Master of the currents: pint-sized Bobby is the shy hero of My Teacher Is a Monster!
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Pranksters and ponies: the best new children’s books for summer

What should you pack for the summer holiday?

For children as for adults, the best time to read is during the summer holidays. But what to pack?

Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! (Macmillan, £11.99) may bring back fearful memories of school for five-plus, but is an otherwise witty, elegantly expressive picture book from the author of Mr Tiger Goes Wild. There’s a touch of Maurice Sendak in his hero’s discovery that monsters are not always what they seem. We have all been the terrified, pop-eyed Bobby at some point, but beleaguered teachers trying to control a class will welcome his discovery that the fearsomely tusked, green-faced monster who shouts at him for misbehaving morphs into a kind young woman after he rescues her favourite hat.

A perfectly horrid picture book, In One End and Out the Other by Dr Mike Goldsmith (Red Shed, £8.99), will cause howls of rude delight as it goes into the fundamentals of excrement. The flaps conceal useful information (“A plastic carrier bag can take 1,000 years to decompose”) for future citizens, but there’s enough toilet humour to make it irresistible for four-plus.

Philip Reeve’s Goblins, Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts and Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books all have delightful new instalments out this summer, but for the nine-plus football-mad reader, Morris Gleitzman’s Extra Time (Puffin, £6.99) is a comedy with brains and heart. Matt is a teenage football genius, and his struggles are narrated by his younger sister – and manager. Will he rediscover “the joyful spirit of the beautiful game”, or will his academy training destroy it?

David Almond’s Klaus Vogel and the Bad Lads (Barrington Stoke, £6.99, nine-plus) is about a gang whose pranks are fairly innocent until a scrawny, musical kid from East Germany turns up and becomes the focus for the gang leader Joe’s persecutions. Almond has a huge talent for describing the eternal battle between what is vile in human nature and the still, small voice of moral courage.

It is this voice that also comes through in Esme Kerr’s The Glass Bird Girl (Chicken House, £6.99). Edie is an orphan, sent to boarding school to keep an eye on Anasta­sia, the dreamy, vulnerable daughter of a wealthy Russian prince. Naturally, the old-fashioned Malory Towers setting (“You will find, in the end, that it’s a relief not to be in touch with the outside world,” the head teacher tells Edie) brings with it bullying, but what emerges is a web of deception with its roots in Edie’s mother’s past. Sensitively written, this is a cut above most fiction for girls of nine-plus.

An enchanting historical novel for 11-plus is Runaway by Marie-Louise Jensen (Oxford University Press, £6.99). Back from America in Georgian England, Charlotte dresses up as a boy after her father is murdered. She’s friendless and penniless but her love and knowledge of horses win her a job as a stable-boy at a grand house. Jensen’s storytelling verve and eye for period detail make her read like a cross between Black Beauty and Georgette Heyer. Our spirited heroine overcomes a prized horse’s colic, her own tendency to attract trouble (“You fight like a girl,” she keeps being told) and a growing attachment to the young steward who offers her fair employment but fails to penetrate her disguise. With a dash of class war in the brew, it’s an addictive read.

Joanna Nadin’s Eden (Walker, £6.99) is set in Cornwall and has undertones of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We know from the start that a beautiful house is burnt, and that Evie’s cousin Bea has died. Her grief, guilt and gorgeous narrative voice make this a memorable psychological suspense novel about first love – and first hate – for 12-plus, particularly girls.

Even more gripping is Helen Grant’s Demons of Ghent (Corgi, £7.99, 13-plus). It carries on characters from Silent Saturday, but also stands alone as a modern Gothic thriller that is never predictable. Grant is uniquely comfortable among YA authors with Continental characters and settings, and this story about a Flemish serial killer blends superstition and psychosis with visceral terror as its spiky heroine, Veerle, is pursued by a zealot who believes he is inspired by a 600-year-old painting.

Few teenagers face the problems of Sophia Bennett’s narrator in The Castle (Chicken House, £6.99). Peta doesn’t believe her soldier father is dead, and when a boy rings her to pass on a private mathematical joke, she embarks on a nail-biting quest to find and rescue her dad. Though it’s not published until August, this is one of the best thrillers for 12-plus I’ve read since Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Peta is both a  believable modern teenager and an action heroine of jaw-dropping courage. So, too, is her mysterious friend Jamal, a slave on the Mediterranean island hideaway of a billionaire. This half-starved, intellectually brilliant boy is a Muslim hero who is trying to save not only his own life but his timid sister’s, in an adventure that deserves a sequel or two. Happily there is no tiresome love interest, though there are mild irritants: why make up a pseudonym for Facebook?

Ever since her 2009 prize-winning debut, Threads, Bennett has combined social conscience and emotional intelligence with hilariously accurate depictions of the fashion and pop music scenes. This one is outstanding, and will fill a holiday with zest.

Amanda Craig is a novelist and children’s books critic

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

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