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Suffragists and Santa-killers: the best children’s books of 2017

In Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds, a hero must save the polluted world from an enormous snail.

Few readers will fail to spot that this has been a golden year for children’s books. With Philip Pullman’s magisterial return to the world of His Dark Materials in La Belle Sauvage (David Fickling Books, £20) and Robert Macfarlane’s and Jackie Morris’s rapturously received celebration of nature, The Lost Words (Hamish Hamilton, £20), do we need more? Indeed, we do.

Judith Kerr’s Katinka’s Tail (HarperCollins, £12.99) adds to her classic cat stories with a tale of a white cat’s magic tail, which sends an elderly lady in a pink dressing gown flying off to the moon. It’s a heart-warming, gold-sprinkled reminder that grannies have an imagination, too. But overexcited tots may respond better to Francesca Simon’s Hack and Whack (Faber & Faber, £6.99), illustrated by Charlotte Cotterill, in which hilarious little Vikings with a limited but expressive vocabulary go on a rampage. Julia Donaldson’s and Axel Scheffler’s heroes in The Ugly Five (Scholastic, £12.99) are the wildebeest, warthog, hyena, vulture and marabou stork. Valued by children as kind and cuddly, brave and strong, they are cheering for demoralised parents, too. The books above are suitable for ages three and older.

Once again, the strangest and loveliest offering for small readers comes from Coralie Bickford-Smith. The Worm and the Bird (Particular Books, £14.99) shows a worm’s-eye view of life, literally, as its narrator manoeuvres past grit, insects, dead leaves, fossils and other worms, unaware of the bird waiting to pounce on it. Exquisitely drawn, it’s drily funny and addresses  our  perennial failure to appreciate the wonder of life.

Seasonal magic for five-plus readers comes with Katherine Rundell’s One Christmas Wish (Bloomsbury, £14.99). A lonely boy with overworked parents decorates a tree with shabby old ornaments, which, Nutcracker-style, come alive in a quest. It’s joyous, especially with Emily Sutton’s retro illustrations. The actual Nutcracker story can be relished in Jessica Courtney-Tickle’s charming version (Frances Lincoln, £14.99), which plays Tchaikovsky’s music, too.

For new readers of ages six and older, Anthony McGowan’s I Killed Father Christmas (Little Gems, £6.99) is a riot, lavishly illustrated by Chris Riddell. Jo-Jo decides to leave his rowing parents, dress up and deliver presents to friends and neighbours. When he meets the real Father Christmas, mayhem and merriment ensue.

For the whole family but especially eight-plus readers, A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri (Macmillan, £16.99), is an old idea but gorgeously presented and intelligently selected, including poets from Shakespeare to Kate Tempest. I loved it. On a darker note, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s and Jeffrey Alan Love’s rendition of Norse Myths (Walker Studio, £18.99) is the best of many recent versions for children aged nine and above. With fiery, lyrical prose and shadowy, sinewy illustrations, this is a wintry marvel of doom, hope, cruelty and imagination. A serious gift, which will be reread many times over.

Finding enjoyable books for children between the ages seven and 11 remains problematic. Kate Saunders’s The Land of Neverendings (Faber & Faber, £10.99) concerns a bereaved child who discovers that old toys leave the Hard World for the magical land of Smockeroon. As much about imagination as bereavement, it balances laughter and tears superbly. Lissa Evans has turned her comic genius for creating characters to a similar subject in Wed Wabbit (David Fickling, £10.99), in which two children must defeat a tyrant who has taken over the toys’ land of Wimbley Woo.

In Horatio Clare’s Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds (Firefly, £7.99), illustrated by Jane Matthews, a miniaturised hero must save the polluted world from an enormous snail. Yes, it’s an eco-fable, but Clare’s sensitive wit makes it urgent. Cressida Cowell’s The Wizards of Once (Hodder, £12.99) is essential for young readers who loved her How to Train Your Dragon series. A magic sword, an enchanted spoon, a talking raven and a wicked witch make this fizz with fun.

For history fans aged nine-plus, Mary Hoffman’s delightful The Ravenmaster’s Boy (Greystones Press, £8.99) has Kit, orphaned by the plague but able to speak Raven, play a role in the future ascension of Elizabeth I. Theresa Breslin’s The Rasputin Dagger (Corgi, 7.99) is a superb suspense novel about a cursed dagger, and perfect for the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is the standout book for 11-plus readers, written with characteristic warmth and insight. When their plane crashes in the Amazon jungle, four very different children must learn to survive together. Like Eva Ibbotson’s masterpiece Journey to the River Sea, this shows how love and courage can make a hellish situation wonderful. Highly recommended.

Riveting reads for the 12-plus age group include My Side of the Diamond (Hot Key, £9.99). Vintage Sally Gardner, its mixture of class conflict, forbidden friendship and alien abduction shouldn’t work but it does, thanks to her peerless originality. Sally Nicholls’s Things a Bright Girl Can Do (Andersen, £12.99) is a suffragist novel, told through the stories of the genteel Evelyn, the “sapphist” Quaker May and the cross-dressing, working-class Nell. Tough, unsentimental and well realised, it moves from drawing rooms to prison cells.

William Sutcliffe’s shockingly suspenseful We See Everything (Bloomsbury, £12.99) channels John Christopher as much as The Hunger Games. Two boys, one a rebel, the other a drone pilot, cross paths in a bombed-out dystopian London where nobody is free. Also challenging, Deirdre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine (Little Island, £12.99) recasts fairy tales with an exquisite intensity worthy of Angela Carter, complemented by Karen Vaughan’s inky elegance.

In 2015, Frances Hardinge won the Costa Children’s Book Award, with The Lie Tree. Though her style is more complex than Pullman’s, she is an equally addictive story­teller, for both young and old. In her new novel, Young Makepeace can see ghosts and is accidentally possessed by the spirit of a bear. When her Puritan mother dies, she has no option but to seek out her father’s rich and powerful family, royalists embroiled in the coming civil war. But they have their own secrets, and soon she must use all the wits she has to outwit treachery. Electrifyingly good, A Skinful of Shadows (Macmillan, £12.99, 11-plus) dances between reason, compassion and the supernatural with exceptional artistry. Even in a remarkable year for children’s books, it strikes gold.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist