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Children’s books for Christmas

The festive season is a good time to get children into books.

Christmas is a good time to get a child into books. Richard Curtis’s The Empty Stocking (Puffin, £6.99) is about twin sisters, one good and one “bad”, who hang up their stockings on Christmas Eve. Alas, Charlie has been too naughty to get hers filled – but Santa gives presents to the wrong twin. What to do? Curtis’s story is about goodness and generosity and is a rare exception to the rule that celebrity children’s books are best burned. Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations make this a seasonal perennial to enjoy with children aged three and above.

The late Russell Hoban is still best known for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker but he was equally good at writing for children. He left us one more enchanting book, Rosie’s Magic Horse (Walker, £12.99), vigorously illustrated by Quentin Blake, about a child whose parents are plagued by bills and discarded lolly sticks. At midnight, the sticks turn into a horse, which carries Rosie off to find treasure. A story about how imagination redeems the poorest life, it is poignant, funny and sadly topical (for readers aged four and older).

Kate Saunders’s The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99) is about a family that inherits a chocolate shop in Archway. An invisible cat, talking rat and whispering wallpaper reveal that the children must now find the missing golden chocolate moulds. A gloriously funny caper for children of six upwards, it combines the inventiveness of Eva Ibbotson with the perspicacity of E Nesbit.

Philip Reeve’s Goblins (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99) will come as a relief to parents plagued by Hobbit-mania and has greenedged pages to match its acid wit. The hero, Skarper, is a goblin ejected from the Dark Tower by Bratapult for being clever. Hilarious and well written, this is the best satirical fantasy for children of eight and above since the great Terry Pratchett emerged.

Pratchett’s own Dodger (Doubleday, £18.99) is a sublime riff on all things Dickensian, with the nimble young thief giving Dickens ideas while rescuing a mysterious maiden.

Tim Willocks’s Doglands (Andersen, £6.99) is a kind of Gladiator for dogs and will particularly appeal to boys of nine and older. It’s about a half-lurcher, Furgal, born into captivity with his three sisters. His greyhound mother knows that her children will be killed by the evil breeders once their mixed-race heritage is known, so the puppies escape. Only Furgal survives. Thus begins a magnificent quest, as well as an inquiry into the relationship between dog and man.

No matter what your feelings are about the royal tadpole, Jennifer A Nielsen’s The False Prince (Scholastic, £6.99) is an irresistible story for nine-to-12-year-olds. Its narrator is kidnapped, along with three other orphans who must be trained to impersonate a lost prince after the royal family is murdered. Only one boy can survive. Sage, a rebellious guttersnipe, must outwit his captor and get his rivals on his side.

Unsurprisingly, the current gloom has made authors turn to dystopia and none is bleaker than Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon (Hot Key Books, £10.99), in which 1950s Britain has become a fascist dictatorship in a race to reach the Moon. Its narrator is a dyslexic boy who has somehow escaped detection. Not for the faint-hearted, this is an inspirational piece of writing, for children of 11 and above, about moral courage. It manages to make readers laugh even as their hearts are being broken.

Amanda Craig is the children’s critic of the Times. Her novel “Hearts and Minds” is published by Abacus (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.