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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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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.