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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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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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