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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

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

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