Messing around: Captain Beastlie in Lucy Coat's gloriously squalid story. Image: © Chris Mould 2014
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It’s a kind of magic: the best children’s books for autumn

From Judith Kerr’s The Crocodile Under the Bed to a Psammead sequel, there are plenty of new titles to delight all ages this season, writes Amanda Craig. 

The autumn half-term brings a bumper crop of good books for children aged between two and 12. If we get floods again, Noah’s Ark (Frances Lincoln, £14.99), meticulously illustrated in a pop-up version by Francesca Crespi, is perfect for imaginative two-to-four-year-olds, who can watch Noah’s sons sawing logs, beasts pairing up and the little ark being tossed on giant waves.

Alternatively, Judith Kerr, the nonagenarian author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, has finally completed The Crocodile Under the Bed (HarperCollins, £12.99) – a story first conceived in 1968. It’s a charming romp about a sick boy taken to an animal birthday party, though the naughty might prefer Captain Beastlie’s Pirate Party (Nosy Crow, £10.99). Featuring a fantastically filthy captain getting an unexpected present from his crew, it is irresistible: Lucy Coats’s uproarious text and Chris Mould’s colourfully baroque cartoons are disgustingly funny for those aged three and above.

Jan Pienkowski has given us another collection of spooky fairy stories from his native land, using the Polish art form of cut-out silhouettes and setting these against brilliant primary colours. Told in crisp prose
by David Walser, The Glass Mountain (Walker, £12.99) is just the thing to raise the hair of a five-year-old on Hallowe’en.

Good stories for readers aged six and above are hard to come by. The publisher Barrington Stoke is branching out from its brilliant dyslexia-friendly novels with the Little Gem series (all £6.99), also by top authors. Alexander McCall Smith’s Good Dog Lion is about an African boy who yearns for a dog – and whose life is saved by one with three legs. Eoin Colfer’s The Fish in the Bathtub concerns a little Polish girl who makes a pet of her grandfather’s carp, intended for Christmas dinner. Both are wise and charming.

There’s more love between children and animals in the third instalment of Michelle Paver’s Gods and Warriors series, set in Bronze Age Greece. In The Eye of the Falcon (Puffin, £6.99), her vivid imagination foreshadows the myth of the Minotaur in the struggles of the priestess Pirra, the outcast Hylas and the adorable lion cub Havoc as they survive a deadly winter, a plague and pursuit by the cruel Crow people. Tense and unobtrusively educational, it shows one of our best storytellers on top form. For kids aged eight and above.

If you have a reluctant reader of nine years or over, Kenneth Oppel is your man. The Boundless (David Fickling, £10.99) is a tale about a young railway pioneer on board the most magnificent train ever built. Reputed to contain a priceless treasure, it becomes the scene of a ghastly murder that the brave, kind-hearted Will must solve as he hurtles across the frozen Canadian countryside along with a circus troupe and a bunch of villains. Adventures don’t come better than this. Oppel is the modern Jules Verne.

Another chase story for readers of 11 upwards is Tim Bowler’s Night Runner (Oxford University Press, £6.99). Zinny finds himself caught in a nightmare when his mum is in hospital and his dad disappears. Why is the sinister “Flash Coat” interested in the Okoro family and what is his connection to the bullies at school? Scared but resolute, Zinny is quick-witted and quick-footed and his resilience in the face of poverty and adversity makes this a compelling, gritty read by a Carnegie Medal-winning author.

Girls of 11 and above pining for teen romance should try Leigh Bardugo’s exotic Grisha trilogy (Indigo, £6.99), starting with Shadow and Bone, in which Alina, a modest orphan, is plucked from obscurity when crisis reveals her to be the long-sought-after “sun summoner”. She must choose between her childhood love, the hunter Mal, and an evil but seductive Grisha aristocrat. Its Russian-influenced fantasy world makes the struggle between dark magic and light magic exciting and emotionally involving.

Not enough new children’s books are aimed at the eight-to-11 age range but my last two picks are honourable exceptions. Toby Ibbotson is the son of the late, great Eva Ibbotson and his debut is about three autocratic, formidably magical “Great Hagges”. They set up a school for British ghosts, who have “grown enfeebled and sloppy”, to learn how to haunt properly. Stripping policemen naked as they drive around in a Rolls-Royce, they find a damp, northern castle for their base. Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan, £9.99) is a sparkling comedy, right up there with Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. Its plot involves a councillor bent on destroying a town’s park but it’s the eccentric ghosts and the Hagges themselves – ruthless yet springing to the defence of the vulnerable – who make this book as hilarious as it is enchanting.

Kate Saunders’s Five Children on the West­ern Front (Faber & Faber, £10.99) is a sequel to E Nesbit’s classic about five Edwardian children who discover a Psammead or sand fairy. In 1914, the brothers Robert and Cyril are old enough to enlist. The five (now six) rediscover the grumpy Psammead – only it has problems of its own. The highs and lows of a large, left-wing family are beautifully done, as is the heart-rending time-travel magic. There has been a sandbag full of children’s books about the Great War published this year but Saunders’s novel is head and shoulders above the rest. It catches Nesbit’s voice, refreshes her characters and conveys the suffering in the trenches with just enough detail for children to sympathise rather than recoil. Keep your hanky ready – it’s superb. 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Picture: Disney
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Disney's failure to find an Arab Princess Jasmine for Aladdin shows the dire state of diversity in film

As a child in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. Yet no actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the cartoon.

Production on Disney’s new live-action Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, was expected to begin this month, but the studio reportedly struggled to find actors for its lead roles. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” the Hollywood Reporter claimed. “Especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent.”

The author described efforts to scout actors in the UK, India, Egypt and Abu Dhabi, which suggested a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white stars. However, many critics interpreted the rumoured casting difficulties as a sign that Ritchie might ultimately cast white actors in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. “It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role,” argued Rawan Eewshah in Allure, “or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?”

The hunt for Aladdin and Jasmine has become a global conversation on social media. In India, it has prompted collective eye-rolls considering the wealth of Bollywood actors trained in both acting and singing. Disney fans from across Europe, America, India and the Middle East have compiled long lists of suggestions drawn from Bollywood and Middle Eastern pop culture icons. Then there's the subset of criticism questioning the fact that Ritchie and the studio were casting Indian actors at all, given that the characters appear to be Arab.

In the event, most seemed happy with the announcement of Will Smith as the Genie, and the eventual decision to cast the Canadian-Egyptian Mena Massoud as Prince Ali. However, the decision to cast Naomi Scott, who is half Indian and half white, as Princess Jasmine, has caused further controversy, with many critics claiming that Disney should have cast an Arab actress.

This is not the first Aladdingate. Even in 1993, audiences were unhappy with the cartoon Aladdin’s portrayal of Arab culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted with frustration that most “of the Arab characters [had] exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

In response to protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Walt Disney Studios agreed to change the offensive lyrics to the opening song “Arabian Nights” for the film’s 1993 home video release. The lyrics had referred to the story’s Middle Eastern setting as a “barbaric” land where “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Former Disney executive Dick Cook defended the song, claiming that: “The irony in all of this is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic, and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.”

As a kid in the late Nineties, I lived for Aladdin. I spent much of my childhood dressing up as Princess Jasmine, convinced that my own Indian culture was reflected in the film’s imagery and cultural symbolism. It is only in more recent years that I have come to terms with the fact that the extent of the depiction of Indian “culture” in the film is Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah.

In actuality, the 1992 animated film is a white dream about the Middle East, lazily conflated with India (the Sultan’s palace is based on the Taj Mahal). It may have its origins in an ancient Syrian folk tale, but it is now painfully clear to me that the film is essentially an original work by a group of white men with a distorted and disturbingly orientalist view of the monolithic “East”. 

Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern region of Agrabah, and despite the film's (human) characters all having Arab names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is entirely white. No actual Arabs or even Indians were involved in the making of the film.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is so dire that grown men and women across three continents are arguing about the ethnic integrity of the cast of Aladdin, a children’s cartoon that a group of white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist. Our one hotly contested property in Western pop culture is a children’s musical cartoon starring Robin Williams. Aladdin was, and still is, important to me and my Arab, South Asian and Muslim friends, however problematic the depiction. Jasmine was brown, just like we were (and are) – and sadly, that was enough.

No one* is daft enough to believe that Aladdin is any kind of credible mythology. But in terms of positive on-screen depictions of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage and complexions, Aladdin is still as good as it gets. We are given so little time on-screen (and most of that time is taken up by portrayals of us as terrorists) that we are willing to settle for lazy cultural stereotypes and caricatures that erase our differences.

Of course, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures and people are not interchangeable. No one should treat them as such, from Disney to those making casting suggestions. As for me, I don’t believe that accurately casting Arab actors in the leading roles of the live-action remake is enough to correct the original Aladdin’s racist presentation of the Arab world as a “barbaric” region where “they will cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”. Still, it would have been a start.

*Except perhaps for the 41 per cent of Donald Trump supporters who said they were in favour of bombing Agrabah, the (fictional) homeland of Aladdin, in December 2015.