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A Grandparents guide to buying Children's books for the grandchildren    

    February 2008   



Jeanne Davis talks to Anne Fine, multi-award winning children’s book author and former Children’s Laureate. Her books range from the famously funny Madame Doubtfire to the chillingly dark The Road of Bones... 



Jeanne:   I find it very frustrating when I want to buy a book for the grandchildren for a birthday, for Christmas or when I am going to visit the children. I walk into my local Waterstone’s and see a rack on the ground floor that says best sellers.  These are picture books for the younger readers.  There are more than 20 on display and the only one I recognise is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

I am confronted with the same ignorance on the first floor where there are shelves and shelves of books for the 5-8 year olds, the 9-12 year olds and the teenagers.  It seems as though there has been a tremendous surge in children’s books since I was buying them for my own children.  I wouldn’t know where to start.

You are a grandparent, Anne, and you have written many successful books for all these age groups.  Can you give our laterlife readers some guidance on how to go about selecting a book the child will enjoy.


HAY FEVER, a Children’s Literary Festival.. Jeanne Davis interviewed Anne Fine at the Guardian HAY FESTIVAL, Hay-on-Wye. During the festival Jeanne scouted the unique Hay Fever programme for children and their families. Favourite children’s authors are there not only to amuse you and inspire you but to answer all your questions and to sign their books for you. In this very informal tented festival you can meet firm favourites such as Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine, Anthony Horowitz, and famed illustrators such as Lauren Child and Quentin Blake. You can enter a competition to choose the next Children’s Laureate, take a class in creative writing, and learn the latest hip hop moves. You will have your chance to play the critic in the Guardian Young Critics’ competition. And indulge your artistic talents in pottery workshops. Events are coded for each age group from pre-school, 5-7 years, 8 to 11 years and 12 years plus. Sign up for one event or more during the ten-day festival. It’s an inspiring and fun excursion for the whole family; grandparents, parents and youngsters. Visit  for information.


 Anne: The root of the problem is that there is of course a time lag in children’s books.   You only know the children's books you read and then those you bought for your own children. Then there is this 30 year gap in which you are not reading them at all. Then you are just way behind and have no idea.


Essentially, the solution lies in two things. One is not going to the big chain stores but finding an independent book store. Even if you have to travel to find one, you will usually get the level of expertise you want because the sorts of people who are constantly reading books do gravitate to independent book stores. Waterstone's, for instance, has a core list of children’s books, which means it may be limited in range. For a wider choice and advice you very often need an independent.

The second thing is to have one those very useful guides.   The one I recommend mostly would be The Ultimate Book Guide by Daniel Hahn and Leonie Flynn.  In the end there will be three of these. There is one for 8-12s, one for teenagers.  A third, for younger readers, is not yet out. Both Hahn and Flynn worked in publishing and are both passionate readers. They not only recommend books but tell you why.  There are books that have worked for generations like Where the Wild Things Are and there are newer ones like Frost in May by Antonia White for older children, an autobiographical book about boarding school life.

 There are other guides. 

There is The Rough Guide to Children’s Books. by Nicholas Tucker, an experienced book reviewer who has picked out the books he thinks are the best and most interesting of the last 20 years.

There are specialist magazines.  Books for Keeps is the best independent resource about children’s literature and comes in the post. Carousel is another magazine. You can Google these for details.


I do think one can keep an eye on Prize Short Lists.  They do give you a clear idea of what has come out that year, especially in science books.  There is the Royal Society Junior Science  Prize.  For non-fiction science they do pinpoint the very best. And the Carnegie Book list.   You have to look for them in the papers.

Jeanne:  What about the children’s book reviews in the newspapers? 

Anne:  A review can say this is an absolutely brilliant book and you think this is unsuitable drivel.  And it happens to us as adults.  You read a review and you have no idea that the review is written by the author’s best friend’s wife, and it is a very soft review.  Then you buy the book and find it is a tiresome read.  Children’s book reviews are just the same, but a bit more honest.  You still have the problem that it is not quite your sort of book, but is the reviewers.

That is why I think the contact with someone who does read a lot is helpful.  At your library there may be specialist librarians to talk to or a teacher.

Jeanne:  We were talking about the laddish culture that is widespread among boys.  Do you think that influences the books that are marketed for boys?


Anne:  I would say to any grandparent to utterly ignore this notion of boys only like to read science fiction and violence.  Absolute nonsense!  Take a writer like Jacqueline Wilson whose books look like they’re only pitched at girls. Boys read her.  They might not carry her books around in school, but they will go home and read a copy of it, because it’s immensely accessible: big margins, great fat print, and very readable.  Anybody who has boys will tell you that boys are secretly reading those books as well.

Here we are expecting them to help with day care and know how to deal with babies.  And here we are feeding them science fiction and violence.  It is ludicrous.  Grandparents have a moral obligation to fight this.

I think books for children are like sex for adults.  It is an absolute mystery what turns them on.  It is just a mystery.  For example, if you have a rather cold distant dad, it might be that the book you absolutely love has a warm lovable dad.   You might have said I can’t understand why the child is reading it over and over again.  He’s reading it not for the plot, but goes back each time to read certain passages.  He’s getting something out of it.

Jeanne:  Is it helpful to ask the child who is your favourite author?


Anne: That is quite an interesting question.  Because once you know which books a child has liked you can branch out from there.  If someone says, “Oh my favourite author is Brian Jenks”, then you can go to the library and look up Brian Jenks which will lead you to other suggestions.  You can also look for advice in one of the Book Guides. Keep in mind that some children’s authors do a range of books. Make sure book you’ve noted is for your age group. You don’t want to give the child one that is too old or too young.

Then there are book tokens.  Grandparents are in a very strong position if they have actually got physical contact with the child.  A lot of them don’t because the grandchildren are in Australia, like mine or South Africa like yours, Jeanne, or elsewhere.  Then actually taking a child into a book shop with a book token or to spend a tenner is so rewarding .Book shops are very child friendly.  The “footfall” business, as it is called in the trade, is very important.  The gran is the one who has the time to sit around in the bookshop while the children  fiddle around looking at all the gifty things  and look at all the picture books.

I think another thing is you should never try to push a child upwards.  If anything you should give them an easy peasy read and let them do the pushing up.  The number of grandparents who have turned  off a child by thinking “Oh, I loved The Little House on the Prairie.”  Well, they loved it when they were twelve.  But they give it to the child when she is eight.  There are the huge blocks of indigestible paragraphs and there are no pictures and the child is completely intimidated.  A child may then say I don’t like reading and not I don’t like this book.

Jeanne:  The cost of children’s books can be daunting.  You mentioned to me earlier, Anne, your website book plate idea.  It sounds like an incredibly innovative way to deal with the cost of books. 

Anne:  This is a website I created ( where you can download a book plate for free.  You can choose from among 250 brand new modern book plates designed by all our famous illustrators. You choose a design you like. And then just print it off and paste it into the book.  The illustration includes the words “This book belongs in the home library of __________ .” You write in the child’s name. 

Now one of the reasons I did this is there have never been so many excellent second hand books around.  Because people redecorate all the time.  They turn their child’s bedroom into an office, so instead of keeping books like people used to do; they now recycle them to Oxfam or Amnesty and other charity shops.  The books in the shops and in second-hand book stores are superb and the only thing wrong with them is they sometimes have the previous child’s name on it.  So the point of my home library is that you would buy these marvellous books for 50p and you would download the book plate and paste it over the last person’s wonky name and make the book, as we call it on the website, “new to you.” And it is completely free.

If a book is not a complete success at 50p that is very different than ?6.99.  You can give your grandchildren a dozen books for the price of one.

Jeanne: I am struck by the amount of information you’ve given us.  What all this comes down to is, you yourself have to do the research, you have to make an effort in the end.

Anne:  Although it may seem intimidating at first, I think that anybody who likes books and likes their grandchildren will be fine and it is an absolute shared passion.  And the other thing to turn a child into a reader is to read the books yourself.  If you read them and say “I really didn’t like this character.  What do you think?” And if you talk to your grandchildren about books they have read it will turn them into readers faster than anything else.  Because what they actually like is an adult sharing their world. Many parents just hand the child a book and never ask them what they thought of it because they haven’t got the time. The one thing grandparents do have, sometimes, is either the time to spend with their grandchildren or they are going to make it because it is so totally different from the first time around.


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