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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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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times