Alice Westlake’s top 10 children’s books all about books and libraries – let’s get reading!
We writers are a self-referential lot. We love nothing more than writing about writing. From Jo March in Little Women to Paul Sheldon in Misery. It seems that for many readers, getting truly lost in a book is the ultimate adventure.
Books – and by extension libraries, the temples we have created to them – represent a world of infinite possibility: forbidden knowledge; danger within safety; personal transformation (the unlikely hero trope); our own agency as readers and individuals, and therefore of the hope of rewriting the ending.
“us authors just can’t help creating more”
Nowhere is this tradition more embodied than in children’s fiction. Kids’ lit has some of the best books about libraries, bookshops and books that come to life. Authors just can’t help creating more: recent additions to the genre include Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini’s House of Secrets and my own Margin of Horror.
But, as with anything, some of the greatest examples are the classics. Here are ten of the best.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book by Lauren Child (http://amzn.to/2l5IOg9)
Child walks in the footsteps of the Ahlbergs’ Each Peach and Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes in this superb pop-up book. It riffs on the nursery rhymes and bedtime stories so well-known to preschoolers. In this version, the main character (and you, the reader) actually fall into the book and have to negotiate a cast of fairytale baddies before you can find your way out.
Library Lion by Michelle Knudson (http://amzn.to/2lhCLjM)
Library Lion is a gentle, whimsical and enchanting book about a lion who loves listening to stories. Whilst it tells a tale of loyalty, jealousy, remorse and reconciliation, it is ultimately a love letter to libraries. Quite a long read, it is a picture book for older children and for those parents who can read it without welling up.
The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (http://amzn.to/2mDJlSz)
A book about the joy and wonder of reading. Its protagonist starts by literally devouring books, but soon learns that reading books is just as effective a way of amassing knowledge and becoming the cleverest in the class. Jeffers is a wizard, and this simple story is one of his best.
The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (http://amzn.to/2m4bTYT)
This brightly illustrated picture book tells the story of an Iraqi librarian at the onset of war, trying to save her library’s priceless collection of 30,000 books from being destroyed. The true story “reminds us all how, throughout the world, the love of literature and the respect for knowledge know no boundaries.”
The Lost Happy Endings by Carol Ann Duffy (http://amzn.to/2mxbbk3)
Jub, a strange six-fingered woodland-dwelling fairy, is the custodian of happy endings to all stories. When they are stolen by an evil witch, children everywhere are distraught. Jub must use all her courage and tenacity to retrieve them. This book positions stories as existing in a magical other-worldly realm, and explores their role in making our world go round smoothly.
Matilda by Roald Dahl (http://amzn.to/2lPcScH)
Dahl often rails against TV (think of Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and never more so than in Matilda. His heroine is a cuckoo: a highly intelligent bookworm born into a family of couch potatoes. Matilda knows she is different, but her world really opens up the first time she steps into her local library. The character of Mrs Phelps, the librarian, finds her true expression in the RSC’s stage play of Matilda, where she takes her rightful place as a central character.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling (http://amzn.to/2lZwkFU)
OK, I’m a Potterhead so it was always going to find its way into the list. Books and libraries feature quite centrally throughout the series, as a source of knowledge, as a place of adventure and as comic relief. Rowling uses the ‘tale within a tale’ device to drive the narrative forward, most notably with The Tales of Beadle the Bard in the final book. I have chosen Chamber of Secrets because this book goes one step further by having the diary actually sucking its reader into the pages.
Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo (http://amzn.to/2lrUllW)
A very different kind of magical establishment from Hogwarts, Bloors Academy is a forbidding and sinister school for ‘gifted’ children. This includes those with supernatural powers, such as Charlie’s ability to travel into photographs. Our hero’s school life is almost unleavened by any kind of enjoyment, and his home life is not much better. Ingledew’s Bookshop is a wonderful refuge full of mystical old books with gold-tooled spines. There is always a welcome and a plate of biscuits for Charlie and his friends when they find themselves in trouble.
The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler (http://amzn.to/2mnh7zE)
Alice finds herself orphaned and sent to live in a strange old house with a strange library. Of course, she ignores the prohibition. However, as the sinister power of the library becomes apparent, she is drawn into a compelling adventure. She must battle with dragons and monsters unleashed from their stories, and draw their power into herself.
The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende (http://amzn.to/2m4d62n)
The daddy of all stories about books which come to life. Neverending Story posits a world in which children have stopped believing and, as a result, the entire edifice of fantasy fiction is crumbling. Only by reading books can we make them real and therefore every one of us is a participant in a greater story. It is such a perfect concept that it’s a wonder the rest of us haven’t simply given up. Somehow, we are compelled to keep on telling our own variants on this classic tale.
Margin of Horror by Alice Westlake is the story of a sinister and mysterious old school library, a missing girl, and some books behaving very strangely…