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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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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder