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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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear