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

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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