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

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.