My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell *****

How I wish I had read this book when I was a child. I am going to read this book to my children, and give it to every human being I ever meet who hasn't read it. It is wonderful.

Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was first published in 1956 and is set between 1935 and 1939 when Gerald Durrell’s family move to Corfu.

It’s a work of genius and should be in every child’s bookcase. It’s written by a naturalist, and opens your eyes, providing you with a vocabulary to describe and think about the creatures you encounter in the natural world – no matter how old you are.

The book is divided into three parts – the three different villas in which Gerald and his eccentric family live at various times in Corfu. Durrell manages to capture a child’s point of view of the adult world perfectly.  His observations of his family are similar to his observations of the creatures he collects. It’s not complex language, but it is beautifully expressed. The descriptive prose is shockingly good. The narrative is not held together so much by plot as by humour, which I think is an important ingredient in a children’s book. This book is very funny, with proper laugh out loud moments. There are delightful childish details, like he has these two little dogs called Widdle and Puke, and then there’s the moment with the scorpions…so good. And it’s one of the few books I’ve found that has large sections about beetles in it!

People talk about narrative voice, I think this book has narrative eyes – or a narrative view. We see the natural world as Gerald Durrell did, as a boy and, of course, he grew up to be a famous naturalist. As an adult writer, he could so easily have browbeaten the reader with all his knowledge, but it’s handled with a light touch.

He describes Ulysses, his pet owl, waking up: “He would yawn delicately, shiver violently, so that all his feathers stood out like the petals of a wind-blown chrysanthemum.” I delight in this kind of descriptive prose.

There are some dubious moments, when the young Gerald does things that are now illegal – he steals eggs. That particular kind of exploration can’t happen anymore because of the damage it would do, but the subject does raise interesting questions. When the young Gerald goes out on his expeditions to collect and watch creatures – or to explore — he has a freedom and autonomy that children don’t have today.

If you haven't read this book, you must.