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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

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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