which turn up later in his fiction. There’s his addiction to sweet-shops, some very tall people (including himself), and a plot involving mice. In the later volume, “Going Solo”, which covers his years working for Shell Oil in Africa and then flying for the RAF in World War II, there’s an amazing description of him walking amongst giraffes and talking to them which makes me suspect I know the original of the Giraffe in “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me”.

But for “Boy” he mines his life from age zero to twenty. There are stories of his family’s annual trip to the remote islands of Norway, details of the tuck box system, enthusings about his lifelong photographic hobby, and wince-inducing descriptions of the canings he endured for misbehaviour in school. Any fan of his writing will enjoy this short, and fun life-story, but I think autobiography buffs will enjoy it too because of the light hand he uses in picking out the highlights. There’s a total lack of boring dates and facts, the photos are all interesting, and the details included are well-chosen.

“Boy” could be read by junior fans of his fiction, but I’d suggest keeping “Going Solo” for the ten-plus age range as some of the stories there are more brutal in nature.

In case you’re wondering, Boy is what he signed himself in his letters home from boarding school.

(read March 2012)

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“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

While many of the books on the 501 list are massive tomes, many are shorter and all the more approachable for that. One such is “The Little Prince”. First published in 1943, a year before the author’s death in action, it’s debatable if the story should be shelved with children’s books or on the adult bookcases. I think, perhaps, both.

At only 109 pages and including lovely illustrations by the author, you won’t take long to read the tale of an airman’s discovery in the desert of a little boy who has travelled from a distant planet. The young boy takes a clear-eyed view of our world, and those he has explored.

Anybody who can recall seeing things differently as a child will love this story. Saint-Exupery clearly didn’t regard himself as a boring grown-up, and sometimes even grown-ups need reminding to see into the heart of things.

I can’t wait to read this to my own children as I think it works well on both age levels. I’ll be interested to see what they make of it.

(read February 2012)

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“The Complete Fairy Tales” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

(alternate title used on the 501 booklist – “Children’s and Household Tales”)

I used a few long-gathered Waterstone’s points to get this huge book. At 1019 pages, it took me a while to read (while reading other books) and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read it in one burst, it’s easier to digest in shorter attempts, or you will get fairy-tale overload.

There are 279 tales in this edition, which appears from the introduction to be the most comprehensive collection of their work you can get. It was published by Vintage in 2007 and arranged by Jack Zipes.

The tales vary from the outright chilling, to the moral fable, to the pure silly, and even include a plan for a woman to cheat on her husband with the local clergyman (Old Hildebrand). I was unpleasantly surprised to find some of the tales to be anti-semitic (The Jew in the Thornbush) although given their age it may be understandable. Many tales relate the adventures of old soldiers, cast aside by their monarchs and struggling to get by without any form of pension, or other improverished people seeking their fortunes. Some stories are frank upon the topic of maidenhood, and the consequences of its loss. “The Stubborn Child” – a flash fiction morality tale – includes child-beating, something else you wouldn’t find in modern stories for children. I wouldn’t read all of the tales, or indeed many of them, to my young children without substantial editing for their age.

However adult some of the stories, you can’t read them without realising that Walt Disney and his team mined the Grimm’s work for inspiration on a regular basis through the years. Stories we’ve all heard as children which orginate with the Grimms include; Little Red Riding Hood (Little Red Cap), Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty (Brier Rose), Snow White, the wren becoming king of the birds by hiding in the eagle’s wings, Puss in Boots, Bluebeard, The Princess and the Pea, Beauty and the Beast (The Winter Rose), Rumpelstiltskin (Rumpenstunzchen), and Cinderella – although the original of that tale appears to be Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” in 1697.

I enjoyed discovering that Rapunzel’s story includes a reference to rapunzel lettuce (a.k.a. lambs lettuce). In another flash piece they even attempt to explain why dogs sniff each other.

But of course this is a collection of folk tales and they use all the usual devices; “they lived happily ever after” and “once upon a time”. My favourite was the opening “In the days when wishing still helped…”

I can see how a book like this is invaluable to any student of English (or indeed German, the Grimm’s mother-tongue), and I enjoyed reading the stories, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to recommend it as there’s a great deal of repetition of themes and plots. Also, I was disappointed to find in the introduction that the Grimm brothers didn’t do any folk-tale collecting from the countryside people, but instead relied upon middle-class re-tellers of servants’ tales and then massively re-wrote them into their house “style”.

But if you like your fairy tales before Walt and his crew sanitised them for movie-audiences, this is the book for you. Just remember to bend you knees and lift it carefully.

(read April-July 2010)

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“Charlotte’s Web” by EB White

Yes, I know, most of you read this as children, but somehow I missed this one during an age when I could read more than a hundred books a year. In fact I saw the movie first with my own children. I enjoyed the film but thankfully the usual rule holds true and the book is better. The book is surprisingly good even for an adult reader as it hits themes like loss of innocence, grief, letting our children go, how to express individuality, and the harsh realities of life, death, and farming for meat. I enjoyed the read and am looking forward to reading this one to my children in a year or two. I’d suggest age 6+ as about right for hearing this story, but of course it depends on the child.

(read October 2009)

Books on the 501 list waiting to be read currently – “Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer and “Children’s and Household Tales” by the Brothers Grimm.

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