Cat among the pigeons: from A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld
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Robots and runaways: the best children’s books this season

Amanda Craig rounds up the best new offerings for young people.

A number of startlingly good new novels for teenagers and young adults share the theme of imprisonment. Of these, Sally Green’s debut, Half Bad (Penguin, £7.99,  13-plus), is the most remarkable. Like J K Rowling, Green has taken the idea of a secret society of magical families living among us and done something new.

The narrator is a teenage boy who is kept outside in a cage; in effect, he is what Harry Potter would have been if Voldemort had been his father. Constantly assessed and tormented, Nathan longs to become a “white witch” like his dead mother but hopes that his evil “black witch” father, Marcus, will rescue him. If he does not escape before he is 17 and receive the three gifts that will make him into an adult witch, he will die. Written in a spare, vivid style that depicts a world likely to appeal to boys as much as girls, Half Bad is a thrilling story of injustice, love and heredity, partly inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. If this isn’t the bestselling young adult novel of the year, I’d be surprised.

Matt Haig’s Echo Boy (Bodley Head, £12.99, 13-plus) is set in a dystopian future in which humanoid robots (“echoes”) have no feelings, apart from Daniel, who, as a result of his 0.01 per cent human DNA, is almost like us, only without rights or freedoms. When Audrey’s parents are killed by an echo servant, she goes to live with her apparently benign uncle in London and soon has a complicated relationship with Daniel. As with Haig’s other crossover novels The Radleys and The Humans, this combines a cracking plot with profound philosophical questions about what it is to be human. Fearless and beautifully written, it confirms Haig as one of our best new writers of speculative fiction.

Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier (Walker, £7.99, 13-plus) is about a female slave who runs away dressed as a boy. By turns funny, laconic and harrowing, Charley is a narrator you fall for instantly as she outwits the plantation owner, sees her friends murdered and embarks on a quest for freedom and justice in the American civil war.

Ellen Renner’s wild imagination and tender prose resemble Joan Aiken’s and Tribute (Hot Key, £7.99, 11-plus) is a tour de force. Zara lives in a world where magic is power and mages enter the minds of animals, turn air solid and treat non-magical people as slaves. Her bullying father has murdered both her gentle mother and her best friend, so Zara has been helping the rebel Knowledge Seekers. Then a young man from the enemy tribe of Makers is taken as “Tribute”, supposedly as a hostage for peace, and she falls deeply in love. Almost all great fantasy sounds as silly as opera when the plot is outlined; what matters is that the characters live, think and feel with as much conviction as they might in a realist story.

Keren David’s Salvage (Atom, £11.99, 13-plus) is about two half-siblings who were separated ten years earlier by social services and reunited in their teens. Cass has been adopted into the elite but Aidan has made a new life even without any GCSEs. Once political scandal erupts in Cass’s life, the story asks questions about privilege, family and how we treat the poor. Skilfully written, Salvage marks David as an author of empathy and truthfulness.

Few modern children’s writers dare to tackle the story of Jesus Christ but Jamie Buxton’s Temple Boys (Egmont, £6.99, nine-plus) sidesteps the God trap with wit and heart. Flea is the smallest, cheekiest member of a street gang in Jerusalem. When a magician comes to town, the Temple Boys reckon they’ll steal a bit more from under the Romans’ noses – only this magician, Yesh, isn’t quite what they suppose. Whatever your beliefs, this is an outstanding book, both funny and serious.

Budding feminists will enjoy Daughters of Time (Templar, £7.99), an admirable collection of very short stories for those over the age of nine. Inspirational women from Boudicca to Mary Seacole get their biographies burnished by Mary Hoffman, Katherine Langrish, Adèle Geras and many other of our best children’s writers of historical fantasy, who join forces to imagine individual stories.

Picture books are often about escape. Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” is retold with charm and sensitivity in a book of the same name by Alexis Deacon (Hutchinson, £11.99) as a tale of redemption inside a walled garden where winter lingers. Gorgeous illustrations by Jane Ray enhance a topical tale by Dianne Hofmeyr, Zeraffa Giraffa (Frances Lincoln, £11.99), about a giraffe sent as a gift from Egypt to France. Rich in detail, these would both make beautiful presents for over-fives.

Younger children will find irresistible Curtis Jobling’s and Tom McLaughlin’s Old MacDonald Had a Zoo (Egmont, £6.99, four-plus), in which a grumpy Pools winner fails to keep his menagerie under control. More rebellious animals cavort through Those Magnificent Sheep in Their Flying Machine by Peter Bently (Andersen, £11.99, four-plus), as a flock zooms around the world in rhyming couplets and a stolen aeroplane. David Roberts’s illustrations are sublime.

My favourite, however, is A First Book of Nature (Walker, £12.99, four-plus) by Nicola Davies. It’s a unique mix of poetry, facts, recipes and more, and its eclecticism and exquisite illustrations by Mark Hearld make it a book that children and parents will return to over the holidays, the better to enjoy freedom or to endure it.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and critic of children’s books

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.