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Books for bright sparks – a top school librarian’s picks

Magdalen College School in Oxford is one of the top academic successes in the UK. Where better to tap up for smart suggestions on the best books to captivate kids?

One of the few silver linings to pandemic life is that our kids have gone gaga about reading. Because, frankly, when they’re locked down and its bucketing down, what better way to pass the time than curled up with a good book.

Sales of books are at an eight-year high and libraries have moved to click and collect to keep up with demand. But once you’ve worked your way through the Rowlings and Walliams, what next?

We’ve tapped up the bright bookworms at Magdalen College School, Oxford to get their favourites. It may be one of the most academic institutions in the country, but the joy of reading is the focus, with ‘reading for pleasure’ very much encouraged both within, and beyond, the walls of its magnificent library. Whether it’s the latest chart-topper, the classics, non-fiction, poetry or graphic novels – all books are celebrated. In fact, we have it on good authority from the librarians, Liisa Agren and Michelle McDonough, that Calvin and Hobbes comic books are their most-borrowed titles.

Catering for all ages and tastes, here’s a book trolley-load of suggestions from Liisa, Michelle and some of students at Magdalen College School.

Year 2-3 (age 6+)

‘Mr Dog’ series by Ben Fogle

Mr Dog is a wonderful, compassionate character who tries to help those in hardship. The stories have good pace and fabulous illustrations so they don’t feel too daunting. Readers will giggle their way through, picking up fascinating facts along the way.

Year 4 -6 (age 8+)

The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson

Olia lives in a wooden castle resplendent with domes, hidden staircases and secret doors, which she longs to find and explore: who wouldn’t? A terrible storm threatens the very existence of the castle and Olia has to go on a quest across strange lands to save her family home. With portals, extraordinary characters and thrilling challenges, this is a book that will captivate readers.

Pupil pick: The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer

Jacob: “Have you ever wondered what might have happened to Sleeping Beauty after the curse was broken, had Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm Brothers written a sequel? Well, now you can find out! The fairy-tale world is just steps away in The Land of Stories.

Years 5-6 (age 9+)

Glassheart by Katherine Orton

When Nona, an orphan, joins her uncle on a job in an abandoned church, she soon learns that all is not what is seems. Castor, a shape shifting presence who lives in the church, reveals that the church is an ‘umbrafell’ – a place that ‘exists in two worlds at once’. From here the narrative moves into a magical spirit world which is being torn apart by conflict. Can Nona help the spirits protect their world and build a better future?

Pupil Pick: Beetle Boy by M. G Leonard

Ting-Kai: “This is a friendship story about a boy called Darkus whose dad disappeared, and he found out he could talk to beetles. In this quirky tale, Darkus’ friends help him rescue his Dad. If you like insects and beetles, adventures and mysteries, this is your book!”

Pupil pick: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Freddy: “A separated family make their way across Nazi-dominated Europe to find their missing father. Read this book at your own risk; ready to encounter the thrilling mystery and action which lays ahead. A challenging read, but worth it!”

Years 7-8 (age 11+)

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

This whip-smart trilogy tells the story of a cranky, wise-cracking, 5,000 year-old demon, Bartimaeus, who has been summoned by a naïve but ambitious young wizard in an alternate steam-punk Victorian London.

Pupil pick: Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Charlie: “It would be an utter crime not to read this cracking book, which has stood the test of time despite having being written almost 150 years ago. The title itself is evocative of the rich tapestry of people, places and experiences which the reader will encounter through the eyes of our intrepid explorer and protagonist, Phileas Fogg.”

Pupil pick: Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

Richard: “One day, as Sig’s father is discovered dead on the ice of the lake near the cabin, a stranger comes to the door: Sig is forced to stay hostage in the cabin. As the narrative flashes from present to when Sig was a small child, the real reasons behind Sig’s father’s death are revealed in a thrilling and exciting way. Sig must decide which parent to be faithful to, his gun-loving father or his peaceful and religious mother.”

Years 8-9 (age 12+)

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

A chilling dystopian tale of a brutal, oppressive regime with a dyslexic hero on a quest to save his friend from the ‘monstrous Motherland’.

Years 10-11 (age 14+)

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

A dark story exploring the violent consequences of isolation and delusion. Not for the faint-hearted, but brilliantly creative in its story-telling.

(Mature 14+ readers)

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

An illuminating and moving insight into a child’s perspective of growing up in Nigeria during the civil war.  It raises pertinent questions about colonialism, religious upbringing and civil conflict.

Years 12-13 (age 16+)

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A thrilling foray into Victorian sleuthing: multiple narrators unravel a gothic mystery, which opens with a mysterious figure all in white, fleshed out with dastardly plots and conspiracies, deception, and false imprisonment.

Years 12-13 (age 16+)

Troubles by J.G. Farrell

A hilarious yet tragic novel set in a dilapidated hotel soon after WW1, amid the struggle for Irish independence, Troubles was unique in winning the Booker Prize 40 years after it was written.

If you’d like to find out more about Magdalen College School, the next Open Events are on Thursday 11th March (Senior School & Sixth Form) and Friday 19th March (Junior School). Pre-registration is essential. Book via

Read the Muddy Stilettos review of Magdalen College School here

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