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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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