First Books

Animals & More from England

During the shelter-in-place period, it was really sad to think about kids without books, since the public libraries were closed. I had to figure out a way to let people use my library, without danger to me or to them. My son was reluctant to let anyone in the house, but my library is really separate from our living space. I set up a system of appointments, so only one family would come at a time, and suggested that they ask ahead of time for books they wanted, so I could have them ready and they would step inside just long enough to pick them up. While I missed chatting with people and watching kids play with the toys that are a part of my library (no toys are out just now), it has felt good to know that families are still getting books. And I can still talk briefly to people from my porch as they are leaving.

In my last column, I wrote about biographies of people who lived in England. In this column, I want to share some of the many wonderful fictional books set in England. In my summer reading game in 2019, the participants loved discovering books and series they had not previously been aware of. They were charmed by the delightful animal stories so prevalent in England, the wonderful fantasies, and stories with historical settings.

Animal Stories

For the younger reader, there are some great picture books. Everyone loved Graham Oakley's

Church Mice books, with their amazing illustrations. These very funny books are set in a little church in an English village which has many mice and one cat. The animals not only get along but also often end up as heroes in surprising ways.

Of course, there are the Beatrix Potter books, some of which are much-loved while others seem a little strange, but all of which are delightfully illustrated. There are also some take-offs on these ever-popular books. One is Dear Peter Rabbit by Alma Flor Ada, which consists of letters written to Peter Rabbit by other famous storybook characters, such as Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs, and Peter's responses.

The original Paddington Bear books are chapter books for older kids, but many picture books have now been published, making the marmalade-loving London bear available to younger children. One of these is Paddington Bear: My Scrapbook. Filled with colorful pictures and even containing fold-outs, this book begins with Paddington's early life in "darkest Peru" and goes on to tell of his trip to England and all his new adventures.

Of course, there are the books about Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne, beloved for generations, with editions suitable for both younger and older kids. A special book relating to Winnie is Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick. Beautifully illustrated, it tells the true story of a Canadian veterinarian who rescued a female bear cub he named Winnie (for Winnipeg), and made plans to take her with him when he went to England to tend soldiers' horses during World War I. By the time they arrived in England, however, the bear had gotten too big, so the vet left her at the London Zoo, where Christopher Robin met her and became a fan, naming his own favorite stuffed bear after her. One little girl in my summer reading program had this book read to her multiple times and could barely let it go.

James Herriot, the famous Yorkshire vet, has written a number of stories appropriate for young children and lovingly illustrated by Ruth Brown. These include Smudge, the Lost Lamb, Moses the Kitten, and Bonnie's Big Day, among others. These books can also be found in a collection.

Jill Barklem has written a series of popular books about the mice of Brambly Hedge, full of detailed and delightful illustrations. People who discover one of these books always come back for more. Also charming are the Teddy Bear books by Phoebe and Selby Worthington. In each simple book, Teddy Bear has a different role—as a farmer, baker, postman, and so on.

For Little Ones

A favorite series of mine is the set of "The Story of" books by John S. Goodall. These books are wordless, yet packed with information. In The Story of a Castle, you watch in wonder as a castle is built and then changes over time, through the different periods in English history. Other books chronicle The Story of an English Village, The Story of a Main Street, and The Story of a Farm. Goodall has also done a series about a pig named Paddy and a mouse named Nancy.

But the picture book read by the most children in my game was Will's Quill by Don Freeman. An adventurous goose goes to London and meets William Shakespeare. After taking part in a play, the goose offers one of his quills to Shakespeare, allowing him to finish his first great play.

Finally, there are the many books by Shirley Hughes, with their lovely illustrations. A favorite series is about Alfie, an adventuresome little boy who tends to get into scrapes, including accidentally locking his family out of the house. Another favorite Hughes book is David and Dog, or Dogger in England. A boy has a special stuffed animal that mistakenly ends up in a rummage sale. His big sister eventually rescues it, with some sacrifice on her part. It's fun to read both the American and English versions and note the differences in language.

For Older Children

Going on to longer books, for older children, here are a few that should not be missed. A favorite of a reading tutor who uses my library and is very selective about books is Mary Norton's Bed-Knob and Broomstick. It's full of magic and fun. Also by Norton is a series about The Borrowers, a family of tiny people who live a rather precarious life under the floorboards of an English country house. Five books relate their adventures trying to survive in a large and sometimes hostile world.

Of course, children shouldn't miss the E. Nesbit books, especially The Railway Children, about brave children living under a cloud of worry in the country after their father has been falsely accused of spying. Nesbit's fantasy stories are also wonderful, and funny, including Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet.

Noel Streatfeild is a favorite author among preteen and teenage girls. Ballet Shoes is the first and best known of many "shoe" books, about talented girls who work hard to perfect their skills. Often the girls find that they are good at something other than what they thought. Other authors not to miss are Enid Blyton (great adventures), Joan Aiken, and Rosemary Sutcliff (my personal favorite for historical fiction).

A favorite adult author of mine is Elizabeth Goudge, but she has also written for children. I love The Little White Horse, and several people have become partial to Linnets and Valerians.

There are many great historical novels for older readers. Just to mention a couple, there is The Shakespeare Stealer, first in a series by Gary Blackwood, in which a young boy is sent to secretly copy Hamlet but instead joins the troupe. A long-time favorite set in the Middle Ages is The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, about a crippled boy who finds his own way of serving the king.

These are just a tiny fraction of what is available among books set in England. There is so much more to discover, once you begin. 

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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