UK Vacation – Reads for all the Family – Books and Places Part 5

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So, you have suitcases full of warm woolies, umbrellas, wellington boots and a small tube of sunscreen and you’re wondering if there’s any room left for the books for this summer vacation? Well if you can’t download it, you can always pick up a paperback or two at one of these wonderful British Bookstores as you dodge the rain showers. Here are a few suggestions for toddlers through to teens and beyond.


The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter, written over a century ago and yet still such a popular children’s story. This one was written not long after Beatrix Potter moved to her first farm in the Lake District, Hill Top, which became the setting for many of her books. Tom Kitten is an adorable anthropomorphic kitten who, with his two siblings, gets into the most normal childhood mischief on the farm. Hilltop Farm is now part of the National Trust and is a delightful vacation visit where you will truly feel you have stepped back into Beatrix Potter’s world.

This is Britain by Moroslav Sasek – Another Sasek classic, introducing the young reader to some of the most important cultural sites across the breadth of the island. We visit: the White Cliffs of Dover as you step off the ferry from France,  stoneage Stonehenge – menhirs of mystery, Tintern Abbey in Wales, Lochs and palaces in Scotland -Updated facts and  colorful illustrations cover some of the touristic highlights in the three countries.

The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley This is the first in a very popular English picture book series. Set in a quaint English village church we pursue the adventures of the unexpected partnership between the church cat and a mouse he befriends. Humans and mice alike are funnily flawed in these stories and the detailed illustrations will keep even preschoolers occupied for a long time, while adults will appreciate a level of social commentary in the humour.  I chose this book because it has a timeless English feel about it.


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graeme – These famous anthropomorphic characters break all the PB rules, with car-driving and adult protagonists etc but it just shows where there’s talent, rules can be stretched. Rat, Mole, Badger and Mr Toad, of Toad Hall nonetheless, are quintessentially quirky British characters and their riverside adventures are both endearing and strange. There are funny moments and magical moments and meandering moments. I suggest this one would be the best bedtime read for the entire family while you are on vacation.

Farm Boy by Michael Morpurgo If you are not yet acquainted with this author may I highly recommend you try any of his books for children that you find in your local library. He has won many prestigious literary awards in the UK. This novel is set in rural Devon (SW England – I am trying to take you around the nation a little) between the world wars. It speaks of the relationship between a young boy and his farming grandfather, and the competition between an old tractor and a farm horse called Joey. This is a tender novel narrated at many levels.


The Secret Diary of Adrian Mowl aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend (Ages 9-13) The diary of a very typically British schoolboy growing up in the early 80’s (Margaret Thatcher is PM and Prince Charles is about to marry Lady Di). Townsend really captures the Me-Me-Me and paranoia of teenagedom. From the pimples to the attempts to date an older woman (Pandora Braithewaite is three months older than Adrian!), and the splitting-up and reconciliation of his parents, Adrian conveys a clear message that he is completely misunderstood. He is so frustrated that his intellectualism goes unappreciated that he resorts to sending his poetry to the BBC , where it too is rejcted. A blow by blow account of a school trip to the British Museum is one of many side-splitingly funny diary entires. Tween boys and girls will still laugh at this even 30 years later.

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (Ages 10-14) Well I did warn you that I was a fan! Through the long watches of one night, this young underage soldier recounts the story of his life painting a vivid picture of the social structure of England’s countryside before WWI. The rural idyll of woods and quiet lanes, where children enjoy great freedom is contrasted with a world of rigid social hierarchies, with the poor dependent on the whims of the landowners. For the protagonst and his brother, it is this helpless dependency that sends them to the war. A searingly honest account of the folly and brutality of war.


Before I die by Jennie Downham (14+) In complete contrast to the previous book, this one will keep you wet-eyed throughout. From the outset we know that 16 year old Tessa is losing a long battle against leukemia. She wants to accomplish a certain number of things before that inevitable day arrives. Number one is of course to have sex. This multilayered character is poignantly described as are the inevitable tensions with her family over their impending loss. This is a beautiful life-affirming book about loss, death and love and will get you in the gut. Teenage girls beware as Mom will want to read this too! Only reason for this choice is an outstanding YA book by British author!

Murder at the Vicarage by Agathe Christie

Of course these were written at a time when YA did not exist! There is little gore, violence or sex, but I think 13+ is a great age to start appreciating the Queen of Crime. How could I speak of books in the UK without mentioning perhaps the most iconic female sleuth in existence! Miss Marple first appeared in this novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, in 1930. She is an old English spinster and lives in the English village of St. Mary Mead and is not a likely detective at all but always succeeds where the police have failed. Her skill lies in her instinct and knowledge of human nature and a great pair of binoculars.  In this book not only will you battle with Christie’s red herrings and mind puzzles as you try and solve the case of the murder of the unpleasant Colonel Protheroe in the vicarage, but you will have some perceptive glances into 1920’s British life across the classes. How could I not be a fan? 🙂


Sister by Rosamund Lupton OK so this one is a shameless plug for an old schoolmate turned fabulous author. Rosamund’s debut novel of 2010 hit the NYT and Sunday Times bestseller list last month! Do I have your attention? This is a crime thriller. When free-spirited young artist Tess is found dead, only her elder sister, Beatrice, refuses to accept that she committed suicide. Bee starts to search for a killer no one else believes in. She moves into Tess’s London flat to start her detective search. The novel is very much London-based and unfolds through letters Beatrice writes to Tess posthumously. Are you up for some gripping intrigue and powerful sisterly motivation?

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson I felt it only fair to include a foreigner’s perspective on the UK as I did for France and Italy. Bill Bryson is a noted American novelist and Anglophile, having spent 20 years in the UK before returning to his native soil. He is a funny and clever writer and can get away with his digs at many uniquely British foibles because of his evident love and knowledge of the nation. He understands the British as only an objective, articulate passionate foreigner can, and as a Brit who has spent the vast majority of my adult life overseas I find him hilariously perceptive Also he covers a lot of ground, literally from the White Cliffs of Dover in the very SE to John O’Groats in the tip of Scotland. If you like his dry, tongue in cheek exaggerated humour, I think this is a great vacation book for your visit.

If you are into visiting literary locations, the Londonist produced a great article on Saturday on London locations in Jane Austen. Thanks to Joanna Penn a The Creative Penn who pointed this out.

This includes # 71 to 73 in the Read to Me Picture Book Challenge. 

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10 Responses to UK Vacation – Reads for all the Family – Books and Places Part 5

  1. Why am I not surprised that there is a Miss Marple book in the midst of all these gems? 😉 Of the other books you’ve set before us, I hardly know what to read first! Morpurgo’s books sound wonderful, especially Farm Boy both because of my farm background and because it’s set in Devon, as I have some long-ago roots in Devon. My — um, let me get this right — great-great-great-grandfather William Andrews was born in Devon in 1795. (I *did* say “long ago”!)

    And thank you for that list of bookshops! I will put it to good use. (I admit that when I saw one listed in the Portobello Road, I immediately thought of Padidington Bear going along the Portobello Road with his shopping basket on wheels.)

    Thanks for another excellent post, Joanna.

    • Joanna says:

      Beth, I really think you would like Morpurgo’s style. He has a gift of telling enchanting stories of timeless value.. he often places them in rural settings, and relationships between generations recur as a theme. I lived 3.5 years in Devon and it is one of my favorite parts of the country. I am impressed at your genealogical knowledge!

      Ah, Paddington Bear, how could I forget him? A definite oversight and thanks for reminding us, Beth 🙂

  2. When I re-read my comment, it seemed as if I was saying that the Agatha Christie book wasn’t a gem. That’s not what I meant at all, at all! I love Christie’s mysteries, even though I’ve never once guessed the right “who” when guessing “whodunnit”.

    • Joanna says:

      *smiles* I hadn’t misunderstood you at all 😉 According to the Guinness Book of World records, Agatha Christie is the best selling writer of books of all time! She has sold around 4 billion copies of her novels!

  3. Diane says:

    “Before I Die”…… now thats a read for me….. yep I go for the tear jerkers everytime…. “Sister” sounds like a good one to….. thanks for the exellent list. Maybe I might pick one up at an airport. ..*shrug*Well I do have a few airports to get through over the next few weeks. See Ya soon Joanna.

    • Joanna says:

      Certainly hope you pick up some good reads at the airport. Make sure you take Kleenex on the plane if you choose “Sister” of “Before I die”!
      See you very soon

  4. I love Paddington Bear, so I just had to mention him!

    As for my genealogical knowledge, I find genealogy fascinating — and frustrating! I love seeing the intricate ways families develop, but I get so frustrated because I want to know more than names and dates. I want to know their stories! (I’m thinking that perhaps there is some sort of children’s book lurking in the fact that there were FIVE William Andrews born in and around Tavistock, Devon in 1795.)

    My airplane reading next week may include Gormenghast. Have you read any Mervyn Peake?

    • Joanna says:

      Sounds definitely like a lurking historical novel in there somewhere. I know Tavistock.
      Have heard of the Gomenghast trilogy but not read it yet. I have six audiobooks saved up for my plane flights!

  5. Patricia Tilton says:

    What a charming selection of books. I think, like Beth, I like Michael Morpurgo’s books — they sound peaceful and and luring. His style speaks to me for some reason. A laziness about it. Of course, I like Beatrix Potter books, but have not read Tom Kitten.

    Of the adults books, I’ve seen Sister on the book shelves in the book store and it caught my eye — have not been reading for myself because of indulging in children’s books, but I may have to pick that one up.

    • Joanna says:

      I think you also would love Morpurgo. It isn’t typical of many of today’s Middle Grade stuff, but has that transcendent, timeless feel about it.
      After months of picture books and chapter books, I am enjoying some more adult reading material, I have to confess. It is kind of fun finding out which of one’s high school contemporaries became authors.

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