Quirks: from Laura Carlin's A World of Your Own
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In a world of their own: the best children’s books of 2014

Amanda Craig’s round-up of reading to enchant and inspire young minds this Christmas. 

Much of our idea of a perfect Christmas is culled from picture books. In Katie’s London Christmas (Orchard Books, £11.99) James Mayhew’s much-loved heroine gets this, waking to a snowy ride on Santa’s sleigh and delivering presents to Londoners. Ideal for the night before, or after, Christmas.

Laura Carlin’s A World of Your Own (Phaidon, £12.95) also celebrates a child’s imagination, in a quirky and thoughtful style that invites young readers to add their own creative ideas. Emily Gravett depicts the irrepressible Hare and the dubious Bear experiencing Snow! (Macmillan, £10.99) for the first time together. The expressions are priceless, the games delightful and Gravett is a graphic genius. Richard Curtis’s The Snow Day (Puffin, £10.99) is very appealing, too; Rebecca Cobb illustrates a child’s embarrassment at encountering a teacher in unusual circumstances at school. However, my picture book of the year is Emma Chichester Clark’s Bears Don’t Read! (HarperCollins, £12.99). Lonely George meets a bookish little girl and – to the alarm of adults – follows her to school, longing to read. Friendship trumps fear in a warm, elegant postmodern comedy. All of the books above are recommended for four-plus.

In Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to the Moon (HarperCollins, £12.99, nine-plus) Alfie and his fisherman father find a mute girl on a deserted Cornish island. Is she a mermaid, a German or a traumatised American child from the torpedoed Lusitania? Our national treasure is always hugely moving about pacifism and the healing power of kindness, but Chris Priestley’s assured reinvention of A Christmas Carol, The Last of the Spirits (Bloomsbury, £10.99), is more seasonal, and ideal for nine-plus. Dickens’s Ignorance and Want, two beggar children, are guided to better fortune by the ghost of Marley; Priestleyesque creepiness combines with true charity for a happy Christmas.

Philip Kerr’s The Winter Horses (Walker Books, £12.99), based on a true story, is a treat for ten-plus, written with filmic pace and polish. The orphaned Kalinka is all that stands between the last two Przewalski’s horses and extinction, once the Nazis have hunted down the breed as ugly and unfit. Both girl and horses use courage, resilience and cleverness to outwit thugs, cannibals and the deadly cold of the Ukrainian steppe.

A captivating new detective series for 11-plus, Robin Stevens’s Wells & Wong books begin with Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, £6.99). The setting is a stuffy 1930s girls’ boarding school. The narrator, Hazel Wong, is a Hong Kong girl who hero-worships the English Daisy Wells, though she is braver and brighter than her idol. Sure to appeal to those who detest public schools but love Malory Towers, the story features racism, lesbianism, murder and a Chinese heroine grappling with the absurdities of the English class system. The sequel, Arsenic for Tea (out in January), is just as stylish and funny.

The Young Bond series is now being written by Steven Cole. In Shoot to Kill (Doubleday, £12.99), the teenage James Bond is sent down from Eton and dumped in Dartington Hall – a hilarious innovation that pays off when he ventures into Hollywood, by way of a girl bully, a Bentley, a Zeppelin and derring-do. Comedy, dash and imagination refresh a rebooted British hero.

Nicole Burstein’s Othergirl (Andersen Press, £7.99) is about friendship between an ordinary girl and a secret super-heroine. It’s bad enough being geeky seamstress to a gorgeous best friend liable to burst into flames, but avoiding envy and bad boyfriends is harder. Burstein explores loyalty, common sense and growing up in a smart, confidence-boosting comedy for 11-plus girls that owes much to The Incredibles.

Michelle Magorian’s Impossible! (Troika Books, £7.99) returns the author of the classic children’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom to ten-plus readers who prefer realism. Spurned by drama school, Josie, the tomboyish heroine, takes refuge from criminals with the real-life Joan Littlewood. The world of 1950s gumption and greasepaint is captured vividly in a sturdy Ballet Shoes-meets-Kidnapped caper.

Unabashed fantasy remains the best choice in 2014, with Toby Ibbotson’s hilar­ious Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan, £12.99) and Kate Saunders’s heart-rending Five Children on the Western Front (Faber & Faber, £10.99) the outstanding choices for eight to 12, and Matt Haig’s SF thriller Echo Boy (Bodley Head, £12.99) and Sally Green’s witchy Half Bad (Penguin, £7.99) the top tips for 13-plus. All previously reviewed in the NS, they are exciting and unusual, and would make excellent gifts.

My children’s book of the year, though, is Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (Bloomsbury, £12.99). This conflation of “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”, given ravishingly detailed pen-and-ink illustrations by Chris Riddell, is already a collector’s item. On the eve of her wedding, a brave young queen learns of a growing sleeping sickness threatening her people from a neighbouring country. Accompanied by three faithful dwarves, she travels through dark places and dead roses to confront an evil enchantress’s spell and free herself. Unforgettable, unpredictable and utterly enchanting for anyone between the ages of seven and 70. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution