Long ago, in a land not far away, children's books were a neglected corner of the book world - marginalised, unimportant, an afterthought. Today, one in every three books sold in the UK is a children's book. We're spending more money on children's books than ever before and an increasing number of adults turned to children's fiction for comfort reading in lockdown.

In this Archive on 4, writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce explores how and why books for children have become central to our reading culture. It’s a Cinderella story - a tale of humble beginnings, unexpected transformations and glittering success.

We have a rich and deep children’s book culture, going back to the classics like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and The Railway Children - stories which still live with us, adapting and evolving for new generations. Frank explores where they come from and how two World Wars and societal change in the 1960s shaped children’s books, and our understanding of childhood itself. He explores the spectacular success of bestselling novels by JK Rowling and Phillip Pullman at the turn of the Millennium, which rocket-fuelled children’s publishing.

Traditionally we've preferred to see children's books as ahistoric and separate from the wider culture but in fact, says Frank, writing for children has always been deeply engaged with society. From Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, through to Malorie Blackman's best-selling Noughts and Crosses series, these authors create mirrors for young readers to reflect on life’s big questions. As Philip Pullman says, "There are some subjects which are too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book."’

With contributions from Cressida Cowell, Phillip Pullman, Robert Macfarlane, Jacqueline Wilson, Onjali Rauf, Patrice Laurence, Dapo Adeola, Aimée Felone, Barry Cunningham, Andy Miller, Professor Karen Coats and David Fickling.

Readers in order of appearance: Ali, Teddy, Matthew, Elysia, Helena, Isabelle.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald and Sarah O’Reilly


Brief mention of Tolkien at about 15 minutes in, not sure why they talk about The Lord of the Rings in a programme about children's books. He did write a very successful children's book.