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You’d assume it might be Harry Potter, right? Or, failing that, Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl. Well, no. While the boy wizard takes up a fair chunk of the list, nothing by Blyton or Dahl troubles the top 10. No story by Beatrix Potter, David Walliams, Sue Townsend, Kenneth Grahame, Edith Nesbit, Julia Donaldson or Philip Pullman makes the list either.
So what are the best-selling children’s books of all time? Here we go, in reverse order:
=7. Charlotte’s Web, by EB White (1952)
50 million sales
The top half of our list is shared by five books, all of which have sold about 50 million copies. EB White wrote several children’s books featuring talking animals, including Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. Charlotte’s Web is his most famous work, the tale of an unlikely friendship between a pig and a spider (this, half a century before The Simpsons’ Spider Pig).
=7. Watership Down, by Richard Adams (1972)
50 million sales
It’s hard to read the words ‘Watership Down’ without conjuring Art Garfunkel’s plaintive song Bright Eyes. (Which -- top fact -- was actually written by Mike Batt, who also gave the world the Wombes theme tune.) Adams’s novel about plucky rabbits living on a Hampshire hillside was a bestseller and multi-award winner before the film came along in 1978, and continues to sell well today.
=7. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (1877)
50 million sales
The oldest book in our list, and also one of several told from an animal’s perspective. Literature’s most famous autobiographical horse begins life on a farm, progresses to pulling cabs in London, before retiring back to the countryside. It’s not only a compelling children’s tale, but also a plea for better treatment of working animals. Black Beauty was Anna Sewell’s only novel, published a few months before her death at the age of 57. She lived long enough to see it sell well, but perhaps couldn’t have dreamed she’d left a legacy that would gallop through the centuries to become one of the best-selling books of all time.
=7. Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
50 million sales
For a 112-year-old novel where not much happens, Anne of Green Gables still has an enormous cultural pull. The story of a voluble orphan’s attempts to settle into a new home is full of warmth, character and the kind of everyday dilemmas that children can still relate to. Anne proved so popular that Montgomery went on to write numerous sequels. Tourists still flock to Prince Edward Island in Canada to follow in Anne’s footsteps.
=7. Heidi, by Johanna Spyri (1880)
50 million sales
Parents and grandparents of a certain age will spontaneously start humming or whistling whenever the name Heidi is mentioned. A dubbed Swiss/German version of the story was on endless repeat through the 1980s, and had the world’s catchiest theme tune. Before all that, Heidi started off as a wildly popular novel, published in 1880. It tells the story of another little orphan girl, this time living in the Swiss Alps, who later moves to the big city to be a lady’s companion. As with Anne of Green Gables, it is the supporting cast of characters who add real depth and warmth to the story. Peter the Goatherd and Clara, an invalid who eventually overcomes her disability, will stay with you for life.
6. The Harry Potter novels (except Philosopher’s Stone), by JK Rowling (1998-2007)
Image © Matt Brown
65-75 million sales
A series of novels that should need no introduction, Harry Potter and his wizarding friends are the single greatest phenomenon in children’s publishing (and film-making, and merchandising) this millennium. All seven of the novels have sold at least 65 million copies -- equivalent to every woman, man and child in the UK taking a copy of each. The second book, Chamber of Secrets, has shifted a fair few more (75 million and counting), but the first book is way ahead (see below). Collectively, the series has sold more than half a billion copies and broken all kinds of publishing records.
5. The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi (1881)
80 million sales
We all know about the Disney film -- the puppet who wants to be a real boy, and has a nose that grows whenever he tells a lie. It gave the world When You Wish Upon A Star. But did you know the tale started off as a children’s book -- and one that’s outsold most of the Harry Potter novels? This Italian story debuted the year after Heidi. It’s since been translated into over 300 languages, and is reputedly the most-translated non-religious book of all time. I’m not even lying.
4. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis (1950)
85 million sales
An epic tale of talking lions, an evil witch, magical bedroom furniture and Turkish Delight, this remains CS Lewis’s best-known, and best-selling Narnia novel. Its four young heroes are well sketched, but the White Witch, Aslan the Lion and Mr Tumnus the fawn are the real stars. The book has been adapted several times to film, TV and the stage, but the original text remains well loved.
3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling (1997)
120 million sales
The first outing for The Boy Who Lived has sold almost twice as many copies as any of its sequels. Who are all these people who acquired the first book, but didn’t think it worth persevering with the rest? The novel gave us our first glimpse of Hogwarts, Voldemort, Snape, Quidditch and a thousand other now-familiar names and concepts. Bafflingly, the title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the US version.
=1. The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien (1937)
150 million sales
It would be easy to assume that Tolkien’s Middle Earth only became truly popular with the release of the Peter Jackson films in the Noughties. Not so. The Hobbit has sold like elven hot cakes since its release. The tale of Bilbo Baggins, Gollum and the dragon Smaug has been adapted for film and television many times, and was even performed as a song by another cultural icon: Leonard “Mr Spock” Nimoy (look it up on YouTube if you dare).
=1. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
And finally, in joint first place, Saint-Exupéry’s multilayered tale of an interplanetary prince. The French classic is arguably less famous in the English-speaking world than the other stories in this list. It hasn’t seen the benefit of a major Hollywood blockbuster (although a French animated adaptation in 2015 was well received), but is still enormously popular on the continent. It is the story of an aviator who crashes in the Sahara desert and, while fixing his plane, meets a peculiar prince who claims to come from an asteroid. The book adroitly treads the tightrope of telling a story kids will enjoy, while also singing to the adult audience.
Narrowly missing the top 10 were such classics as The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (45 million sales) and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (43 million sales).
The list was compiled using information from Wikipedia, but double checked on independent sites. Sales figures are approximate -- especially with older titles, which are out of copyright and now flourish under many different publishers. Still older stories, such Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, may have made the list, but no reliable way of tallying sales is available.
See our complete list of book suggestions for all ages and obsessions.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.