Higgins, Charlotte. "From Beatrix Potter to Ulysses ... what the top writers say every child should read," The Guardian, January 31, 2006

· Poet laureate's selection highlights difficult works
· Most authors recommend time-honoured classics

Don Quixote, Ulysses, The Waste Land and Paradise Lost may seem a pretty daunting reading list to anyone. But the poet laureate believes that children should be expected to read them before leaving school.

Asked by the Royal Society of Literature to nominate his top 10 books for schoolchildren, Andrew Motion also included Homer's Odyssey, and Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads.

"Of course it's a high ambition," he said. "But I see no intrinsic reason why children shouldn't read these works. They are wonderful, profoundly democratic works of art, but because some of them have a reputation as difficult they are put in a box and called elitist.

"The minute you do that, the backbone of culture is removed. We admit there is a problem at the moment with knowledge and I feel absolutely no embarrassment about naming these as sine qua nons. I find it maddening that these books should be dismissed as elitist. That way cultural vandalism lies."

Other writers who contributed their nominations include Philip Pullman, whose slightly less highfalutin choices include Finn Family Moomintroll. He also picked out Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner and Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding.

Of Motion's list he said: "Other writers have gone for the great works of western literature on their lists. I do think it's a little bit ambitious to expect schoolchildren to read Don Quixote and Ulysses."

But he did include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner among his choices - recalling that it had been a "mesmerising" experience when a "wise and far-seeing teacher had, without explaining anything about it, read it aloud to my class when I was about seven".

Pullman's list has at its heart fairytales, myths and legends as the great stimuli to children's imaginations. Another recommendation, which does not appear on his list, is Kipling's Just So Stories "for the wonderful rhythms and rhymes and the muscular strength of the language. You don't understand everything as a child but you love the sound of it. Children respond very immediately to the musical rhythmic effects of language."

JK Rowling's list also contains some ambitious titles, such as Catch-22, alongside more standard schoolroom fare including To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm and Wuthering Heights. She also names Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Like Motion, she includes Hamlet. Pullman's Shakespeare choice was Romeo and Juliet.

The recommendations were sought by the RSL's Anthony Gardner after a discussion between the society and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on the teaching of English in schools. The lists aimed to put together "a children's canon on which people might like to draw", he said, adding that the choices tended to the conservative, and that there were not many books that parents would not have read. "By and large these are books that are classics and have stood the test of time - books that the writers enjoyed while growing up."

But he defended the paucity of contemporary children's fiction, saying: "I think it's a fallacy to say that children need to be given books about children who are in similar situations to them. Children can empathise with characters from any place or time." Of Motion's list, he said: "He has set the highest standard. I think his list is more suitable for first-year undergraduates. I must say I've never got past the first 90 pages of Portrait of a Lady."

Some writers asked to contribute lists felt unable to do so. Nick Hornby said: "I used to teach in a comprehensive school, and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. If I choose 10 books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn't actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic."

Reading lists

JK Rowling
Author of the Harry Potter series

Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl
Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield Charles Dickens
Hamlet William Shakespeare
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Animal Farm George Orwell
The Tale of Two Bad Mice Beatrix Potter
The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger
Catch-22 Joseph Heller

Philip Pullman
Author of the His Dark Materials trilogy

Finn Family Moomintroll Tove Jansson
Emil and the Detectives Erich Kästner
The Magic Pudding Norman Lindsay
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak
The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (or other good anonymous ballads)
First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath)
Romeo and Juliet William Shakespeare
A good collection of myths and legends
A good collection of fairytales

Andrew Motion
Poet laureate

The Odyssey Homer
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost John Milton
Lyrical Ballads Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady Henry James
Ulysses James Joyce
The Waste Land TS Eliot

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1698548,00.html

Original page date 24 February 2007; last updated 24 February, 2007.