WRITING: My Favourite Shops in Children's Books
Shops are familiar places to us all and yet when they appear in stories they are so often full of mystique and intrigue. Everything from hats and sweets, to wands and wishes are sold on their shelves, and once a character walks through the doors anything might happen. There may be something inside that helps the protagonist decipher a clue, or changes their mind, or reveals something new. Shopkeepers are an essential part of their charm. Normally experts in their field; they can either help our heroes solve their mysteries, or add to them.
My book The Crooked Sixpence, is set in a huge underground market where people trade in ‘uncommon objects’ – everyday items that can do remarkable things. From Ethel Dread’s House of Bells to Violet Eyelet’s Button Apothecary, the shops and stalls in the story play an important part in the adventure. In no particular order, here are my top ten shops in children’s books. I recommend you pay them all a visit.
Sinclair’s from the Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
Glamourous department store Sinclair’s is already the most famous shop in London before it opens. With immaculately dressed staff, glittering interiors and a mysterious American owner, it is like nothing London has ever seen before – which makes it an incredibly fun setting for a mystery. When protagonist Sophie, who works in the Millinery Department, is implicated in the theft of the precious Clockwork Sparrow, she and her friends must set out to find the real culprit. Woodfine was inspired in part by Selfridges, which opened in London in 1909, but the rich and dreamy descriptions of Sinclair’s make it seem like another world all together, one that is a delight to spend time in.
Raj’s Newsagents from Billionaire Boy by David Walliams
Fan-favourite Raj appears in almost all of David Walliam’s books including his latest, The World’s Worst Children, but it is his appearance in Billionaire Boy that’s my favourite. Raj’s Newsagents sits on a run-down parade of shops alongside a launderette and an old, closed florists and inside, you can find everything from out-of-date Easter eggs, post-it notes and decades-old newspapers, to pensioners lurking behind quavers. The stock is haphazardly laid out and everything is advertised with crazy offers, like ‘buy 5 get half of 1 free’. Raj is loved in the community as a jolly, sarcastic and strangely-wise figure. Walliams has said that being neither a parent or a teacher, Raj is able to give the children honest advice, which is exactly what he does in Billionaire Boy, when poor Joe is dealing with the embarrassment of being the heir to the Bumfresh Toilet Paper fortune. Raj is responsible for my favourite moment in this book – he complains to Joe that Bumfresh’s new mint-flavoured bum wipes have turned his bottom purple, and then draws a graph illustrate the increasing purple-ness. Please Mr Walliams, bring him back again.
Madame Pamplemousse’s shop from Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher.
Madeleine, who washes up at her greedy Uncle Lard’s restaurant The Squealing Pig, is out looking for pâté when she stumbles across Madame Pamplemousse’s shop, selling strange and peculiar delicacies. The shop is small and rather shabby-looking but smells amazing, filled with the scents of middle-eastern spices, French cheese and lavender. Amongst its inventory is sea-serpent pâté, blue rose petal jam and prehistoric fungus in Jurassic vinegar; and Madame Pamplemousse herself is like a cross between Heston Blumenthal and Mary Poppins – a well-spoken, enigmatic chef with a twinkle in her eye. The shop is her life’s work and her passion, and it is the key reason why this book is so much fun.
The Strand Bookshop from Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan
The Strand is a well-known bookshop in New York – almost ninety years old – and an essential stop off for any book-lover when visiting the Big Apple. In Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, the Strand is a second home to Dash – an angry, bookish teenage scrooge, who describes the store as a ‘bastion of titillating erudition…with literary wreckage strewn over eighteen miles of shelves’. Lily, a bouncy, optimistic Christmas-loving girl, hides a notebook full of dares on the Strand shelves, hoping it will snare her Mr Right. Dash, of course, picks it up and so begins a fresh and uplifting romantic comedy imbued with all the dusty romance and twists and turns you’d find in a labyrinthine old bookshop.
Ollivanders from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
There are so many amazing shops in the Harry Potter series, it’s hard to single out just one. Diagon Alley and its sinister neighbour Knockturn Alley are home to Eeylops Owl Emporium, Flourish & Blotts’ Bookshop and Borgin & Burkes antique shop, among others. Shops are used frequently throughout the plots in the series, but it is in Ollivander’s wand shop in the first book, where Harry gets his first wand – a pivotal moment both in terms of the events of the story, but also in Harry’s emotional journey. The proprietor, Mr Ollivander epitomises J. K. Rowling’s genius characterisation; he is secretive and eccentric, everything a good magical shopkeeper should be.
Brew’s from Witch Wars by Sibéal Pounder
Witch Wars is set in Sinkville, a beautiful black and grey world where resplendently dressed witches go about their daily business drinking bubbly drinks and buying fabulous shoes. Amongst the underwater spas, film studios and secret cafes of Sinkville, Brew’s is a designer-clothes shop run by Mrs Brew – the premier fashion designer in Ritzy City. New witch Tiga is befriended by the famous designer’s daughter, Fluffanora, who brings Tiga to Brew’s to kit her out with a suitable witch outfit. Here, Tiga can admire crystal handbags, wide-brimmed hats, silky gloves and must-have dresses. Unlike your stereotypical fashionista, Fluffanora is kind and unpretentious, and Brew’s is one of many examples of the breath-taking, joyous invention in Pounder’s series.
The Sweet Shop Caravan from Amazing Esme and the Sweet Shop Circus by Tamara Macfarlane The Amazing Esme books – about a girl who is a member of a circus – are fantastic for children aged 6 – 8 looking for a heroine who has a lot of heart and grit. In this, the second book in the series, Esme makes a mistake, sending the circus into deep trouble and is told as her punishment, that she has to run the pop-corn stand (the lowest of the low). With the help of her cousins and pet donkey however, Esme turns the punishment into a positive by transforming the pop-corn cart into an amazing sweetshop caravan, melting down glacier fruits to make stained glass windows and re-painting the stand as ‘Circus Sweets and Circus Treats.’ The shop becomes a symbol of Esme’s can-do attitude, and with it she is able to transform the fate of Circus Miranda.
The Nowhere Emporium from The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie Escaping from the bullies at his Glasgow children's home, Daniel Holmes hides inside a strange shop filled with a menagerie of objects – from wooden toys and gleaming crystals to a stuffed polar bear. He meets Mr Silver the enigmatic shopkeeper, who eventually recruits Daniel as his apprentice and teaches him the secrets of the wonders hidden within the shop walls. The Nowhere Emporium won the Blue Peter Best Story Award 2016 – voted for by children – and when you read it, you can tell why. The Shop is right up there with Ollivanders as a magical place that readers will want to explore again and again.
The Tailor’s shop from The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
Published in 1903, as the follow-up to the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, this Beatrix Potter gem is a snowy fairy-tale set behind the leaded window panes of a little shop in Westgate Street, Gloucester. It tells the story of a poor tailor who is tasked with making a coat of cherry coloured silk for the Mayor of Gloucester’s wedding on Christmas Morning. The delightful thing about this shop is that we can see how the author imagines it in her illustrations as well as her words – cramped and tidy, with wooden floors and a low ceiling. When Simpkin, the tailor’s bad-tempered cat hides the tailor’s much needed cherry-coloured twist, all is lost until a band of Beatrix Potter’s distinctly well-dressed mice get together to save the day. Of all my top ten, I think this is the one where I feel I’m really inside the shop as I read it, sitting there watching the mice working by candlelight through the night.
Monsieur Labisse’s Bookshop from The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Told to mesmerising effect in both words and pictures, The Invention of Hugo Cabret recounts the story of an unusual boy called Hugo who lives in a busy train station in 1930s Paris. Among the shops in the station is an atmospheric bookshop run by the unassuming Monsieur Labisse. Hugo is a boy with many secrets and Labisse’s bookshop is key to unlocking what is, at first, Hugo’s greatest mystery to solve – repairing a broken automaton left to him by his father. In pictures we see the bookshop interior: books piled on chairs and heaped on tables, a sleeping cat in the corner and a bust of Shakespeare on the sill. It is a palace of learning for many of the characters in the story and drawn with such affection that it comes as no surprise to learn that Selznick, like me, was once a bookseller himself.
This article was originally published for the Guardian Children's Books website, Top Ten Feature June 2nd 2016 here.