Favourite worlds in children’s books

ICBDToday is International Children’s Book Day, and this year’s theme is Imagine Nations, so we asked around the office for some of our staff’s favourite imagined worlds from children’s books and got a wonderful selection, old and new.

Celebrated on or around Hans Christian Anderson’s birthday of April 2nd, International Children’s Book Day aims to inspire a love of reading and we hope you find some inspiration below for yourself, or the younger readers in your life.

Kristy: Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree

It may be a little cliched, but I have always been in love with the world at the top of the Faraway tree. The idea of climbing up a tree (one of my favourite things to do when I was growing up) and discovering what crazy land was at the top was the greatest thing ever.

the-magic-faraway-tree-2Oh the land of goodies how I wanted to visit you! And of course the land of presents. And the land of do-as-you-please, who didn’t want to go there? I’m so glad this series was re-released so the next generation gets to experience its magic. Personally now I’d most like to visit the land of dreams. Somehow been forced to take a long nap doesn’t seem as terrible as it once did…

Jess: Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom

It could be argued that even the setting of the most realistic of novels is ‘another world’ – the world created by the author, no matter how it mirrors our own. But my favourite worlds as a young reader were always the more fantastical ones: the Kingdom of Wisdom in The Phantom Tollbooth, the world of Narnia, the mythical Japan in which Ruth Manley set her classic The Plum Rain Scroll, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain. If there was magic, adventure, and preferably talking animals then I was happy.

old kingdom map

Not much has changed since then, but it has actually only been relatively recently that I discovered what is now one of my most beloved worlds: Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom. The Old Kingdom is physically separated (by the Wall) from Ancelstierre, a version of a Western modern-day world with its electricity, cars, guns, boarding schools, radios and so on – but that does not prevent its weird influence from seeping through, especially when the wind is right. How did one society develop such technology while in the other, magic remains strong and all too often the Dead walk? Who built the Wall? Garth Nix doesn’t actually answer these questions, they simply are, and this matter-of-fact approach only adds to the authenticity of his world-building.

Magic systems are dear to the heart of any fan of fantasy fiction, and the Old Kingdom’s Charter marks and Free Magic are more than satisfying in this respect; and the wonderful imagery of the necromantic bells used to fight the Dead is guaranteed to send any reader into daydreams of their own battered leather bandolier – so much trickier than just swinging a sword! (Though swords do come in useful in the Old Kingdom, too). When we first explored the Old Kingdom in Sabriel, it was a depopulated world, full of crumbling ruins, vast glaciers and nests of the Dead hemmed in by rushing rivers; but by the time of Abhorsen, the towns and populace are beginning to revive.

Personally I can’t wait for the publication of Clariel in October; it isn’t just another chance to visit the Old Kingdom, but also to see what it was like in its heyday.

The Secret GardenLara: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden

The garden in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was my favourite imagined world when I was growing up. Because the garden was hidden away from the rest of the world and it had the power to help heal Mary and Colin’s emotional and physical pain, it felt like a magical place to escape to.

It also reminded me of my great grandmother’s garden, which she looked after with great care and was one of my favourite places to play in when I was little. I still have my first copy of The Secret Garden, and it reminds me of what I like most about reading – escaping into another world and the belief that everything will be all right in the end.

Elise: Julie Hunt’s Badlands, Marshes and Hub

Once, long ago and far from here, there were endless marshes, and in the marshes lived a marsh auntie, and that marsh auntie wore a coat with a thousand pockets, and in a pocket of that coat was a pouch, and inside the pouch was a nail, and that nail had the power to open a treacherous story…

‘Imagined nations’ in children’s books immediately brings to my mind the incredible fantasy world of Song for a Scarlet Runner by Julie Hunt. Peat and her sister Marlie live beneath a rock shelf, the Overhang, alone – outcasts. They care for the cows and make cheese, collected once a month by their auntie from nearby Skerrick, where the sun never shines and strangers are decidedly unwelcome. The Overhang is near the place where three roads meet…

One road went west to the Badlands. No one ever passed that way. It was the same with the road to the east – if you followed it you’d end up in the marshes, which stretched forever. Nobody went in that direction, and you’d never expect to see anyone coming from there. Only the road from Skerrick was used, and that was the one I watched, from high up on my ledge.

Peat soon finds herself flung out into this strange world, where she meets the sleek, not a rabbit nor a fox, his mean bright eyes grey-green like the marshes. ‘You’re small and sleek,’ I said. ‘And you are not to be trusted. I’ll call you a sleek.’ Peat travels the Badlands, and discovers the mysteries, the treachery, the sly but gleefully full-of-life magic of the marshes and its marsh aunties…

SongForAScarletRunner

All of this time, Peat is aiming to reach the mystical and much-spoken-about Hub. ‘Circles within circles,’ Eadie cried. ‘Stories within stories. Hub is the centre of the world and the place where the worlds meet. It is the most powerful place to tell a story.’

This is just children’s fiction at its best, the world so rich and twisty and snarky and unexpected and real that it seems to exist even beyond the boundaries of the book. I can’t recommend it highly enough – for ages 9-12, but also for anyone of any age who loves classic children’s fantasy such as CS Lewis, Philip Pullman or TH White.

What’s more, it has just this very day been selected for the shortlist of Readings Books new Children’s Book prize! Read their review of Songs for a Scarlet Runner.

[youtube_sc url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYEOaK-PVz0″ title=”Song%20for%20a%20Scarlet%20Runner%20by%20Julie%20Hunt%20″ autohide=”1″]

Kate: Elizabeth Goudge’s Moonacre

No pen could possibly do justice to the exquisite charm and beauty of Maria’s room. It was at the top of the tower, and the tower was a round one, so Maria’s room was circular, neither too large nor too small, just the right size for a girl of thirteen. It had three windows, two narrow lancet windows and one large one with a window-seat in the thickness of the wall. The curtains had not been drawn across the windows, and through them she could see the stars.

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge opens with Maria Merryweather, recently orphaned, travelling by coach to her new home at Moonacre Manor in the West Country of England. Maria, used to London luxuries, is at first apprehensive about country life, but on arriving at the Manor she realises she is truly home at last. Joining Maria as she explores her new surroundings is like stepping through a stained glass window into a fairytale, for her genial cousin Sir Benjamin tells her that she is to treat the beautiful valley of Moonacre as her personal kingdom. And what a kingdom!

Moonacre

Maria adores each place she discovers, from the manor gardens and open parkland to Silverydew village and Paradise Hill, and she even finds her way through the forbidden pine-wood to the sea. Of course, she soon learns that she is also heiress to an ancient feud, begun centuries before by her wicked ancestor Sir Wrolf Merryweather, and she must atone for his wrongs or be banished from her beloved valley forever. If she is to remain in Moonacre, Maria must become a true ruler of her kingdom, protecting all the creatures in her care, but also giving reparation to all those people injured by her family’s past wrongdoings and determining whether she can live in harmony with her ancestral enemies. There are poachers and secret passages and desperate midnight rescues, and Maria must overcome both her pride and her fears if she is win the right to remain Moonacre’s princess.

It’s a perfect gem of a story, and if there were a way to read yourself into books and live there, this would be my new home.

Georgia: Maurice Sendak’s Wild World & Kay Thompson’s The Plaza Hotel in NYC

I can’t choose between the world of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and inside The Plaza Hotel NYC in Kay Thompson’s Eloise books. Both look wickedly fun and incredibly naughty. Dancing with giant beasts whilst wearing a onesie? Yes please! Or riding the elevators (with Skipperdee the turtle and Weenie the pug) straight from the hotel kitchen to your room all because you feel like a snack? Oh well yes of course, I’d love some pancakes and hot chocolate too.

I know the latter isn’t an imagined place but as a child looking at the beautiful illustrations Hilary Knight creates of New York City in the 1950s it’s an indulgent world I loved as a little girl to one that I still love to dip into today. And with Where the Wild Things Are, where causing mischief and being sent to bed without supper is hideously mean, what better way to indulge your imagination than to grow a forest in your room?

I truly can’t decide between these two fabulous worlds. It probably doesn’t help that these are two of my all time favourite ever books from my childhood. I still have hard cover editions of both. They make me giggle mischievously and smile broadly.

ICBD-Letter
The rather lovely International Children’s Book Day message by Siobhán Parkinson

What a wonderfully diverse selection, and we’d love to know what your favourite worlds to escape to in children’s books are, so let us know in the comments.

  • Willy Lit Fest

    The island in Island of the Blue Dolphin, Kirrin Island in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series.

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