By Kirsty Doole
For many of us that love reading, the seeds are sown in childhood through the books we read or have read to us. Children’s literature was the inspiration for this month’s Oxford World’s Classics reading list and below is just a selection of many classics of the genre that are out there. What were your favourites? Let us know in the comments.
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens / Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie
Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, is an exploration of eternal youth created by J. M. Barrie. This work deals with Peter as an infant who was, we learn, “part-bird”. After overhearing a discussion about his future, adult life, he escaped by flying out the window, and took refuge in Kensington Gardens. He meets a little girl who is lost called Maimie Mannering, a character who prefigures Wendy Darling in Barrie’s later ‘Peter and Wendy’.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden is surely one of the most famous and well-loved of children’s classics. It tells the romantic story of the regeneration of two sickly, spoiled children, Mary Lennox and her cousin Colin, through contact with nature. After she discovers the secret garden, Mary Lennox gradually becomes a healthy, unselfish girl who in turn redeems both Colin and his gloomy, Byronic father. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s inspiring story of salvation gently subverted the conventions of a century of romantic and gothic fiction for girls.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
On first glance, the ‘Alice’ books are delightful, innocent fantasies for children, but on further inspection they are also full of complex mathematical, linguistic, and philosophical jokes. Alice’s encounters with the White Rabbit, the Cheshire-Cat, the King and Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and many other extraordinary characters have made them masterpieces of nonsense, yet they also appeal to adults through the layers of satire, allusion, and symbolism about Victorian culture.
Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes was one of the earliest books written specifically for boys. A true Victorian classic, it has long had an influence well beyond the public school world that it describes. An active social reformer, Thomas Hughes wrote with a tolerance which keeps this novel refreshingly distinct from other schoolboy adventures.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
An old seaman arrives at the Admiral Benbow inn, where the landlady’s son, Jim Hawkins, manages to get hold of his treasure map. Jim gives it to Squire Trelawney and the Squire and his friend Dr Livesey set off for Treasure Island in the schooner Hispaniola, taking Jim with them. Some of the crew are the squire’s faithful dependants, but most are old buccaneers recruited by Long John Silver. This famous tale by Robert Louis Stevenson is arguably a reinvention of the adventure story genre, a boys’ story that appeals as much to adults as to children, and whose moral ambiguities turned the Victorian universe on its head.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
An international children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows grew from the author’s letters to his young son. It is a celebration of the English riverside through the characters of Mole, Rat, and Badger, whose humanization seems to confirm their natural forms and habitations—Rat’s love of the river, Mole’s shyness and simplicity, Badger’s gruffness and solidity—while giving their adventures familiarity. Perhaps surprisingly for a story usually associated with children, it is concerned almost exclusively with adult themes: fear of radical changes in political, social, and economic power. A profoundly English fiction, it is, Peter Hunt argues in the Introduction, a book for adults adopted by children. It is also a timeless masterpiece, and a vital portrait of an age.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
L. Frank Baum’s fantasy was named after the O–Z drawer in his filing cabinet. Dorothy and her dog Toto are transported to bright, colourful Oz, where Dorothy accidentally defeats the Wicked Witch of the West, and with her companions, a Tin Man, a Scarecrow, and a Cowardly Lion, is tricked by the ‘Wizard’ (a ‘Great Humbug’) into finding their missing desires (heart, brain, courage, and Dorothy’s Kansas home). Published at the beginning of the last century, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz immediately captivated both children and grown-ups.
Kirsty Doole is Publicity Manager for Oxford World’s Classics, amongst other things.
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Image credit: Photograph of J. M. Barrie (as Hook) and Michael Llewelyn Davies (as Peter Pan). By Unknown, presumably Sylvia Llewelyn Davies [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons