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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

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