One of the huge pleasures of being a Patron of Reading in primary schools is that I have collected a very long reading list over the past few years, which I've done my best to keep up with. On the recommendation of children I've met, I've read all sorts of books that I might not otherwise have come across, some of which will stay with me forever. Here are some of my favourites!
Journey to the River Sea is one of those wonderful books which conjures a truly amazing world - in this case, the South American jungle. There's plenty happening, so that you can't stop turning the pages, but it's never so bad that you feel anxious or depressed as a reader. There are some fantastic characters in it, too, including one of the most awful families I've ever met, and a governess who has a necklace made out of her nieces' and nephews' milk teeth!
Wonder has been massively successful, and it deserves every bit of that success. R.J. Palacio has done something really clever and made us sympathise completely with someone who is physically deeply unattractive. It's a big-hearted book, and I reckon if everyone on the planet was made to read it, the world would instantly become a nicer place. Like Journey to the River Sea, it's always exciting but never too miserable, even though the main character, Auggie, faces so much adversity.
Holes is probably the most satisfying book I have ever read. It seems like a simple enough story, but it's only when you get to the end that you realise how beautifully symmetrical it is - all sorts of small things you read about at the beginning, which don't seem very important, are resolved at the end in a way that feels completely natural and is just so pleasing! I am in awe of Louis Sachar, because I know that cannot possibly have been as easy as it looks.
And then, of course, there's Michael Morpurgo. What can I say? The man is a legend! He writes about three books a year, and most years, one of them is a runaway bestseller. My son got me into his books and there are so many I could name that he and I have both loved. I've picked these two, because I think in their way, they are each extraordinary.
War Horse tells the story of World War One through the eyes of a horse, who encounters good and evil on both sides. Morpurgo's command of the detail is astonishing - you would swear he was actually there - and this story has a powerful message that the 'enemy' is just another bunch of people the same as us.
Shadow, by contrast, is set in the present, and is strikingly relevant to the situation Syrian refugees are finding themselves in in Europe. By telling the story of one boy, his mother and a dog, Morpurgo gives a human face to a tragedy that is otherwise about faceless thousands fleeing from war, only to meet hostility from those of us who ought to be able to help them. Both moving and brilliant!
If you fancy something lighter, and you enjoy magic, I love the topsy-turvy worlds Diana Wynne Jones creates. Particular favourites in the last couple of years have been Charmed Life, and The Lives of Christopher Chant, about the wizard, Chrestomanci, and Enchanted Glass, which is about so many things, I can't begin to describe them all, but which includes a kind of ogre, and people having doubles of themselves who are evil. I couldn't put it down!
For younger readers, I still love Tom's Midnight Garden, about a boy who hears the grandfather clock chime thirteen in the middle of the night, and opens a door on to the magical garden that once belonged to the house. It's a children's classic rather than a new release, but it bears re-reading over and over again. I know. I've done it!
Another classic, for slightly older readers, is Smith by Leon Garfield. I went and tracked this down because it has such a sensational atmosphere - dark, mysterious, dishonest Victorian London - that I've never forgotten it since I read it thirty years ago! Re-reading it a few months ago, it was every bit as good as I remembered. Quite a few of Garfield's other books were also set in Victorian London. I read lots of them and loved them!
You might have started to notice, place is important to me as a reader - I like to really feel the atmosphere, and The Lie Tree is phenomenal in that respect! What starts out feeling like slightly sinister historical fiction veers off first into mystery, and then into totally convincing fantasy. This book came out in 2015, and it deserves to become a classic. Utterly gripping!
And then there are the series of books I have loved. The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper gets my top vote. Like a couple of the books above, it's been around a long time, but it's as good as when it was first written. These books are a mixture of Arthurian legend and fantasy, each one with an amazing sense of place, and completely compelling plot. I can't recommend highly enough!
A series which people kept mentioning in relation to The Scar Gatherer series is The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver. These are set in a time rather like the stone age, and I love the detail Paver puts in about how they made their clothes and what they ate. They get more and more fantastical as you go through the series, and I enjoyed them so much I read all six back to back. My favourite is still the first, Wolf Brother, for the wonderful relationship Torak has with Wolf.
And last but not least, for older readers Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy is superb! The vocabulary is more complicated than in most of the books recommended above, as I discovered re-reading them recently. But he creates the most fabulous worlds and tells a story that you won't be able to put down!
If you like your fantasy more on the comic side, my sons and I loved the Tiffany Aching books from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. I thought there were three, so I was delighted when I discovered there were actually five. They start with The Wee Free Men and finish with The Shepherd's Crown which was Terry Pratchett's very last book. They're full of little jokes and hilarious observations, and just occasionally a paragraph of astonishing wisdom and beauty.
PS. By the way, in case you're wondering, yes I do like Harry Potter. But I don't think you need me to recommend that to you ...