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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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood