Quirks: from Laura Carlin's A World of Your Own
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In a world of their own: the best children’s books of 2014

Amanda Craig’s round-up of reading to enchant and inspire young minds this Christmas. 

Much of our idea of a perfect Christmas is culled from picture books. In Katie’s London Christmas (Orchard Books, £11.99) James Mayhew’s much-loved heroine gets this, waking to a snowy ride on Santa’s sleigh and delivering presents to Londoners. Ideal for the night before, or after, Christmas.

Laura Carlin’s A World of Your Own (Phaidon, £12.95) also celebrates a child’s imagination, in a quirky and thoughtful style that invites young readers to add their own creative ideas. Emily Gravett depicts the irrepressible Hare and the dubious Bear experiencing Snow! (Macmillan, £10.99) for the first time together. The expressions are priceless, the games delightful and Gravett is a graphic genius. Richard Curtis’s The Snow Day (Puffin, £10.99) is very appealing, too; Rebecca Cobb illustrates a child’s embarrassment at encountering a teacher in unusual circumstances at school. However, my picture book of the year is Emma Chichester Clark’s Bears Don’t Read! (HarperCollins, £12.99). Lonely George meets a bookish little girl and – to the alarm of adults – follows her to school, longing to read. Friendship trumps fear in a warm, elegant postmodern comedy. All of the books above are recommended for four-plus.

In Michael Morpurgo’s Listen to the Moon (HarperCollins, £12.99, nine-plus) Alfie and his fisherman father find a mute girl on a deserted Cornish island. Is she a mermaid, a German or a traumatised American child from the torpedoed Lusitania? Our national treasure is always hugely moving about pacifism and the healing power of kindness, but Chris Priestley’s assured reinvention of A Christmas Carol, The Last of the Spirits (Bloomsbury, £10.99), is more seasonal, and ideal for nine-plus. Dickens’s Ignorance and Want, two beggar children, are guided to better fortune by the ghost of Marley; Priestleyesque creepiness combines with true charity for a happy Christmas.

Philip Kerr’s The Winter Horses (Walker Books, £12.99), based on a true story, is a treat for ten-plus, written with filmic pace and polish. The orphaned Kalinka is all that stands between the last two Przewalski’s horses and extinction, once the Nazis have hunted down the breed as ugly and unfit. Both girl and horses use courage, resilience and cleverness to outwit thugs, cannibals and the deadly cold of the Ukrainian steppe.

A captivating new detective series for 11-plus, Robin Stevens’s Wells & Wong books begin with Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, £6.99). The setting is a stuffy 1930s girls’ boarding school. The narrator, Hazel Wong, is a Hong Kong girl who hero-worships the English Daisy Wells, though she is braver and brighter than her idol. Sure to appeal to those who detest public schools but love Malory Towers, the story features racism, lesbianism, murder and a Chinese heroine grappling with the absurdities of the English class system. The sequel, Arsenic for Tea (out in January), is just as stylish and funny.

The Young Bond series is now being written by Steven Cole. In Shoot to Kill (Doubleday, £12.99), the teenage James Bond is sent down from Eton and dumped in Dartington Hall – a hilarious innovation that pays off when he ventures into Hollywood, by way of a girl bully, a Bentley, a Zeppelin and derring-do. Comedy, dash and imagination refresh a rebooted British hero.

Nicole Burstein’s Othergirl (Andersen Press, £7.99) is about friendship between an ordinary girl and a secret super-heroine. It’s bad enough being geeky seamstress to a gorgeous best friend liable to burst into flames, but avoiding envy and bad boyfriends is harder. Burstein explores loyalty, common sense and growing up in a smart, confidence-boosting comedy for 11-plus girls that owes much to The Incredibles.

Michelle Magorian’s Impossible! (Troika Books, £7.99) returns the author of the classic children’s novel Goodnight Mister Tom to ten-plus readers who prefer realism. Spurned by drama school, Josie, the tomboyish heroine, takes refuge from criminals with the real-life Joan Littlewood. The world of 1950s gumption and greasepaint is captured vividly in a sturdy Ballet Shoes-meets-Kidnapped caper.

Unabashed fantasy remains the best choice in 2014, with Toby Ibbotson’s hilar­ious Mountwood School for Ghosts (Macmillan, £12.99) and Kate Saunders’s heart-rending Five Children on the Western Front (Faber & Faber, £10.99) the outstanding choices for eight to 12, and Matt Haig’s SF thriller Echo Boy (Bodley Head, £12.99) and Sally Green’s witchy Half Bad (Penguin, £7.99) the top tips for 13-plus. All previously reviewed in the NS, they are exciting and unusual, and would make excellent gifts.

My children’s book of the year, though, is Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle (Bloomsbury, £12.99). This conflation of “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty”, given ravishingly detailed pen-and-ink illustrations by Chris Riddell, is already a collector’s item. On the eve of her wedding, a brave young queen learns of a growing sleeping sickness threatening her people from a neighbouring country. Accompanied by three faithful dwarves, she travels through dark places and dead roses to confront an evil enchantress’s spell and free herself. Unforgettable, unpredictable and utterly enchanting for anyone between the ages of seven and 70. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game