A young woman in a library. Photo: Joe Crawford/Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

The best children's books you might have missed this summer

From toddlers to teens, Amanda Craig rounds up the best books for children.

Being sent to a remote island with your family is a teenager’s worst holiday nightmare. Julia Bell’s The Dark Light (Macmillan, £6.99, for readers aged 13-plus) mixes religious zealotry with the dawn of love between two girls. Fierce, tender and spiky, it is a stunningly original suspense novel. Meanwhile, Frances Hardinge’s stylishly imaginative The Lie Tree (Macmillan, £6.99, 12-plus) sends Faith’s Victorian family to a place where scandal, murder and lies grow in the darkness.

A different continent is just as challenging, and two fine authors writing for young adults set their novels in (gasp!) Europe. Helen Grant’s astringent Forbidden Spaces trilogy reaches its climax in Urban Legends (Corgi, £7.99, 13-plus) as a group of Flemish teenagers is hunted by a calculating serial killer. Thrilling and chilling – but don’t read it when home alone. Keren David’s This Is Not a Love Story (Atom, £6.99, 13-plus) evokes Amsterdam beautifully as the backdrop to Kitty’s encounters with the moody Ethan and troubled Theo. They share a north London Jewish background, so the wilfully romantic Kitty misreads the clues to Theo’s true nature. Their perspectives are presented with an engaging liberalism, narrative assurance and psychological acuity.

Julia Bell's The Dark Light. Photo: Macmillan

First love has mythical dimensions, too, and David Almond’s A Song For Ella Grey (Hodder, £6.99, 12-plus) is fired by adolescent passion and tragedy reminiscent of Orpheus and Eurydice. Sarah J Maas’s beguiling reworking of “Beauty and the Beast”, A Court of Thorns and Roses (Bloomsbury, £7.99, 13-plus), has echoes of Keats. Feyre is a near-feral huntress who shoots an enchanted wolf to feed her starving family. She must pay by living with the terrifying faeries for ever – only to fall in love with her cursed captor. Fabulously romantic and verging on the erotic, it demands rereading.

Had Lucy Coats’s Cleo (Orchard, £6.99) focused on friendship rather than romance, it would suit the ill-served eight-plus readership, rather than the 11-plus. Cleopatra is illegitimate and has two Evil Sow sisters competing for the throne of Egypt. Fleeing for her life, our imperious heroine needs her wits, a sexy librarian and the support of the embattled goddess Isis to survive, in this sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.

Andrew Norriss’s Jessica’s Ghost (David Fickling, £10.99, 12-plus) is about a friendless boy who can see a girl’s ghost. Nobody else can – until he finds another desperately depressed child, and then another. What else do they all have in common? Funny and wise, this cheers and charms – as does Sophie Kinsella’s Finding Audrey (Doubleday, £12.99, 12-plus), whose shy and agoraphobic narrator is really suffering from a mother who believes everything in the Daily Mail.

Lu Hersey’s Deep Water (Usborne, £6.99, 11-plus) gives us an adolescent girl whose hands suddenly bleed salt water, and who must use her supernatural powers to save her mad mother. Like Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series, Hersey’s debut shimmers with Celtic fairy tales, marine marvels, creepy Cornish fishing villages and a fabulous granny; it won Mslexia’s new fiction prize. Younger readers will cheer the reissue of Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley’s sumptuous picture-book classic about storm-lashed starvation and feline salvation, The Mousehole Cat (Walker, £6.99, five-plus). Essential reading for the British seaside.

Lu Hersey's Deep Water. Photo: Usborne

Finding that you don’t have super powers can be just as entertaining. Following Nic­ole Burstein’s Othergirl, David ­Solomons’s hilarious My Brother Is a Superhero (Nosy Crow, £6.99, ten-plus) concerns Luke, who misses out on his sibling’s alien gifts by sheer bad luck, despite his clueless brother not even knowing how to wear a cape. It takes sibling rivalry to the max.

The father in Phil Earle’s Demolition Dad (Orion, £6.99, eight-plus) destroys buildings for a living. An update of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, this story raises a big cheer as Jack’s dad turns his strength to competitive wrestling. Elsewhere, Robin Stevens’s addictive Wells and Wong detective series introduces Hazel’s Chinese Old Etonian father in First Class Murder (Corgi, £6.99, ten-plus), a rumbustious reworking of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express caper.

Nicky and his disabled brother Kenny also love their dad and hope that fishing for treasure will ease their family’s poverty – but there’s murk in human hearts and in a local lake. A gut-wrenching tale of crime and punishment makes Anthony McGowan’s Pike (Barrington Stoke, £6.99) compelling reading for nine-plus. Car-Jacked (Oxford University Press, £6.99, eight-plus) is about a boy genius accidentally kidnapped with his parents’ car. Is he in more danger from asthma, criminals – or his pushy mum? Ali Sparkes’s satirical thriller has spark and heart. Cerrie Burnell’s Mermaid (Scholastic, £6.99) is about a little boy’s friendship with a girl who might be disabled; or a mermaid. It’s gentle and thoughtful, and should touch many four-plus readers.

Virago Modern Classics reissues The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken (£8.99, eight-plus), a long-lost collection of stories about the imperturbable Armitage family, whose small village must endure unicorns, fairy godmothers and more. Inexhaustibly imaginative, Aiken was one of the 20th century’s greatest children’s authors. Witty, zany and entirely sane, this is a necklace of diamonds.

The hero of Space Dog (Jonathan Cape, £11.99) is zooming home alone, but gets a distress call from an enemy Astrocat, then a Mousetronaut. Mini Grey grasps the way small children turn ordinary objects into dramatic dilemmas; her exquisite illustrations honour the imagination of the young. Cakes in Space (OUP, £6.99) is a bonanza for bedtime, with the new Children’s Laureate, Philip Reeve, and the illustrator Sarah McIntyre embroiling the adventurous Astra among spoon-searching aliens. Both fab for five-plus, but don’t expect sleepiness.

Flying Eye Books has become the picture-book publisher to look out for, and Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill (£14.99, seven-­plus) has just won the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. His expressive, retro style animates history and doughty Antarctic heroism in detail. A pleasure to hold, this is a gift for those who prefer non-fiction – and proper books.

Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty's Ten Little Dinosaurs. Photo: Orchard

Most riotous fun of all is Ten Little Dino­saurs by Mike Brownlow and Simon Rickerty (Orchard, £11.99, two-plus). In a colour­ful countdown to mischief, the dinosaurs avoid being stomped on, eaten, drowned and exploded. Or do they? Sure to raise a roar of approval long before summer ends.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

The Depths of Hell
Show Hide image

Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.