Reading about Charlie finding his golden ticket, Mowgli coming face-to-face with Shere Khan and Oliver meeting the Artful Dodger on London’s streets are memorable and magical to each and every one of us. And they are worlds, journeys and characters that children are still discovering - and falling in love with - to this day.
So what is it about these classic Puffin books that mean they’re still capable of firing children’s imaginations? Here, Puffin authors, parent bloggers and those within the theatre industry tell us their favourites - and why they believe they’ve stood the test of time.
Recommended reading age: 5+
First published in 1988, it wasn’t long before Matilda won the Children’s Book Award. Vicki Psarais, founder of Honest Mum and bestselling author of Mumboss, tells us why Matilda has had a lasting impression on her.
“I first read Matilda aged seven”, says Vicki. “It’s a timeless story of good overcoming evil, with the legendary author Roald Dahl teaching children everywhere that just because someone's an adult doesn't make them right or kind. The book emboldened me and millions of others with moral lessons which we've carried with us throughout our lives”.
The story focuses on the genius five-and-a-half-year-old Matilda Wormwood who has a trick or two up her sleeves when it comes to dealing with her neglectful parents and her tyrannical headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.
“Miss Trunchbull was the character I pined for when roles were dished out for the school play because she was so vividly horrendous and I thought she'd be a joy to play”, Vicki continues.
“The 'bad guy' characters are always the most fun on the page, and the pleasure is all the sweeter when they receive their comeuppance in the end! A classic and universal story, I can't imagine Matilda being written differently today. That's the power of Dahl. It feels impossible to rewrite or modify his world and the distinct characters he created which live on from generation to generation. My sons adore the book. Eight-year-old Oliver often reads it to his brother, Alexander (aged five) and both count the movie adaptation as one of their all-time favourite films”.
Recommended reading age: 5+
Did you know that Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox was the first UK Puffin paperback? First issued in 1974, Roald Dahl’s classic featured illustrations by Jill Bennett and focuses on the tricky and cunning fox named Mr Fox.
“Fantastic Mr Fox has stood the test of time because it's a tale about human nature,” says Tom Briggs - founder of a long-running dad blog Diary of the Dad. “Mr Fox and his family are true underdogs but persevere and ultimately win - who doesn't like a story about someone underestimated by others sticking it to the man?”
It’s a novel that Tom thought important to introduce to his own children: “I think I was five or six when I first read it and my sons were about the same age when I introduced them to it. I like the dark edge of the story and think it's ever so important that kids learn that there's danger out there. Although the foxes and other animals emerge victoriously, it is at a cost and I love that Roald Dahl never shied away from introducing things like this in children's literature”.
Louise, the owner of Bookishly, also agrees that it’s Roald Dahl’s unique messaging that makes the book so special. “I just love Fantastic Mr Fox because it's just the most wonderful adventure, with extraordinary characters that are easy for kids to understand. It's funny and heartwarming and has a classic Dahl-esque message of how people should behave towards each other. I think that it's still popular today because Roald Dahl's storytelling is completely timeless. It's clear who the good guys are but they are still quite naughty and kids love that!”
In fact, Louise still owns the very version that she first read in primary school: “I first read it [when I was] probably around eight or nine years old and I loved it. I still have my copy: a lovely tatty old Puffin paperback with Tony Ross illustrations. If the book was written today, Mrs Fox might have a slightly different role. She's portrayed as a loving mother and wife, but not much else. Roald Dahl has some great female characters (such as Matilda and Sophie), but perhaps the supporting female characters would have a bit more about them if it was written today - although I do think Mr Fox talks to her as an equal”.
Like Tom, Louise has also introduced this beloved Puffin book to her children - and prompted some important discussions. “My seven-year-old loves Fantastic Mr Fox. We read it to him when he was four or five (using my old copy) and he's listened to the audiobook in the car loads too.
Recommended reading age: 8+
First published in 1938, Noel Streatfeild’s first children’s book revolves around three adopted sisters who mysteriously arrive on a doorstep, sent from the eccentric Great Uncle Matthew (known as G.U.M).
Founder of lifestyle blog More Than Toast, Alice Judge-Talbot believes that it’s Ballet Shoes’ underlying themes that means it’s still just as relevant today: “Despite the book being first published in the 30s, the underlying themes of family, money worries, hard work, successes and failure [have transcended the years]. I absolutely loved this book when I was growing up - my edition is from 1994 so I would have been nine years old when I first read it. Living in the rural countryside, little girls who lived in London (and near the Kings Road) sounded impossibly exotic, with their lives so different from mine. I learned ballet in my local village hall so I love the parallel that my childhood had to their completely different ones”.
For Alice, it was believing so much in the characters that made this book special to her - and she hopes to pass it onto her daughter: “Aside from the flawless and mesmerising storytelling to me, the characters felt so very real. It was almost like they were my best friends, so every time I read the book (which was two or three times a year) it was as if I was visiting good pals for the weekend. My daughter has just turned eight years old so I think it's time I passed on my dog-eared copy of Ballet Shoes! I can't wait for her to read such a wonderful story that was so formative for me in my childhood.”
Recommended reading age: 8+
“The Secret Garden is one of my favourite children’s books as it’s such a magical, enchanting story of Mary and her deserted garden”, says Deborah, Managing Director at LoveReading4Kids. “It transported me right there back then [I first read it around eight years old], and did recently when I picked it up again to re-read it with my son”.
First published in 1911, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett tells the story of Mary Lennox and her discovery of a private walled garden growing roses after being sent to her uncle’s home in England from India.
“It’s a magical story that passes the test of time in spite of it first being published as a book in 1911”, continues Deborah. “The author’s ability to be truthful about her characters is compelling and this is the same for me with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s other fabulous book A Little Princess, which I also remember with such fondness. The message that flows throughout about the power of positivity is a wonderful one and had me welling up at the end”.
For Deborah, part of the charm of the story is the different backgrounds and experiences of the children: “They are brought together by a common love of nature. Today, without servants, these children would never have met and it is unlikely a ten-year-old child would be left to her own devices for months on end without schooling! There was no technology (glorious!) - just good old-fashioned exploration and outdoor fun.”
It’s a story where the characters really develop, particularly the story’s central character, Mary Lennox. “She’s my favourite character as I loved accompanying her on her journey from India to live with her uncle in Yorkshire after her parents die of cholera. As she explores her new home, she blossoms from a disagreeable child whom the children named Mistress Mary Quite Contrary. She starts understanding and experiencing emotions for the first time – realising she’s lonely, hearing truths, softening, learning to laugh, like people, talk Yorkshire and forge relationships. The first time she was given a present by the cottage full of fourteen hungry people via Martha, almost had me in tears. My son who is ten has read it, and he really enjoyed it. It’s on the list for me to read with my daughter (near the top with Ballet Shoes!) It’s just a pleasure reading these classic stories again and seeing them transfix my kids, as they did me.”
Georgina, founder of children’s book review site Toppsta, was also around eight years old when she first read the book. For her, it was a game-changer: “Having previously been hooked on the Famous Five books, I had hit a bit of a reading ‘wall’. Nothing else had quite matched up and I just hadn’t found a book or an author who grabbed my attention. That all changed when I picked up The Secret Garden. I felt as if my faith in books had been restored and there really were other writers with whom I could continue my reading journey (and needless to say, I haven’t looked back!).”
Like Deborah, Georgina was also a similar age to Mary when she first read it: “Perhaps it was because Mary was roughly the same age as I was, but it struck a chord with me that children could have adventures without adults. Like many books which have stood the test of time, it has some universal themes:
● The need to appreciate the good things in your life because there are always others worse off than you.
● That we have the capacity to change our behaviour - and it’s never too late to do so.
● That you can have adventures in your own back garden with little more than a sense of curiosity to get you started.
These threads are what keep the book relevant and appealing for children and adults both then and now. I can’t wait to read this book to my children when they’re a little older.”
Children’s author Abie Longstaff (whose books include The Fairytale Hairdresser series) agrees that it’s the universal themes that mean it still resonates with readers today: “The themes of restoration and recovery, of nature as a healer, of the need for kindness and human connection, are beautiful, powerful and enduring”.
“The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child - a story I returned to again and again”, she says. “I loved the idea of a hidden garden, so well-concealed it was almost another land. The moment of discovery is so deliciously thrilling that I sometimes used to sit in bed and read just those few pages at the end of chapter eight (in fact, my old copy falls open to this very bit!). The story has remained in my heart because it’s more than just a mystery; it’s about grief and recovery, relationships and love. The bitter, disagreeable Mary has to learn to connect with others and to open her heart – the parallels with the neglected, cold garden and Mary are clear; and as the garden grows, so does she.”
Recommended reading age: 9+
Just as The Secret Garden centres around a young orphan girl, so does Anne of Green Gables. For Hollie-Flower-Evans, parenting blogger and founder of Flora Fairweather, it’s because of Anne that the story has stood the test of time: “To me, its success and longevity is purely because of sweet Anne. The story would have had a totally different tone were she not such an optimistic dreamer. She is just utterly wonderful and constantly reminds us to always see the best! I see bits of myself and bits of my Flora [my daughter] in her and her love of the world! I think by being ‘more Anne’ we’d all be much merrier!”
Written in 1908 by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the novel focuses on the adventures of Anne Shirley, an 11-year-old orphan girl who is accidentally sent to two middle-aged siblings. It’s set in the fictional community of Avonlea, located on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Hollie describes this as her ‘dream life location’: “Obviously, there are very few places left today that are as naive and simple as Prince Edward Island, so I’m pretty certain all charm would be lost in translation to iPads, cars, swearing and microwave meals if it were written today! What a hideous thought.”
“Considering it’s a children’s novel, I guess I was quite old when I first read it - I was at university studying Illustration”, continues Hollie. “My best friend at university was from Scarborough and she and her sisters had a summer job at a hotel called Green Gables. They told me what it was named after and so I ‘asked Jeeves’ about the book and borrowed it from the library. I recently read that since it was published it has sold 50 million copies - it is utterly mind-blowing (but unsurprising) that nearly as many people have Anne of Green Gables on their shelf as they do tomato soup in their pantry. Flora is a little small to sit through such long pages at the moment, but even before she was born I knew I’d introduce her to Green Gables far sooner than I met Anne. In fact, I treated myself to the fancy Puffin in Bloom version last year ready for reading it to Flora. I’m determined that Flora will grow up knowing and adoring Avonlea!”
Recommended reading age: 7+
Scott Ritchie - of Scott Ritchie Productions - believes it’s The Wind in the Willows’ themes that have seen it stand the test of time: “I think The Wind in the Willows has remained so popular to this day because it contains a strong story of morals, friendship and loyalty which I think we all seek as individuals.”
First published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame, the children’s novel centres around four anthropomorphised animals. And, even though the story was first published 110 years ago, Scott Ritchie Productions produced a brand-new touring production of it, which played at theatres across the UK.
“I think the reader loves the anarchy and chaos Toad brings to the piece”, says Scott. “His cheek and sense of chaos and fun are something which I think we all enjoy. There is a bit of Toad in everyone - young or old! Toad is my favourite character because he has a heart, but he also loves getting into mischief and doesn't like having chains put on him - which I can identify with. The journey the characters go on is charming and beautiful, which is also why this story is so popular. Also, the difference between the characters is interesting and stimulating.”
For Scott, it was on first reading the story that he knew he wanted to turn it into a stage show: “Believe it or not, I was 42 when I first read The Wind in the Willows - a little before I originally produced the show at The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. I fell in love with the story and made the decision to turn it into a stage show! I chose to do an adaptation of this classic story because I was confident it would make a beautiful theatrical presentation and sit well in front of a family audience. With the correct amount of creative flair and all the elements which make a production exciting, I was eager to mount this story as an exciting piece of theatre. In my production, we adapted a few things for the modern-day within the show, as a nod to the generation of today. For example, Toad has an I-fork and makes a call to Toad-a-phone! However, I think it's important that a young audience get to experience the story the way it was meant and not to digress too much.”
For award-winning and bestselling author of animal adventure books, Megan Rix, she too saw her favourite book come to life on stage: “My first memory of The Wind in the Willows is being read the story by my Dad, who loved the book when I was about five years old. My sister, two brothers and I would listen enthralled to the adventures of Mole, Ratty and funny silly Mr Toad. We were also taken to see a pantomime of the story one year - which was very exciting. Nowadays, we live next to a slow-flowing river with woods to the side of it and as I walk my dogs, Bella and Freya (who are often in the river) and we meet up with other dogs and their human friends, I often think of the river in The Wind in the Willows - and it always makes me smile.”
Not all heroes wear capes! From time travel to unruly orphans, these tales are filled with feisty female heroes, who always stay true to themselves - no matter what.
From the sassy Matilda to the wimpiest kid there ever was, these books are packed with cool characters and magical messages that will delight modern readers.