The Children’s Book by A S Byatt


From Goodreads:

“A spellbinding novel, at once sweeping and intimate, from the Booker Prize–winning author of Possession, that spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.

When Olive Wellwood’s oldest son discovers a runaway named Philip sketching in the basement of the new Victoria and Albert Museum—a talented working-class boy who could be a character out of one of Olive’s magical tales—she takes him into the storybook world of her family and friends.

But the joyful bacchanals Olive hosts at her rambling country house—and the separate, private books she writes for each of her seven children—conceal more treachery and darkness than Philip has ever imagined. As these lives—of adults and children alike—unfold, lies are revealed, hearts are broken, and the damaging truth about the Wellwoods slowly emerges. But their personal struggles, their hidden desires, will soon be eclipsed by far greater forces, as the tides turn across Europe and a golden era comes to an end.

Taking us from the cliff-lined shores of England to Paris, Munich, and the trenches of the Somme, The Children’s Book is a deeply affecting story of a singular family, played out against the great, rippling tides of the day. It is a masterly literary achievement by one of our most essential writers.”

There is so much to love about this book, but I’ve condensed my effusions of joy. Instead I’m going to recommend this book to certain readers in the style of “If you love ____, then you’ll love _____.” Let’s go!

  1. If you love sweeping generational sagas steeped in history, you’ll love The Children’s Book. The book begins in the late Victorian era travels through Edwardian times, and continues up to the end of World War 1. The Boer War, the suffrage movement and rise of feminism in education, and the blurring of class lines and mobilization of the working class are a few of the historical elements. There are also the smaller historical details like dress, customs, and manners that make The Children’s Book rich reading.
  2. If you love art and art history, then you’ll love The Children’s Book. Ceramics/Pottery play a major role in this book. Building the kiln, working with glazes, and molding and shaping clay are detailed. There is also architecture, silversmith work and jewelry making, embroidery, marionettes, plays, novels, poetry, and painting. In addition to the artistic process there is a fair amount about significant art movements and works including descriptions of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts movement, the building of the Victoria and Albert Musuem, and several significant operas and plays (including Peter Pan). Famous artists and writers are alluded to or in a “cameo” including Oscar Wilde and J.M. Barrie.
  3. If you love fairy tales, you will love The Children’s Book. Olive Wellwood – a major if not THE main character of the book – writes children’s books about fairies, deep forests, and mysterious creatures. The work of other fairy tale writers from Kipling with his Pook of Puck Hill, the brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson play a role. More importantly the “children” at the beginning of the novel find their lives paralleling fairy tales in a manner. Dead parents, false identities, charming serpents and even Bluebeard’s locked room make an appearance.

If I haven’t convinced you to read this yet, let me tell you the writing is lush and the characters alive. I wept through the last forty pages of the book, I was shocked, inspired, angered, joyous, and basking in the breathless beauty of The Children’s Book. I think this is Byatt’s finest work to date and look forward to re-reading it often.

Started: 14 June 2015

Finished: 12 July 2015

Pages: 883


Owned/Borrowed/Library: Owned

Stars: 5 out of 5 stars



  1. Yes, yes, yes!
    I am in the process of moving and have had to undergo a major book cull. My criteria? Will I reread this book or not?
    The Children’s Book was carefully packed in the ‘you bet I’ll reread this one. more than once!’
    My edition also has a gorgeous dragonfly arts and crafts cover 🙂

  2. This is one of (maybe the one really big one) I really want to read this but never get around to it books. It is constantly in the back of my mind. You read it so quickly–was it your sole read or do you read more than one book at a time, too? Now you make me want to go and pull it from my own pile and start reading…..!

    1. It was my sole read with the exception of dipping into a parenting book. The Children’s Book was so immersive. I felt like I had to sink into it for long stretches to truly appreciate it. In other words, I couldn’t really read this on my 15 minute break or when I know I will be interrupted.

  3. I loved this one, so immersive, as you say. And I have the arts and crafts cover one, too. It was a while ago that I read it, so it must be due a re-read. Definitely a keeper!

  4. So I am 145 days late coming to this post according to WordPress but it popped up on my reader thing on my phone and I’m glad it did! Adding it to the reading list right now! I love everything in your bullet points so I will be using some Christmas money to help move it up the ‘to read’ stack!

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