I gave myself 8 to 12 years as the rough guideline for reading ability. There are massive variations child by child within that. Some eight year olds can be reading something that 12 year olds would struggle with, and vice versa. What I like about the 8 to 12 category is that it’s one of the most exciting periods for a child to be reading. Some of the best books for children fall in this category.
It’s also the time when, regardless of their reading ability or their ability to sustain a long story, reading is starting to happen in children’s heads. If you are a parent, take a moment to watch your child reading and look out for rapid eye movement over the page. It’s really exciting. They’re starting to own it, and, as a bookseller, that’s what makes it a joy to get it right—when you sell a book and the child comes back the next day saying, ‘That was amazing.’ That’s the response you get at this age, because reading is amazing for them at this age.
I’ve been bookselling for children for a very long time. Ever since Harry Potter there’s been an explosion in the children’s book market. A lot of money has been thrown into it and a lot of very clever people have been attracted to it as a career. It is very, very exciting as a result. I do feel there are a number of writers who are just spectacularly good at the moment, and I’ve got a small selection of those books in here.
Let’s start with your first choice, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. We no longer have to read about princesses being rescued by princes and living happily ever after. Instead, we learn about real life heroines like…Rosa Parks? Is she in there?
Yes, Rosa Parks, Maria Callas, Amelia Earhart. The range is amazing. It’s spectacular. I wish I had had this book when I was a child. In terms of female role models, it’s wonderful. I took this on holiday over the summer and my 14-year old niece was reading it to my 8-year old daughter and they just couldn’t stop. They were sharing the stories, they’d read one to each other and we’d be regaled with facts. ‘Did you know?’ Or ‘This chemist did this and this astrophysicist did that.’
They’re beautifully potted mini biographies, perfectly phrased. The Maria Callas one brings a lump to my throat every time I read it and it’s only two or three paragraphs long.
There are 100 of them, from around the world.
Yes, from around the world, from the last couple of hundred years or even more, right up until the present day. The facts they’ve chosen about these women’s lives and their achievements are just charming. And it’s a different illustrator for each individual.
It isn’t preachy or overly political. It’s just a celebration of lives well lived, and a huge variety within it, so there really is something for everyone. My daughter now has at least 10 female role models that she can read more about, find out more about, and be inspired by. But it’s not just a book for girls by a long way.
Yes, my 11-year old son enjoyed it as well.
I’ve got my husband flicking through it. It’s a lovely reference book. There’s been a lot about gender neutrality in the press, but I think children genuinely are less sensitive about gender. I used to go into a lot of schools and do reading. 10, 12 years ago, you’d never have got a little boy to pick up a book with a pink cover, because society had so many references to say, ‘Don’t do that.’ Whereas I’ve found that today, they don’t differentiate in that way anymore. It’s more fashionable to not make that judgment.
Book number 2 on your list is The Bookshop Girl, by Sylvia Bishop. Is this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but about books instead of chocolate?
A lot of the comparisons in the reviews mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and there is a comparison in that there’s a competition—but there the similarity ends. It’s warmer than Roald Dahl. I love Roald Dahl, but he’s got a delicious cruel streak. This is kind and witty.
It’s very cleverly put together. She drops little clues that are then skillfully and effortlessly picked up later in the story. It has a very recognisable structure for a children’s story—which is comforting for a young reader. They know where they are. There are baddies, there are goodies. There’s a simplicity to it. Then the author creates the most complicated bookshop imaginable which she describes brilliantly.
It’s very, very funny. I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed throughout it, as did my 8-year old daughter. It’s also rather wise. It imparts good life advice along the way, which comes over as advice from a loving and really rather fun aunt. This standardised structure for a children’s book is so beautifully and imaginatively played with, so beautifully expressed.
The heroine is born in the bookshop, isn’t she?
Yes, she’s found in the lost property when she is five years old and is called Property Jones. That’s the setup. The lady who owns the bookshop and her son keep her. Because they work in a bookshop and live with books, they assume she can read because she’s five, but actually she can’t. Part of the story is about her hiding the fact that she can’t read, but that becomes a mover and shaker in the plot, because she sees things differently. That helps her solve the mystery.
It’s subtly brilliant. Because it’s set in a bookshop and, to a certain extent, is about books and words, she plays with language and the meaning of words as well. The meaning of ‘goodbye’ is ‘God be with you,’ which means that you can come back again. This definition is used to satisfying effect in the plot.
The next book on your list is The Island at the End of Everything.
I was talking about a golden age of children’s literature and the author of this book, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, is up there. She started off as a poet. She writes books that feel like they’ve been around forever, and she’s only in her mid-20s. So she’s precociously brilliant. Her books are objects of excellence.
This book is for the upper end of the 8 to 12 range, so this is for a really pretty sophisticated 11, 12-year old reader.
It’s set on an island where people have leprosy, is that right?
Yes, the girl is called Ami and her mother has leprosy. They’ve only ever lived on this island. It’s based on Culion Island in the Philippines. In the beginning, Ami is content living on her island. The descriptions of tropical island life, the heat, are exquisitely done. You’re there—the colour, the intensity, a beautifully described relationship between mother and daughter, and the mother with this dreadful illness.
Very early on in the book, the island is formalised as a leper colony. The little girl can’t stay with her mother anymore, because she doesn’t have leprosy, so she’s taken away. The story is about her trying to get back to her mother, and it’s full of adventure.
It sounds sad.
There is a poignancy to it. But there’s a joy, as well. It’s never overwhelmingly sad. I do think that children have powerful emotions, especially at this age. They are grappling with sadness, and I think ideas like that are very, very good to confront when they’re confronted with the sophistication that Kiran Millwood Hargrave can bring to it. There are big themes here. It’s adventurous, it’s bold.
This background allows Ami, the young heroine, to show her bravery, her independence, her morality. These are things that young readers are allowed to do too, by reading the book. They’re allowed to experience their own bravery.
One of the reviews said it has a sort of magical quality to it, the book. Is that what you feel too?
Utterly. I find the writing magical. Every sentence is just full of life. She has this zesty way of writing. It’s about bravery and action and strength. Just to give you a taster, here is one of the sentences that stood out for me:
“This is when your heart hardens in your chest, like petals turning into pebbles.”
I think you can learn a lot about writing and creative writing through reading her. You’re not really aware of that when you’re reading, you’re lost in the story, but she demonstrates great writing beautifully, which is really important.
Yes, that’s a good example, because at school children are always being told to put metaphors in their stories.
Yes, she’s got loads in there. Metaphors, similes, everything.
Shall we go on to Winter Magic? This is a book of short stories isn’t?
Yes. Again, this is at the upper end of the age range. It’s really, really hard to choose five books. I felt guilty for leaving certain writers out, so I cheated a little bit and went for a selection of short stories by a range of writers that I admire—Geraldine McCaughrean, Abi Elphinstone, Michelle Magorian, Jamila Gavin, Katherine Woodfine, Piers Torday. It’s a very fine collection.
It’s very varied. The Geraldine McCaughrean story is strange and almost pagan and then there’s more playful, elven fantasy. There’s a good range. I also chose it because I think it’s been slightly underrated. Short stories are an underrated genre anyway, but this is a really exceptional collection. Very bold choices, for girls or boys, it doesn’t matter.
Also, for children who get overwhelmed by trying to sustain a longer book, a sophisticated short story can be a really good way of building up confidence. By the time they’ve finished it, they’ve read a really long book, even if they feel that they only dipped in and out. That’s quite an important step in reading, if you’re a parent worried about that.
I love short stories, because they’re also a great way about learning about the art of creative writing. A short story is a great starting point for a child to take in a whole book. A lot of children do like that, so having some good examples of short stories available round your house is great. H.G. Wells’s short stories are wonderful classics, as are Roald Dahl’s short stories and the ghost stories of M.R. James, which are utterly terrifying. There are similarities in this collection to all of those writers.
We’re now at your last book, Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. This is supposed to be very, very funny.
It is. Where to begin? Full marks to the publisher for really taking a risk.
Who is the publisher?
David Fickling Books. It’s an independent publisher and really worth looking at. He also produces something called The Phoenix Comic—which is great for all readers but especially if you have a reluctant reader in the family. It gave my nephew the inspiration he needed and he is an avid reader now. All the books they publish are really exciting, and of a very high quality.
Why is this book a risk?
Because it is—even by th e standards of children’s books where there’s no real limit on where you set a story or characters that you create. You can do anything you want. But even by those standards, this book is completely out there. It’s uniquely unusual. It may not be to everyone’s taste….
It’s a little bit like the film of The Wizard of Oz, where real life is black and white, and Oz is technicolour. It also reminded me of another book called The Hounds of the Morrigan, which is two children going on a quest in a sort of fairy tale land. This isn’t a fairytale land, but there are similarities.
There are two children who are damaged. The little girl is called Fidge and her father died two years ago in the story—and she hasn’t been able to hug anyone since. Everything’s held inside her. Her cousin has various personality disorders and fears. He has transitional objects and a range of therapists, it seems. These two kids end up on this magical adventure. Fidge’s younger sister has a picture book called The Land of Wimbley Woos, which is a ridiculous book. All bright colours with these silly Wimbley Woo characters, who only speak in rhyme. Everyone knows it by heart because this is the book she asks to be read every night.
By going down the stairs of a cellar and because of a huge lightning strike, Fidge and her very unstable cousin end up in the picture book, and this is where you end up in full technicolour. Everything is bright primary colours here. It’s completely bonkers.
Their quest and adventure takes place in this children’s book and it is a particularly grating children’s book. Because Lissa Evans is so funny and very, very skillful, she can pull it off. Their reactions to the situations, to the large purple creatures, is absolutely real. It makes it even funnier. I just laughed and laughed and laughed. I think I was actually snorting at one point. It’s a good lesson in facing fears and difficulties in life with laughter. I don’t want to get too heavy on this point, because it’s just a very, very, very funny book.
Also, as a parent reading bedtime stories to younger children all the time, I identified with so many of her jokes. She’s gently teasing the genre of over-the-top picture books, with characters that speak only in rhyme. It’s so deftly done, though. It’s unbelievably weird, but, again, I had a lump in my throat at the end. The characters were vividly drawn and I empathised with them completely.
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Zoe Greaves is a children's author and bookseller. She is also children's editor of Five Books.
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