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Detecting dogs and Norse gods: The best new children’s books for summer

The best children's books don't feel like more school. These picks will help make the summer holidays even better.

Some kids never read a page once school ends, but the best summer books enhance a summer holiday. Emily Gravett’s Tidy (Two Hoots, £12.99) bristles with her characteristic originality, wit and quirkiness. Pete the badger is maniacally clean, hoovering leaves, digging up trees and causing disaster. A dead ringer for George Osborne in his hard hat, he finds himself needing help to put messy life back into the resulting desert. Julia Donaldson’s utterly delightful The Detective Dog (Macmillan, £11.99) is about a crime-solving spaniel whose nose for drama is matched by Sara Ogilvie’s warm, colourful draughtsmanship. Its happy conclusion should encourage library visits. Both books will be hilarious for three-plus readers.

Meanwhile, Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red (Two Hoots, £11.99) is inspired by the author’s robust childhood response to “Little Red Riding Hood”. Its strong lines and bold colours are excitingly modern and highly recommended for kids over four.

What Do Grown-Ups Do All Day? (Wide Eyed, £14.99) is Virginie Morgand’s take on an important question. The answer is handsomely produced and unpatronising; this book should be in every primary school for showing work as both serious and fun.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle, £10.99) is an outstanding exploration of perception and perspective. How a cat is seen – by a child, a dog, a fox, a fish, a mouse, a bee and a flea – is different each time. The most imaginative ­picture book of the year, it is closely followed by Lane Smith’s dazzling There Is a Tribe of Kids (Two Hoots, £12.99), in which a child discovers collective nouns for animals. Both books have ambition for what a child of six-plus can grasp about the natural world.

Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth (Macmillan, £12.99) by Frank Cottrell-Boyce takes as its subject the idea of how we might seem to aliens. If our hero, Prez, can’t find ten things worth seeing or doing to share with a small, friendly but threatening alien called Sputnik, Earth will be shrunk to the size of a golf ball. Where Prez sees another boy, his family sees a dog. This, Sputnik says, is unsurprising, because: “Humans share 90 per cent of their DNA with dogs.” It’s comedy gold for seven-plus readers.

Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Puffin, £6.99) also tells the story of a boy discovering his destiny as a defender of humanity. Denizen Hardwick is an Irish orphan who must learn to fight scary beings called “the Tenebrous” and save his best mate. The taut writing and snappy dialogue in this fast-paced fantasy adventure will ­appeal to boys of nine-plus.

What if Earth were full of clockwork creatures instead of monsters? Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (Usborne, £6.99) goes beyond steam-punk to imagine a world as weirdly inventive as Philip Pullman’s Clockwork and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Lily’s father has disappeared in an airship, and his talking clockwork fox, Malkin, becomes her first ally in a race against evil, silver-eyed kidnappers. Although it overdoes the “steam and steel” idea, this one is marvellous fun for nine-plus readers.

Being punished for a crime committed by your parents or grandparents is the premise of Simon Mayo’s terrific Blame (Corgi, £7.99). Ant and her brother Mattie are locked in the Spike, a family prison simmering with tension. When they break out, they must change the system. A smart, suspenseful satire on crime and punishment, it will keep boys of 11-plus gripped.

I usually hate teen romance but Sophia Bennett’s Love Song (Chicken House, £6.99) is the shining exception, being both respectful of first love and very funny. The sensible Nina is dragged to watch the Point, the world’s biggest boy band, and reluctantly becomes embroiled with their leader. Rarely have musical talent, celebrity and confusion been discovered with such generosity and wit. Don’t miss it.

Sarah Crossan’s One (Bloomsbury, £7.99) sounds like the kind of book you’d want to avoid: it’s about conjoined twins. It is told in blank verse but is very easy to read and has just been awarded the Carnegie Medal. Not only does it paint a portrait of a disability that touches on bullying and pain, it offers a mind-expanding story of love and identity.

Best known for her Horrid Henry books, Francesca Simon has come up with a searing work of black comedy about the Norse goddess of the underworld, Hel. “You’d think after my brother the snake was born they’d have stopped at one. But no,” is how she begins The Monstrous Child (Faber & Faber, £9.99). Half-human and half-corpse, Hel is rejected by the ultimate dysfunctional family, on which she turns her withering wit. Any unhappy teenager aged 13 and above will root for this scathing yet sympathetic heroine, whose unexpected ­redemption is in keeping with myth and what we wish for her.

Also inspired by Norse myth – and also stunning – is Julia Gray’s The Otherlife (Andersen, £7.99). Two bright boys, one rich and one poor, are thrown together by tutorials for a private-school entrance exam. The quiet, obsessive and impoverished Ben must win a scholarship but is mesmerised by the world of ancient Norse gods, which he believes he can see; the charming, bullying Hobie has everything he wants but this gift. A searing satire on the pressures that privileged children are put under by pushy parents, the story also depicts how sanity can be invaded by fantasy. It’s a wonderful debut novel; the only downside is that it will remind those on holiday just how appalling school can be. 

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution