Just because a children’s book is old, it doesn’t mean it’s timeless. Kids’ books that do age well tend to have quality themes, narratives and character design, and that extra something that means that even if elements of the book date, the story stays relevant and appeals across the generations.
These books also contain some of the world’s best-known children’s book characters. From the wonders of Winnie the Pooh, to David Mckee’s patchwork elephant, children’s book characters connect us, across generations, across languages, across continents.
While many of these characters may have moved with the times and frolicked into stop motion animation, or tentatively dipped their paws into the unknown waters of 3D art, there are some classic book character’s that will forever stand the test of time. Here’s a list of the ones we’re really happy have stayed with us all these years.
01. Winnie the Pooh
Their style might have had a fresh coat of paint or two, but Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin have remained steadfast since E.H. Shepard’s soft pencil lines first sketched them in print in 1926. A.A Milne’s stories and Shepard’s illustrations of a curious and honey-loving bear have, without a doubt, stood the test of time. As the books say: “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart”.
From featuring in their own Exploring a Classic exhibition at the V&A museum recently, to a collaboration with designer Cath Kidston, the book characters of 100 Acre Wood have secured their own comfy nook in popular culture. And, having morphed through the looking glass of the Disney portal long ago, these adorable and unexpectedly profound book characters are sure to be with us long into the future.
02. Mr Men
Simple and iconic, Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men books have been around since 1971. Purportedly costing just 20 pence when they were first published, the books have grown prolifically in number over the years and have now sold more than 100 million copies.
Drawn with magic markers, the inaugural Misterland character was Mr Tickle, a tale inspired by the author’s son, Adam, who asked the astute and very pertinent question: what does a tickle look like? Since then, we’ve met and got to know an assortment of quizzical folks, from Mr. Bump to Little Miss Sunshine.
The characters of the Mr. Men and Little Miss books are whimsical, colourful, observational and often relatable. With their simple shapes and funny characters, these short and sweet books cover so many personality traits that each of us, whether eccentric or just a little slow to get out of bed in the morning, can relate to.
03. Peter Rabbit
Alongside his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, Peter Rabbit is the loveable (and rather well-dressed) rogue of the woodland world. On a never-ending quest to procure yummy vegetables from Mr. McGregor’s garden, Peter charms us with his well-meaning mischievousness and a well deserved dose of camomile tea.
Created by Beatrix Potter, this little rabbit made his first jump into the world in 1902 in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Often seen wearing a jacket and shoes, Peter has appeared in books, TV and, most recently, the big screen in a 3D cinematic experience.
Potter was a natural scientist and conservationist, and these botany roots are what make her book character illustration style unique. The majority of Potter’s original drawings were left to The National Trust, and are a firm part of Britain’s illustration heritage.
With his long whiskers, dapper blue coat, and penchant for vegetables, this little rabbit is sure to capture the hearts’ of generations yet to come. As Potter so succinctly put it: “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” Although in Peter’s case it’s almost certainly to the vegetable patch.
04. The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Who would have thought that the culinary exploits of a caterpillar could be so compelling?
Inspired by the humble hole punch, and a subtle variation on the traditional ‘bookworm’ idiom, this peckish little butterfly-in-progress has munched its way to becoming a significant part of our literary history.
Illustrated and written by Eric Carle and first published in 1969, this sturdy book has accompanied generations of children through their early years. Translated into more than 40 languages, the loveable little book character has wiggled its way through the decades with pizzazz, conquering the years time and time again from bookshelf to Google Doodle.
05. The Moomins
Finnish-Swedish writer and artist Tove Jansson created the beloved Moomins in 1945. Reminiscent of kind-hearted, pale hippopotamuses, these carefree creatures live in the wondrous Moominvalley.
The Moomins is known best for its assortment of lovable characters, from Too-ticky and Mymble to Sniff and Stinky, but it’s The Groke – the arch-enemy of the Moomins – that subtly steals the show
With the Southbank Centre’s Adventures in Moominland exhibition last year bringing alive the Moomins for all ages (complete with actual trees and pseudo snowstorms), it’s fair to say that the Moomins are still bookshelf must-haves. From Moominpappa with his distinctive top hat to Snufkin and his trusty bow, who wouldn’t be won over by these kind-hearted book characters?
06. Elmer the Patchwork Elephant
A tiger can’t change its stripes, and an elephant can’t change its patchwork, but Elmer is the elephant who we’ll never forget. Written by David Mckee, and published in 1989, Elmer’s ‘ugly duckling’ tale has sold over eight million copies and been translated into 50 languages around the world.
Bright, unique, bold, Elmer is made up of nine colours: yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, blue, green, black and white. His design was inspired by illustrator Andre Francois and artists Paul Klee and Saul Steinberg.
The ultimate story of the importance of diversity and the struggles that outsiders face, Elmer is an icon for anyone who has longed to fit in. He’s even become an LGBT hero.
There’s no marmalade without Paddington and no Paddington without marmalade – the two things are stuck together between two pieces of figurative bread. Created by Michael Bond and originally illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, Paddington is the politest anthropomorphic bear around.
Sharing his name with one of London’s busiest train stations, this small bear, with his duffel coat and red and blue attire, has won hearts the world over since his first tentative steps towards adventure in 1958. Like many of these characters, Paddington has changed somewhat of the years, most recently in the form of 3D on the big screen in 2014 and 2017.
A much-loved book character, fans showed their appreciation for the conscientious bear by laying jars of marmalade by a statue of him at Paddington train station when author Michael Bond passed away in June last year.
With a cross for a mouth and two quizzical dots for eyes, Miffy – known as Nijntje in her native Holland – is synonymous with minimalism.
Created by much-loved artist Dick Bruna, who was inspired by Matisse and Mondrian, Miffy has transitioned effortlessly from kids’ entertainment to art since she was created in 1955. She typically appeals to a more discerning audience than her often cited ‘rival’ Hello Kitty, who was created years later in 1974.
Miffy’s bold and clean design, sleek silhouette and signature dichotomous nose and mouth (a philosophical issue in itself) are famous the world over. With her simple but empowering day trips everywhere from the zoo to the seaside she has captured the hearts of generations.