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Cold comforts: the best children’s books of 2015

Get hold of these, and your holidays will be peaceful and merry.

Christmas is crucial to the book trade but, in the case of children’s books, it has every­thing to do with a sense of wonder at the heart of winter. Some of the best classics ever written, from Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman to Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, stem from this.

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, £12.99) is such a book for readers over nine. It is about the boyhood of Father Christmas – and what a miserable, lonely, hungry, chilly childhood it is. Haig’s black humour and insights into depression have made him a national treasure for both children and adults; this story, however, is about how the 11-year-old Nikolas travels north in search of his woodcutter father, accompanied by a mouse and a reindeer called Blitzen. It explains along the way how reindeer fly, why we put presents in stockings and how crackers can save lives. Brilliantly told and imagined, it is about the importance of hope and kindness and it should be in every stocking.

Younger children (seven-plus) will lap up Pugs of the Frozen North, another comic caper from the dream team of Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre (Oxford University Press, £8.99). In a race to the frozen north, Sika and Shen compete on a sled drawn by 66 pop-eyed pugs, evading snow trolls, yetis, krakens and rivals who include Sir Basil Sprout-Dumpling. The lively text and bonkers illustrations will enchant and amuse – but for a more poetic and profound story, Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot (Firefly, £7.99) is the one. Again, it is about rescuing parents – in this case, the madcap Aubrey’s dad, Jim, who has fallen under the spell of despair. With captivating drawings by Jane Matthews, it is a magical wintery adventure told with a unique mix of robust humour and imaginative insight. Highly recommended for children aged eight-plus.

Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury, £12.99, ten-plus) is set in pre-revolutionary Russia and is about “a dark and stormy girl” who re-wilds pet wolves denatured by aristocrats. When her beloved mother is captured, Feodora and her wolves must journey to St Petersburg’s prisons to save her. Crackling with ice and intelligence, the story moves from warm fires to freezing steppes with fierce conviction and a voice that promises tremendous things.

Virago has reprinted P L Travers’s little tale The Fox at the Manger (£9.99, seven-plus), an uncomfortable yet touching tale about the nativity and generosity that is appropriate for politicians’ stockings. Another fox is at the heart of my picture book of the year, in Coralie Bickford-Smith’s The Fox and the Star (Particular Books, £14.99). The lonely Fox searches for his only friend, the Star, through intricate, exquisite, William Morris-inspired woods. An outstanding gift for five-plus readers.

Emma Chichester Clark’s Love Is My Favourite Thing (Jonathan Cape, £11.99) is about an irresistible dog that can’t help being naughty. If you do have a dog (or don’t yet but plan to), it will reinforce the appeal. Meanwhile, the equally irresistible Day-Glo graphics of Christopher Corr’s Deep in the Woods (Frances Lincoln, £11.99) light up a lively folk tale. A lonely bear tries to make friends with a houseful of smaller animals and generosity saves them from homelessness. Both are for three-plus. Charming and simple, Robin's Winter Song by Suzanne Barton (Bloomsbury, £10.99, two-plus) is about a young robin fearing his first winter.

Animal-lovers aged nine and above also have a treat: Lauren St John’s lion-hearted heroine Martine is back in Operation Rhino (Orion, £10.99), in which poachers leave an orphaned baby rhino that must be brought to safety through natural magic, friendship and courage. I love this South Africa-based series and its warm, direct style.

Older children can take a much more jaundiced view of Christmas. For these, Andy Mulligan’s Liquidator (David Fickling, £12.99, 11-plus) is simply brilliant. Narrated by a group of kids sent on work experience, it is a thrilling, funny, wholly original adventure about a popular fizzy drink being deadly. Mulligan is a radical, readable, risk-taking writer with a message we need to hear, especially after Jamie Oliver’s campaign against sugar.

Hell and High Water (Walker Books, £12.99) by the Carnegie Medal winner Tanya Landman is a historical adventure about trust. Set in north Devon in the 18th century, its mixed-race hero must somehow prevent his adored puppeteer father from being transported for a crime he didn’t commit. He encounters not only racism but strange coldness from his white aunt. Heart-stoppingly good, romantic, passionate storytelling for a 12-plus audience.

Emerald Fennell’s Monsters (Hot Key, £7.99) will delight 12-plus fans of Edward Gorey, Lemony Snicket and Bret Easton Ellis: it is a hideously funny account by a cynical 13-year-old girl of a series of murders in the Cornish town of Fowey. Sophisticated and suspenseful, it has a view of adults that parents would be wise to avoid reading.

Much more wholesome for those over 11 is Sally Nicholls’s An Island of Our Own (Scholastic, £6.99), about children engaged on a treasure hunt. Its Blyton-esque quality is underscored by bereavement, issues around social services and a narrative voice to fall in love with. In contrast to all the dystopian young-adult fiction, it is a memorable and refreshing read.

Philip Reeve’s Railhead (Oxford University Press, £9.99) is a fabulously inventive sci-fi adventure about Zen, a petty thief on Ambersai, a big moon connected to the interstellar “Great Network”. Zen’s dangerous mission is driven by characters as much as by concepts such as insects that coalesce into monks, androids and intelligent trains. Reeve’s Mortal Engines series has a great following but this is a must-have for 11-plus.

My children’s book of the year is Cressida Cowell’s How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury (Hodder, £12.99), the 12th and last of her How to Train Your Dragon books. Most series run out of steam but this has kept a consistent flow of brilliant characters, jokes, stylish writing, illustrations and ideas – and the finale is tremendous. Her geeky, once-despised Viking hero, Hiccup, saves humanity (and dragons) from certain doom in an unpredictable, satisfying way. This series, far better than the films, is one of the greatest ever written for those between eight and 12. Buy them all and your holidays will be blessed with perfect peace.

Amanda Craig’s most recent novel is Hearts And Minds (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war

The Depths of Hell
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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.