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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era