Can you recapture the thrill of reading that you experienced as a child? Time to dust off some of the best childhood classics ever written
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Johanna Spyri's Heidi shows the power of love and friendship during difficult times
I re-read Heidi during the UK’s first lockdown in 2020. Nervy, unsettled and uncertain, going back to one of the most loved books of my childhood seemed like the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket and a nice cup of tea.
I expected nostalgia and a fleeting memory of seven-year-old me. I was punched in the face by the strength of the book’s powerful emotions and my heart wrung out by the love, loss and longing that seemed so much more poignant during COVID.
"Going back to one of the most-loved books of my childhood seemed like the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket"
This is the story of five-year-old Heidi, an orphan who is sent to live with her gruff grandfather in the Swiss Alps and charms everyone she meets with her sunny personality—from the scary grandfather to Peter the goatherd, his blind grandmother and, in fact, the goats.
When she’s whisked away to Frankfurt to become a companion to Klara, disabled and in a wheelchair, her homesickness, loneliness and distress is intense and, reading it in lockdown separated from my own family and friends, gut-wrenchingly familiar.
Eventually Heidi returns home to much joy (as did I later that year) and Klara, on a visit to Heidi, finds new strength on the mountain. She is miraculously healed and walks again.
Published in 1881, this little book has a heartfelt message about the power of love and the importance of those we love in our lives that resonated strongly during the pandemic.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Could you imagine a classic children’s book list that doesn’t feature Little Women? No? Me neither.
I vividly remember curling up with an old hardback copy passed down from my mother’s cousin, in a chair beside the fire at home, reading that immortal first line—“‘Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents’, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug”—and instantly being smitten by the lives of the four March sisters.
"I re-read the book until it fell apart"
Every time I read it—and there have been many—I was author Jo, out on madcap adventures with Laurie, or homebird Meg, dreaming of a home of her own and a husband, sometimes shy Beth, endlessly playing the piano that is her prized possession, and sometimes flighty Amy with her love of flounces and frippery.
I re-read the book until it fell apart and was beside myself with excitement when I discovered there were three more in the series.
Good Wives follows the sisters as they grow up and start to make their way in the world. Little Men and Jo’s Boys tell tales of the characters who attend the school that Jo sets up (spoiler alert!) after she inherits Aunt March’s big old house and gardens, following the old lady’s death.
Just like the original, I finished each sequel with tears streaming down my face, inspired and moved by the March girls and their capacity for love, their desire to do good, and the happiness they come to find in their lives.
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge shows a girl discovering herself in the face of adversity
The Carr family may not be as well known as the Marchs, but they live in the pages of their own books through a similar time and place—late 19th-century America.
The Katy series (which includes the sequels What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next) tells the story of rebellious Katy Carr and her boisterous brothers and sisters running relatively wild, despite the best efforts of their widowed father and long-suffering aunt.
When tragedy strikes, Katy is forced to find a new maturity. With the help of her kind-hearted cousin Helen (who is also in a wheelchair, long term illness being as popular as the lack of mothers in children’s books of a certain time), she becomes the person she has always aspired to be.
There are a lot of life lessons and lofty moral dispensations doled out in these pages but it’s never high-handed, always gentle and quietly inspiring. Each time I reach the end, I close the book—just like I did as a small girl—with a smile on my face and a desire in my heart to do good.
The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden
A lonely girl and a doll find each other in Rumer Godden's heartwarming Christmas book The Story of Holly & Ivy
Ivy is a little girl who is sent from her orphanage on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday—to her disgust—at the Infant’s Home, and ends up, through a series of the worst health and safety nightmares imaginable, wandering the streets by herself.
As night falls on Christmas Eve and Christmas trees light up cosy homes, Ivy looks longingly through windows and wishes for a doll. At the same time, a Christmas doll called Holly looks out from a toyshop window and wishes for a child.
The series of events that bring Holly and Ivy together wouldn’t stand up in real life for a nano-second, but the story is so movingly told that every time I read it, my faith is restored in the wonder of Christmas—a time when dreams come true and miracles can happen.
You know what they say, those who don’t believe in magic will never find it…
The Flight of the Doves by Walter Macken
Walter Macken's The Flight of the Doves is a suspenseful Irish children's classic about finding your way home
This one may not be as well-known to anyone who didn’t grow up in Ireland, but it’s a wonderful children’s classic.
Published in 1968, it recounts the fast, frantic and hair-raising journey of orphaned siblings Finn and Derval Dove, on the run across England to escape the clutches of their evil stepfather and reach their beloved Irish granny in the west of Ireland.
"We cheered on the children to victory"
They dodge police, press and all sorts of chancers on the way, the evil stepfather in hot pursuit trying to get his hands on their inheritance.
Back in Connemara, the Irish uncles collect with pitchforks to fight off the pursuers and granny waits with outstretched arms.
Every day for a few weeks in the 1970s, in a small school in the west of Ireland, our primary school teacher read us a chapter of this story.
We cheered on the children to victory, applauding the Irish uncles and booing the British baddies, the primary school equivalent of an Ireland-England international football fixture.
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