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Top 10 underrated children’s books by famous authors

This is part III of a Top 30 Underrated Children’s Books (parts I and II were last week and the week before), because I identified a subcategory of underrated books by authors who were highly rated for Other Things.

1. Willy Visits the Square WorldJeffrey Archer, 1980. “I adored it as a child. I was amazed as an adult to learn who wrote it” – Graeme Neill.

two. The Clarice Bean novels, Lauren Child, 2002-06. She’s known for Charlie and Lola, but the Clarice Bean picture books are better (“Robert Granger does n’t have any ideas of his own de el except copying me”) and the three novels (Utterly Me, Clarice Bean, Clarice Bean Spells Trouble and Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now) are works of genius, capturing the cadences and world view of 10- to 12-year-old children. Also: “The Lauren Child book my children loved best by far is That Pesky Rat. It’s very funny and moving at the same time – the rat longs to be a pet and be loved,” said Camilla Redmond.

3. stick manJulia Donaldsonand illustrated by Axel Scheffler, 2008. “The Gruffalo gets all the merchandise but the anguish of a father trying to get home to see his family is by far her best book,” said Sean Rogers.

Four. Rikki-Tikki-TaviRudyard Kipling, 1894. Short story. “It’s his best work by him,” said Matt Houghton. “The tale of a mongoose in a garden, taking on the snakes and saving a child’s life in British India. Told from the mongoose’s point of view.”

5. The Elephant and the FlowerBrian Patten, 1970. He is better known as one of the Liverpool poets, with Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. “Poetry and life insight in the guise of a children’s book” – Rob Marchant.

6. Minnow on the SayPhilippa Pearce1955. Better than Tom’s Midnight Garden, according to Wendy Smith: “Slow, graceful adventure and friendship in an English summer. A mystery to solve, a poem clue and an intriguing treasure hunt. Enthralling and absorbing; my favorite book as a child.”

7. I Capture the CastleDodie Smith1948. She is better known for The Hundred and One Dalmatians. “Perfect coming of age story but capturing also the passing of the baton from the UK to the US: decaying castles and over the top Yanks” – Tim Carrington.

8. The Painted GardenNoel Streatfield, 1948. “My absolute favorite as a child and no one else has heard of it,” said Sam Freedman. Isabel Hardman said A Vicarage Family, “also weirdly little known, is even better”. Lesley Smith preferred Thursday’s Child: “Flawed heroine, rags to success if not riches.” Debbie Welch liked The Fearless Treasure: “A mixed group of children are brought together to travel through history.” The Children of Primrose Lane is also good. Yet all anybody knows is Ballet Shoes.

9. The 13 ClocksJames Thurber, 1950. “Fantastic – a surreal fairy tale, full of wit and wordplay” – David Webb. Thurber, better known as a cartoonist, was blind by the time he wrote it.

10. RoverandomJ. R. R. Tolkien1925. “Almost no one reads it because it isn’t The Lord of the Rings, and it isn’t set in Middle-earth. But it is a great children’s story with magic and the Moon, and the protagonist is a little dog named Rover. Kids love it. Classic fun” – Shaun Gunner. Also: Farmer Giles of Ham. “A little novel of the heroism of the English commoner, woven into Anglo-Saxon mythology. Tends to be missed because of Tolkien’s more famous works” – Marginal Gains.

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An honorable mention for Debbie Welch, who was nominated The Rubadub Mystery, Enid Blyton, 1951. “There’s a number of hidden gems in EB, and this is one of them. The main character, Barney, is tricked into doing things by someone promising to find his estranged father. The emotion and characterization are far beyond what people associate with EB.”

And for Don Macintyre, who reminded me that Graham Greene wrote The Little Train, The Little Fire Engine, The Little Horse Bus and The Little Steamroller, 1946-53; they are not great works, but perhaps the start of another overlapping Top 10, of literary giants who also wrote children’s books.

Thank you for all the nominations: that was my summer reading list, taking advice from Katherine Rundell’s Why you should read children’s books, even though you are so old and wise.

Next week: Summer jokes.

Coming soon: Jesters, as Boris Johnson prepares to leave the stage.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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