Top 10 islands in children’s fiction – The Guardian

“Lose The Parents, by any means necessary”: it’s almost a rule of children’s writing. The grown-ups can’t be around to sort things out, because where would the fun be in that? It doesn’t have to be fatal, of course. Mum and dad might just be absent-minded, or incompetent, or stranded in a war-torn land (though Death by Evil Wizard is always an unnervingly good option.)

But it’s hard to beat an island for giving young heroes a guardian-free world of their own. Contained by a coastline, hemmed in on all sides by (preferably hostile) waters, compelling its inhabitants to rely on their own devices: any island is a magical place. Islands are small parallel worlds, full of mystery and ripe for conquering.

Treasure

1. Kirrin Island in The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

I grew up in a middle-sized Scottish steel town, far from the sea, but I might as well have been on Kirrin Island. For a few years, pretty much every role-playing game we invented took place not on the railway embankment or the waste ground behind the house, not really. In our heads we were on a remote and mysterious island crowned by a ruined castle, where we hunted down rascally crooks. Adults detest or laugh at these books for their dodgy politics, unintentionally hilarious character names and spoofable obsession with picnics. Most kids couldn’t care less.

2. The Island Where Dreams Come True in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis


Voyage

The first island that completely creeped me out. “It was a Darkness,” CS Lewis tells us, and as she sails into it, the bow of the Dawn Treader has vanished from sight before the sunlight has left the stern. Caspian and his friends never actually make landfall, but the things the crew hear as they row desperately away are more vivid than any sight, because: “Dreams come to life,” howls the castaway Lord Rhoop. “Not daydreams: dreams.” Their escape – which seems futile till the albatross arrives – is heart-crushingly dark and tense.

3. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Was ever a 19th century classic so page-turningly readable? You can practically smell the rum in the Admiral Benbow Inn, or the salt crusting the sails of the Hispaniola. Jim the cabin boy is not especially well served by his adult allies – the bumbling, big-mouthed Squire Trelawney, the righteous and rather smug Dr Livesey – but he has the best enemy possible in Long John Silver. As events come to a violent climax on Treasure Island itself, Jim and John fight a battle of wits on hot and hostile terrain. I rather wish Long John had reappeared in a sequel of his own… but at least he’s immortal. Yo ho ho, indeed.

4. Chincoteague & Assateague in Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry

Not fictional islands at all, but real ones, off the coast of Virginia. The stories are based on real incidents, but Misty and its sequels (especially Misty) have all the excitement and wrenching emotion of any fictional adventure. Paul and Maureen long to buy Phantom on Pony Penning Day; she’s the wildest mare of the wild Assateague herd. They get their wish – not without struggle – but Phantom comes with a bonus foal. That turns out to be just as well, by the time of the poignant but enthralling ending. The island setting is windswept, sun-bleached and saltily beautiful.

5. Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo

Kensuke

A round-the-world sailing adventure with his parents is brutally interrupted when Michael and his dog Stella are washed overboard in wild seas (and thank goodness the dog survives, even if it was partly her fault). Cast up on a Pacific island, they are saved – several times over – by a mysterious old Japanese man. With the island divided between them, the friendship that develops between Michael and Kensuke is halting, scratchy, but eventually deep and abiding. It’s a castaway story with a bittersweet ending, and the idyllic beauty of the island never completely hides its dangers.

An island? A still from the Where The Wild Things Are film.


An island? A still from the Where The Wild Things Are film. Photograph: Photo by Matt Nettheim/PR

6. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

All right, it never actually says it’s an island, but how else could there be uninterrupted wild rumpuses at the whim of Max, the king of all wild things? Once he tames the Wild Things with his magic trick of “staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once”, Max is their absolute ruler, but of course it isn’t quite enough. Back he goes, still in his wolf suit, to where his supper is still hot. Perfect structure, perfect pace, perfect story.

7. The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones & Ursula Jones

islands chaldea

The whimsical twist to the Islands of Chaldea is how very closely they resemble the nations of the British Isles, Skarr representing Scotland, Bernica Ireland, and Gallis Wales; the isolated, bewitched kingdom of Logra is the Chaldean equivalent of England. There’s plenty of fun to be had with this as Aileen, the failed Apprentice Wise Woman, travels through each island to save Logra from its enchantment. Diana Wynne Jones sadly died before completing the book, but it’s seamless. I can’t identify where her sister Ursula Jones took over.

8. Struay in Katie Morag by Mairi Hedderwick

Struay, the setting for Katie Morag’s adventures with Tiresome Ted, the Boy Cousins, the Holiday Children and the rest, is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s been near a Hebridean island. Grannie Island and Granma Mainland are just as familiar to anyone who’s been near feuding female relatives. And Katie Morag’s mother’s shriek of “This room is a MIDDEN!” is… you get the idea. It’s a charming series about very recognisable people in a very recognisable place.

9. The Black Stallion by Walter Farley

Boy loves horse. Horse is completely indifferent – until they are the sole survivors of a shipwreck, washed up on a tropical island. Boy saves horse, horse saves boy… and at last The Black comes to trust Alec, and return his devotion. The island magic might be lost a little when they’re rescued, but there are still thrills to come as Alec decides to pit The Black against the two fastest racehorses in America. Fairytale boy-and-horse fiction.

Still from the classic 1963 Lord of the Flies film.


Still from the classic 1963 Lord of the Flies film. Photograph: PR

10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The island where the boys’ plane crashes is a character all by itself: the shore “fledged with palm trees”, the haze of heat, the clear water that’s warmer than blood. The boys who are so out of place as the story opens turn gradually into something else: something that’s part of the island, something savage and primeval and unforgiving. When adults do appear, it’s shocking: as if aliens have landed in the story. To go full circle, I suppose it’s the ultimate case of Losing The Parents – and just this once, it’s not all fun and games.

Gillian Philip’s latest book is Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island: The Lost Children, which has been shortlisted for the Scottish children’s book awards. Buy Mysteries of Ravenstorm Island: The Lost Children at the Guardian bookshop. Find out more about Gillian Philips and her books at her website.