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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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood