In merry old London, each street or avenue leads to somewhere worthy of making it into a novel. There’s over 100 featured on our Literary Map of London. In this post, we dive into the magic of London from the 20th century and how iconic landmarks pop up everywhere in our favourite children’s books set in London.
Author: Michael Bond
First published in 1958.
A bear from darkest Peru with a perfect British accent! As Paddington tries to settle into the Brown household – stealing the hearts of Judy and Jonathan Brown along the way – he manages to innocently get himself into all sorts. This is anthropomorphising at its finest. In his signature red hat and blue duffle coat, Paddington is the politest and most well-spoken bear we’ve ever come across, and bar a few unsavoury characters, he fits right into merry old London. With a strange obsession over marmalade sandwiches, Paddington is absolutely clueless to the nature of his bemusing talents as a talking bear. He’s bewitched the Brown family for years since the moment they found him at Paddington Station in London. You can read the original Paddington Bear book here!
A Little Princess
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett.
First published in 1958 as a short story: “Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s”, which was serialised in St. Nicholas Magazine from December 1887.
Set in Victorian London, A Little Princess is a story of heartache and hardship. Orphaned and paupered, Sara Crewe, once the daughter of Captain Crewe, attends Miss Minchin’s boarding school for girls in London while her father is stationed in India, with the British Army. Under Minchin’s cruel and depraved rule, the little child must find the strength to persevere, with the compassion and uncommon friendship of Mr. Carrisford and Ram Dass. The book is fuelled by Sara’s imagination and unyielding kindness. It’s a story that will make you understand how a world of make-believe can kindle one’s heart to the fullest, and give one little girl the courage to carry on. Sara is a spirit that never surrenders and never falters to be kind, even to her captors, set against the murky world of Victorian London.
Madeline in London
Authors: John Bemelmans Marciano and Ludwig Bemelmans
First published in 1961.
Having conquered Paris, Madeline and her class journey to London with Miss Clavel to visit the son of the Spanish Ambassador, Pepito. Together, Madeline and Pepito get into all sorts of mischief in London, giving poor Miss Clavel a succession of throbbing headaches. But she’s no stranger to these ailments as the Madeline series has well and truly kept Miss Clavel on her toes. There was once a time when Madeline fell into the Seine River, and another occasion where Madeline had to have her appendix removed, which caused all the other little girls at the boarding school to claim they needed theirs out too! The stories are so uplifting and rejuvenating, and Madeline in London is a story that involves an unusual birthday party, a horse, roses and green apples! It’s marvellous!
The Railway Children
Author: Edith Nesbit
First published in The London Magazine in 1905.
Devoted fans of this beloved book will love the descriptions of nature in each chapter. Some fans may not know that much of the setting is inspired by Nesbit’s walks to Chelsfield railway station. Nesbit lived so close to the station, and on her many excursions, she found inspiration for her scenes in the story, like the railway cutting and tunnel between Chelsfield and Knockholt. The tale of Peter, Roberta, Phyllis and their move to London is a heart-warming story that resonates long after the novel is finished. When the children’s father is wrongly imprisoned for apparent espionage, the unlikely friendship that blooms between the railway children and the old gentleman (name unknown) is touching and timeless. It is one of the greatest children’s stories that stays with you forever.
Author: Roald Dahl
First published in 1988.
So this one isn’t exactly in the centre of London per-say, but, it makes the list! What kid didn’t dream of having Matilda’s telekinetic powers? Plus, she was a rebel with a cause. Disdained by her parents, neglected by the tyrannical Miss Agatha Trunchbull, Matilda – seemingly sweet and intimidatingly smart – manifested powers so great that she could serve up a just slice of justice to the grownups who are rotten! The town in which the book is set, in Buckinghamshire, is practically like the outskirts of London suburbia. There are just so many elements and levels to Roald Dahl’s masterpiece, and though the film does feature an iconic performance from Danny DeVito, we think the book is much better.
Coincidentally, if the kids have outgrown books like this, we’ve put together a list of where to donate books in London if you’re looking to clear up some shelf space!
Author: P.L. Travers
First published in 1934.
In 1934 in Burbank, London, the East wind blew in a new kind of babysitter. A magical nanny to be exact. Upon the departure of Katie Nanna from the Banks household, Mary Poppins swoops in, complete with a carpet bag (the original Room of Requirement) and agrees to take care of Jane and Michael Banks, just “until the wind changes”. Set in Edwardian London, there are noble nods to iconic associations of the era: George is proud to be an Englishman, thinking he’s ruling the roost as a junior banker in contrast to his wife, Winifred, whom herself and her fellow females are soldiers in petticoats, and dauntless crusaders for women’s votes. There’s also pavement-painters, shopkeepers and of course, chimney-sweeps, all contributing to the setting of the novel in 1910s London.
The Hundred and One Dalmatians
Author: Dodie Smith
First published in 1956.
We all know dogs secretly communicate, but there’s actually a name for it. It’s called “Twilight Barking”. Noisy but necessary, the barks and howls travelling over the slate rooftops of London in the ’50s became the heroic form of communication that saved Missis’ and Perdie’s litters. Plus 97 other stolen and bought dalmatian pups. Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians is a timeless tale of adventure that floods your heart with a maternal love for the animals, but also highlights the misuse of power. The novel stands the test of time, raising awareness to animal-rights issue widely protested against in today’s society. The ’50s was a time of post-war affluence – it’s riveting and hopeful to see Smith pull the reader’s attention towards so much more than just a nuclear family.