An illustration from beautiful birds.
Show Hide image

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

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
Show Hide image

How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era