This list would not be complete without Roald Dahl, and although he’s written so many children’s books — almost all of them classics — the most iconic of them has to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Most of Dahl’s stories started life as made-up tales told to his children, and this one is no different. Inspired by Dahl’s childhood, where he tasted chocolates for Cadbury’s and Rowntree in school, this essentially moral tale follows the story of Charlie Bucket and his four fellow competitors’ adventures inside Willy Wonka’s enormous chocolate factory. Needless to say, the book has been an instant classic since its release in 1964 and is still enjoyed by children the world over.
Possibly the newest addition to the list of children’s classics, Rowling’s Harry Potter series is still a huge bestseller, and it’s clear to see why. With its vivid descriptions of magic, wizards, postal delivery by owls and, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (which had children up and down the country waiting for their Hogwarts’ letters for years), Rowling’s skillful blend of storytelling and imagination is truly magical. This series has invested everybody, from children to adults, in the fate of Harry, Ron and Hermione, with the result that it’s possible to enjoy this both as a child and as an adult.
CS Lewis’ seven-book Narnia series often tends to be overlooked and forgotten in favour of his most famous work, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but there’s a good reason for it. The ultimate children’s fantasy of finding a secret world in somebody’s house — in this case, in a wardrobe — comes to life here, as four children find their way into the magical land of Narnia and, ultimately, become its rulers. Though it has been adapted for film and television several times, the book is still as enthralling as ever and well worth a re-read, as much for its engrossing story and use of imagination as well as for nostalgia’s sake.
Though perhaps best known as the book teachers will most often make you read in primary school, Charlotte’s Web is touching and charming enough to stay with you for a long time after that. Following the story of Wilbur the pig’s friendship with Charlotte the spider — and her subsequent efforts to save him from slaughter — the story explores not only the value of friendship but also the experience of growing up and what that means for those you love. Released in 1952, and re-released as a film in 1973, this book is just as enjoyable for adults as it is for children.
Continuing with the theme of animals, another unforgettable childhood book for many has to be Black Beauty. The only novel to be published by Anna Sewell, and written in the last months of her life, the book became a resounding success not only for its engaging viewpoint and story but also because of the issues it raises, not least of which are animal cruelty and alcoholism. Black Beauty’s journey from the aristocracy to working for a London cab owner not only serves to paint a vivid historical picture but makes us care about the characters — the animals as much as the humans.
The Wizard of Oz has become such a resounding cultural icon that it’s difficult to remember when it all first started — as a novel written in 1900 by L Frank Baum. Quite apart from Judy Garland clapping her heels together in the 1939 film adaptation, the book itself is also an engaging read, not least for the exploration of the land of Oz that leads all the way to the Wicked Witch of the East. Thanks to Baum’s extensive imagination and engaging writing style, this book has remained a classic for children for more than a hundred years.