Cat among the pigeons: from A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld
Show Hide image

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

OLIVER BURSTON
Show Hide image

How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism