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Secrets beyond the door: the best children's fiction for Easter

Amanda Craig picks the best children’s books for spring.

With J K Rowling turning to crime fiction and Philip Pullman to voicing the nation’s political conscience, children’s books have become less high profile of late. Yet, despite the pitiful review space in national newspapers, they account for one in every three books sold in the UK – and are often better crafted, more challenging and more entertaining than much adult literature.

Sally Gardner’s The Door That Led To Where (Hot Key Books, £6.99), for readers of 11 or over, is about three impoverished teenagers matured by time travel after passing through a magic door. Despite getting just one GCSE, AJ is taken on by a law firm in the Inner Temple. His prospects change once he gets a paid job with a future – but then he finds a way into the London of Charles Dickens’s youth.

Gardner grew up near the rarefied Inner Temple. Profoundly dyslexic, she was sent to a school for the “maladjusted”. Now a winner of the Carnegie Medal, she draws on this experience to provide the mitochondrial power of her novel. The rebellious hero and his mates escape from a gang in contemporary Stoke Newington to 1830s London: where (or when) do they belong? In the past, they are not failures or budding criminals but good-hearted young men who know how to make filthy drinking water safe. As the three tangle with poison, treachery and love, the novel asks whether the past was better at granting the young responsibility, opportunities and adulthood. It’s a question that E Nesbit also posed in The House of Arden; Gardner’s answer is more subtle, beautifully written and captivating. Enjoy!

The potential to begin afresh is a strong theme this spring, especially in books for 11-plus readers. Catherine Fisher’s The Door in the Moon (Hachette, £7.99) is another time travel fantasy, the third in her creepy Chronoptika series. It weaves A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a tale about a sinister “Obsidian Mirror”, a son pursuing his lost father, a girl from a totalitarian nightmare and a changeling child caught up in the French Revolution. Fisher’s luminous prose makes you believe this cursed marriage between science, history and magic is possible.

Wilf, the hero of Amanda Mitchison’s Crog (Corgi, £6.99), also has time troubles after pinching an ancient bowl from a museum and waking its 3,000-year-old guardian – and so coming to the attention of some evil men who want the bowl’s power. With his rotten teeth and invisibility to CCTV, Crog is both frail and resourceful. The chase takes them to Scotland in a Stig of the Dump meets The 39 Steps adventure that is action-packed and refreshing for boys aged ten or over.

Arsenic for Tea (Corgi, £6.99) is the sequel to Murder Most Unladylike. Robin Stevens’s Wells and Wong detective novels take our heroines from boarding school to Daisy Wells’s posh home, where her mother is falling for a crooked art dealer. When he is poisoned, there is a limited cast of suspects and a murder for the girls to solve. Stevens satirises the upper classes and the English amusingly but it’s her Hong Kong-Chinese narrator Hazel Wong who makes this a feast for readers between nine and 12.

One of the great children’s books of all time, Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger, has been reissued unabridged by Faber & Faber (£6.99). Langley was a scriptwriter on The Wizard of Oz; why this story of Aladdin’s sweet son and his wicked rivals Rubdub Ben Thud and Tintac Ping Foo is not world famous is a mystery. From the Djinn turning the obnoxious Widow Twankey to stone to the magic carpet getting stuck on exit, it’s a joy. The Mary Poppins writer, P L Travers, also has a pitch-perfect reissue in I Go By Sea, I Go By Land (Virago, £6.99), an account of two children evacuated to the US that is funny, touching and splendidly misspelled. Both for eight-plus readers.

In Lucy Coats’s Beasts of Olympus series, the young Demon’s dad, Pan, whisks him off to Olympus, where the boy has to look after unicorns and Hydras – or be sent down the poo chute to Tartarus. The rumbustious tone is perfect for reading aloud. David Roberts’s illustrations are vigorously zany and both Beast Keeper and Hound of Hades (Piccadilly, £5.99) are fun for myth-mad kids of seven-plus. Frances Thomas’s The Burning Towers (SilverWood, £8.99) imagines the Iliad from a female perspective. Eirene, a slave girl to Cassandra who can see the cruel gods, is an engrossing narrator but someone should reissue Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Luck of Troy for classicist boys.

You can’t escape the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this year. Given that, alas, few children now tackle the real thing, which abridgement to choose? The Nursery Alice (Macmillan, £12.99), first published in 1890, is Lewis Carroll’s simplified version with Tenniel’s exquisite illustrations. Chatty and creepy, it has less songs, jokes and artistry than the complete book and won’t be as appealing to those aged eight and above as the original text colourfully illustrated by Anthony Browne (Walker, £14.99), whose surreal style is guaranteed either to give kids nightmares or to lead to an obsession with Dalí.

Not enough good new books for young readers are being published but Jenny Colgan’s first book for children, Polly and the Puffin (Little, Brown, £5.99), is an exception. An injured puffin must be looked after by a little girl until it is well enough to return to the wild – where a surprise awaits. Colgan’s emotional intelligence and the charming illustrations by Thomas Docherty make this a great gift for kids of four and above.

There are more feathers in Beautiful Birds, Jean Roussen’s and Emmanuelle Walker’s lovely picture book (Flying Eye, £14.99). Its elegant avians swoop, flutter and spread their plumage in alphabetical formations, accompanied by rhyming couplets. It will encourage anyone of four-plus to greet the spring with knowledge as well as delight.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser