Author of newly released Under Loch and Quay, Alice Westlake, shares her summer reading recommendations (for children aged 4+) as we enter into (arguably) the best season of the year…
It’s nearly the end of term, which means it must be time to stock up on brilliant books for those long, hopefully sunny, weeks of freedom ahead.
Look, I know you’re an avid reader. I know you don’t need a certificate from a summer reading scheme to get you to pick up a book. The 6 weeks holiday is a great opportunity to explore some new authors and genres, get outside your comfort zone… who knows, by the end of the summer, those new authors might feel like familiar and trusted old friends.
But where to start? Sometimes the shelves of Waterstones (or wherever) can feel like a literary catwalk showcasing the ‘latest trends in children’s publishing’. But who wants books to be fashionable? We’re nerdy bookworms, right? There’s a whole world of fiction out there, from fusty old classics (that are maybe not as fusty as you think) to brand new ebooks that have not even made the shelves of your local bookstore yet.
Whether it’s a long plane or train journey, hours of glorious relaxation on the beach, or just a way to get through the tedium of whatever your parents have got planned for you, summer holidays and paperbacks* go together like AA Milne and Ernest Shepard.
* or kindles!
Here are some classic summer holiday reads to get you started, set in some of the most popular holiday destinations. And not forgetting those neglected souls who are staying put this summer – I’ve also listed some books which show us that adventures can happen closer to home, too.
If you’re heading to Cornwall and you’re age 7-10, you must check out the Adventure Island series by Helen Moss. Like a modern-day Famous Five, with attitude and iPhones, Jack, Scott and feisty heroine Emily solve all manner of mysteries around the tiny Cornish island of Castle Key.
For a slightly older audience (9+) is Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur, High King of Britain, an imaginative re-telling of the legendary king’s life. Set on the Isles of Scilly, it’s full of poetic and evocative language, and is, in parts, just a little bit of raunchy.
Morpurgo’s War Horse (9+) is of course well known as an acclaimed children’s book about the First World War – but did you know he was inspired to write it by chatting to war veterans in his local pub in Iddesleigh (near Okehampton), Devon?
Lorna Doone is a classic novel by Richard Doddridge, telling the tale of violence, revenge, and forbidden love between John Ridd and Lorna, a member of the outlaw clan who rule the Doone valley (a real place in Exmoor). Not a children’s book, it is nonetheless a suitable read for young teens aged 13+; and younger children can enjoy the story in abridged version by RD Blackmore.
The Lake District
When you think of the Lake District you immediately think of Swallows and Amazons. Four children with improbably laid-back parents go on adult-free sailing adventures around Lake Windemere, camping, fishing, exploring and playing at pirates. This story by Arthur Ransome was first published in 1930, but its gentle magic overcomes any differences in language or attitudes to make it a timeless classic for children aged 7-10.
Norfolk and Suffolk
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden shares much of the Moors-inspired drama of Emily Bronte’s adult counterpart. Its main characters are entitled but alienated, unloved and unlovely – until the healing power of local boy Dickon, a robin and a secret rose garden work their magic. Suitable for older children (8 or 9+) who can read alone, as your parents won’t be able to read it without crying!
Ted Hughes, former poet laureate and all-round genius, wrote The Iron Man as a children’s story and a fable about war. This tale of a giant robot from space is thoughtful and as well-crafted as you would expect. Age 7+
For visitors to Whitby, or those with occult leanings, there is a good though somewhat bloodthirsty re-telling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, abridged by Mike Stocks. For children 7+ with a high fear threshold!
Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis was one of my discoveries of last year. Set in a remote Highland community, this coming-of-age novel tells the story of a boy who befriends an osprey (a rare bird of prey), and of his relationships with his friends, family, and two very different girls. For kids aged 8 – 12.
For younger children, the Katie Morag picture books by Mairi Hedderwick give an equally good flavour of rural Scottish life, recounting Katie’s day-to-day adventures on the remote Isle of Struay. 3-6 years.
Cressida Cowell said she got the idea for her popular How to Train your Dragon books (age 7-10) from a tiny Scottish island where she used to holiday every summer with her family. Many of the locations, and even the dragons, are apparently inspired by her time spent there.
Michael Morpurgo may have made the case for Arthur being Cornish – he apparently held court in Tintagel – but other legends link the ancient king to Wales. Younger children who enjoy tales of bold knights and derring do can dip into the Usborne Illustrated Tales of King Arthur by Sarah Courtauld.
There are many renowned authors to hail from Ireland, from CS Lewis to Oliver Jeffers. Perhaps the most famous children’s books to be set in Ireland in recent times are Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. Ok, I’m stretching it here, because the books have many locations, including a fairy city 100s of miles below the ground; but Artemis’ home, Fowl manor, is on the outskirts of Dublin. For readers 10+
I’ll admit, I was struggling with Spain. Then I came across The Adventures of Loulou by Betty Rawson. It’s a quirky and action-packed story about a 13-year-old who sets off on her own to find her missing best friend and solve the mystery of his disappearance. The feisty heroine must leave her make-up behind and keep her wits about her as she traverses the lava fields of Lanzarote (a Spanish island near the coast of Africa), with only the ghost of her dead dog Beelzebub for company – yes really! 9+
Kids love Greek myths, and there are many very good collections of them available. Try Usborne’s beautifully illustrated and pocket-sized Greek Myths; or if you have more room in your backpack, Marcia Williams’ comic strip versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Once you’ve got the bug, you might want to move onto Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – an ordinary teenager discovers he’s the son of a Greek God, but which one? His quests take him to the Underworld, across the seas to recreate the voyage of Odysseus, and that’s just in the first two books. Suitable for children 8-9+ right through to young teens.
If myths and monsters aren’t your thing, how about something completely different? My Family and Other Animals was written by Gerard Durrell in 1956, and tells of his four years spent growing up on the Greek island of Corfu just before the second world war. As well as its gentle humour and keen observations of family life, this book will fascinate wildlife lovers and naturalists. Age 7+
Bettine le Beau was a Polish Jew who was hidden in France for the entire five years of the Nazi occupation. This is her story. Just eight years old when she went into hiding, Hide and Seek is described by the author as “an autobiographical Holocaust school book” for young teens.
Off to Rome or perhaps Pompeii? Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries feature four fearless children solving mysteries in the year AD 79. Although suitable for readers of 8 and over, Lawrence does not shy away from difficult topics such as slave dealing, and the books are packed full of historical information. With Vesuvius erupting and children disappearing, there’s plenty of action and adventure too.
Tove Yansson is the queen of Scandy kids’ lit, and although the Moomins books are perenial favourites, it’s The Summer Book which tells the whimsical tale of her own childhood spent on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. It’s gentle, funny and unlike anything written today – a joy to share with a parent or grandparent. Suitable to read with kids 6+ , but don’t expect any adventure or peril.
If it’s monsters and baddies you’re looking for, you’d do better to dive into Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books. These tales of a Viking cheiftain’s son and his pet dragon Toothless are an entertaining and engaging read for 7-10 year olds. Even reluctant readers will be won over by the big font and many illustrations. Although Cowell claims to have got her inspiration from a Scottish island (see above), the fictional Barbaric Archipelago is clearly somewhere off the coast of Denmark – ’cause we all know that’s where Vikings come from.
Oh, so you’re not going anywhere? Put that violin away; here are some books that show you there’s plenty of adventures to be had at home during the summer holidays:
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. Timeless classic telling the story of three children who are uprooted from their grand London townhouse and taken to live in a tiny cottage in the country. This books shows that you can make your own adventures with nothing but a little ingenuity – and even save lives into the bargain. 8+
The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. Similarly to The Railway Children, these three kids have to leave their comfortable lives in town and are forced to move to the country, where the family struggle to make ends meet. But they don’t mind a bit! They are too busy climbing the magical faraway tree, meeting pixies, elves and talking squirrels, eating google buns and pop biscuits, and having adventures in the strange lands which come to the top of the tree. In these much-beloved stories for children 4-7 years old, life is one long summer holiday.
If that all sounds far too idealistic, and nothing at all like your summer spent scuffing about the dusty old pavements of Dullsworth, check out The Grungers by Emma Middleton. This dark, coming-of-age teen comedy tells the tale of “a desperately average, desperately miserable teenager” and her quest to find identity and meaning.
And on that cheery note, it only remains for me to say, Happy Summer Holidays, and Happy Reading!