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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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