Imogen Russell-Williams dreams of better worlds.
Assembling this list brought home to me that the search for utopia usually entails a voyage into the past. Contemporary children’s books, even the most joyous or fantastic, tend to have a brisk draught of reality blowing through them; qualities of enraptured place and pure escapism belong more to classic territory than to the down-to-earth, diversely woven work of today. But utopian fiction retains its relevance – especially when daily life, even for children, is pressurised and anxiety-prone. Here are ten books in which enchanted places shimmer beyond the reach of news, homework, bullying and the disheartening day-to-day.
The Secret Island
Enid Blyton, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1-4449-2110-6, £6.99 pbk
Many of Blyton’s landscapes are utopian, but this is arguably her most idyllic. Four neglected children repair to a small nearby island; contriving to import a cow and chickens, they grow lettuce, beans, and raspberries, weave a house from willow, and conceal themselves from bumbling adult attempts at detection. The fear of discovery lends a gentle frisson, but the minutiae of their lives – cleaning rabbit skins for rugs, lake-bathing, collecting eggs – is the scattered focus of the book. Simultaneously absorbing and reassuring, it remains a perennial comfort.
The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame, Oxford Children’s Classics, 978-0-1927-3830-1, £5.99 pbk
‘Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World’, says the Water Rat repressively to an enquiring Mole; ‘I’ve never been there, and I’m never going, nor you either, if you’ve got any sense at all.’ But into Mole’s cosy hole, Badger’s maze of tunnels, or the desirable gent’s res of Toad Hall, the Wide World cannot intrude – and invading Wild Wooders will ultimately be put to flight. Whether picnicking substantially by a sparkling river, transported into numinous visions by the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, or even imprisoned for impertinence and furious driving, Grahame’s dandified Edwardian gentleman-animals exist, explicitly, in a land outside the world, and outside time.
Stig of the Dump
Clive King, Puffin, 978-0141354859, £6.99 pbk
A disused Kentish chalk-pit is an unlikely idyll, and the first line of Clive King’s classic imparts a dangerous frisson: ‘If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit, the edge would give way.’ Yet plummeting into the depths of the earth lets a bruised, shaken Barney into a haven of absorbing joy – the home of Stig, the cave-boy, who creates his weaponry, furniture and plumbing out of rubbish. Whether fighting off bullies, constructing tin-can chimneys or being swept into a midsummer vision of the past, Stig and Barney inhabit an intent, dreamy world, in the softened boundary between then and now.
Journey to the RiverSea
Eva Ibbotson, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1-4472-6568-9, £6.99 pbk
Ibbotson is unparalleled in evoking the richness of place, and this odyssey to the wild green heart of the Amazon is one of her masterpieces. When orphaned Maia travels with new governess Miss Minton to Brazil, she finds her distant family dismayingly insular and spiteful, at war with the ‘Green Hell’ surrounding them. But, in Ibbotson’s words, ‘whether a place is a hell or a heaven rests in yourself, and those who go with courage and an open mind may find themselves in Paradise’; for brave and open-hearted Maia, the ‘River Sea’ is the source of refuge and delight. Redolent with damp green life, it leaves the reader reeling with heady sweetness.
Tom’s Midnight Garden
Philippa Pearce, Oxford Children’s Classics, 978-0-1927-3450-1, £6.99 pbk
When Tom is sent away to stay in his aunt and uncle’s drab flat, his surroundings at first seem deeply unpropitious. But the grandfather clock in the hall downstairs opens a doorway into the past – a country-house garden where Tom encounters Hatty, the orphaned girl he will meet at many ages, from tiny child to almost-adult. Climbing yew-trees into ‘an openness of blue and fiery gold’, making bows and arrows, and skating on a frozen river, Tom escapes his dry, well-meaning relatives, and Hatty her cruel aunt and dismissive cousins; two lonely children, wandering together in a charmed land of memory.
The Chronicles of Narnia (especially The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian)
C.S. Lewis, HarperCollins Children’s Books
The portal fantasy is perhaps the most utopian concept of all – and no child, once gripped by the Chronicles, ever quite loses the hope of finding an otherworld in the back of a wardrobe, and becoming royalty there. While Narnia itself is often under attack – winter-gripped by the White Witch, forcibly updated by Miraz and the Telmarines – the land itself is rich beyond compare. With chocolate-dense earth so fertile that half-crowns and toffees can grow in it, living trees and waters, and stately Talking Beasts, this, undoubtedly, is a utopia worth fighting for (and one that offers both refuge and status to powerless and belittled children.)
Joyce Lankester Brisley, Macmillan Children’s Classics, 978-1-4472-7306-6, £9.99
Intently focused on everyday adventure, the tales of Millicent Margaret Amanda, who lives with her large family in ‘the nice white cottage with the thatched roof’, seldom rove further afield than the map of her village. Fishing for tadpoles, an overnight visit with Little-friend-Susan, running races at the fete or hosting parties with raspberry-drop refreshments – these nostalgic stories still vividly conjure a child’s close-to-the-ground, quotidian richness of experience.
Knitbone Pepper, Ghost Dog
Claire Barker, illustrated by Ross Collins, Usborne, 978-1-4095-8037-9, £9.99 hbk
A rare more recent title, about a girl bereaved of her dog, and his ghostly return to their marvellous but imperilled home. Starcross Hall is a crumbling, crazed pile, ‘snuggled into the surrounding countryside…fast asleep and dreaming of times past’. Full of antique hats, eccentric parents and the lovelorn ghosts of pets too loyal to leave, Starcross is a glorious, shambolic playground for Winnie Pepper and her spectral pup, who’ll fight tooth and nail to prevent the Council seizing it.
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, Ottoline and the Purple Fox
Chris Riddell, Macmillan Children’s Books
Brought to life via Riddell’s sparse, intelligent text and sophisticated line-drawings, Ottoline Brown’s environment – a smart apartment in the Pepperpot Building and its surrounding streets – is contained but constantly stimulating. She lives free from parental scrutiny, but with her every need met via McBean’s Cleaning Service and The Home-Cooked Meal Co – leaving her free to solve puzzles and socialise widely, whether with bears who live in the laundry or the charismatic Purple Fox. Ottoline’s is a world of delectable dinner-parties, lamppost poetry, fancy dress and the vagaries of the imagination.
Minnow on the Say
Philippa Pearce, Oxford, 978-0192792419, £6.99
Another Pearce classic, this compelling adventure of two boys, a canoe, and a quest for a hidden treasure is not cocooned from the cruelties of history, especially the bitterness of losing a child to war. But it’s full to the brim of sunlight on water and a summer spent exploring, both on foot and afloat – an effortless evocation of life on the river.
Imogen Russell Williams is a journalist and editorial consultant specialising in children’s literature and YA.