Book of the Week

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend


There is a treat in store for children this October and it comes in the shape of this surprising, laugh-out-loud, inventive, wondrous new fantasy/magical book, one of the best children’s books published this year.

The story is about a cursed child called Morrigan, accepting of her forthcoming doom – her death on her 11th birthday – when she is dramatically, and rather hilariously, saved by a mysterious man called Jupiter North, who whisks her away to another land called Nevermoor, in which she won’t die. But there’s a catch – isn’t there always? – and to stay in Nevermoor she has to ‘win’ a place in the Wundrous Society by completing four weird and wonderful trials. If she fails she must go home, where she will meet her fate of death.

There are some excellent devices within the text. Morrigan’s new home is within the Hotel Deucalion, a wondrous place itself. Most children who have ever been in a hotel love to explore its nooks and crannies, to divine the layout and find the secrets, and Morrigan, along with the reader, does exactly this – sweeping through the interior and discovering great and wonderful things. It’s a fantastic motif to anchor the setting.

There’s much tongue-in-cheekery too – there is a scene at the beginning that shows school selection in Morrigan’s original land, and this certainly seems like a poke at grammar school selection, there is complicated politics within Nevermoor with the elite Wundrous Society, and Jupiter’s frequent forays to avert disaster within the city’s infrastructure, as well as the characters’ exceedingly well-conceived names, from Morrigan Crow to Jupiter North and beyond, as well as a dark unsettling Dahl-esque humour that contrasts wickedly with the warmth, colour and emotion of the main characters and the hotel occupants.

The reveals are well-timed; there are endless surprises, the trials are magical, fun, quirky and original, and each new scene evokes such empathy with Morrigan that the reader wills her to success at every turn.

Of course comparisons will abound, and accusations of borrowed ideas – the cursed child motif from Harry Potter, the trials from The Hunger Games among many others, shades of Christmas scenes borrowed from all children’s books ever, and the hooked umbrella travellator which reminded me of the doors conveyer belt in Monsters Inc, and the borrowed image of Mary Poppins floating down with her umbrella. But there are so many other innovative ideas, such originality in its conception, such world-building, with Townsend’s magnificats, vapour rooms, bedrooms that change overnight or even before your eyes, grounds in which the weather is slightly more exaggerated than everywhere else, that it doesn’t matter in the least where they came from.

There will be an envy felt by readers – who wouldn’t want a bedroom that morphs to suit the occupant’s personality and mood? But also readers will feel incredible pathos for a girl who essentially is unwanted by her family. But most of all the reader shares with Morrigan an ignorance of what is to come, of not knowing the full story, the rules of the new land she now lives within, and the motives of the people around her. Like every new immigrant, this is a story about passing the test of a new country, about finding out if you belong, who you are and where your home lies.

This is a pacey story, as apparently demanded in today’s modern fiction, and there will be sequels. (and a film apparently).

But what makes Nevermoor stand head and shoulders above the other children’s books this autumn? Is it the warmth, wittiness and pace, the combination of all of the above, or its very own special brand of magic? I think its the ease with which the whole comes together – the layers of the world feel like the softest sponge cake and icing – all coming together to create a magnificence to be devoured. The whole feels flawless, and tastes divine. There is magic within. Come find it yourself. You can buy it here.

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy


I’m a big fan of the television programme The Leftovers. Initially based on the Tom Perotta novel, it addresses the issue of what happens to those left behind when two per cent of the population simply disappears. Perotta apparently came up with the idea as a reaction to 9/11, ie the exploration of our emotions when people we love simply vanish. One day they’re there, and the next day they’re gone. Bain Murphy’s book doesn’t disappear people; even more startling in a way, is that abstract things disappear, and no one knows what’s going to be next. At first it’s sense of smell, then reflections, then colours and so on.

In The Disappearances, the absences are limited to a few towns, and only occur every seven years. When Aila and her younger brother, Miles, return to live in one of these towns after the death of their mother, they must come to terms with the absences, but also seek to discover their mother’s possible involvement with them, and a series of clues she inadvertently left behind.

There’s another story within the whole, that of a diary written by a separate character, as yet unknown to the reader, which crops up every few chapters. It’s another mystery for the reader to attempt to solve, and is written with a spooky turn of phrase. This mystery is perpetuated for a long way into the novel, and all the time the reader is still grappling with the clues Aila keeps dropping about her own mystery. Add to that a sort of fantastical historical setting – rural Connecticut in 1942, a love story, and am intriguing set up of teen friends and jealousies, and this is one dense novel.

Aila’s main key to solving the mystery is a collection of Shakespeare plays, annotated by her mother, from which she draws links to the ongoing disappearances. Herein, sadly, lies the flaw in the story, for although she does pull out quotations that somewhat link to the mystery, generally the quotations are tenuous, and one can’t help thinking that there must be a Shakespeare quote to fit almost any situation. What’s more intriguing are the references to different bird behaviours dropped into the text by the mystery diarist, which add another element to the whole.

Bain Murphy also feeds into the story a current trend among many young teens, that of creating ‘potions’, in this case ‘variants’, which add an extra level of curiosity, and she is adept at her ‘other world’ creation of introducing certain traditions and small character ticks, such as inscribing skin with quotations or illustrations, taking part in moonlit dreamlike competitions and so forth. All of which adds to the general romance of the text, and gives it extra layers of character and place.

So despite the slight tenuousness of the mishmash of clues and hints, this is a gripping and highly enjoyable novel with believable characters and flowing prose. In fact, the reader goes along with the clues happily because the plot and pace are so intense and riveting. Aila is flawed but believable, as is the family with whom she stays, and the other characters who punctuate this small-town America. The disappearances are well-developed and described, and there’s a great balance of reality/fantasy. Thoroughly memorable, and highly original, although marketed as ‘teen’, this could be read happily from 12+ years. You might even pick up the odd Shakespeare quote. It’s certainly one of the most inventive and lovingly crafted novels I’ve read recently. You can buy it here.

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Hannah Horn

Katherine Rundell publishes her children’s books with an effortless breathlessness; they are dizzying in their sumptuous prose and expert storytelling, put children in the most challenging environments – from the rooftops of Paris in Rooftoppers to the snowy tundra of Russia in The Wolf Wilder, not to mention the African savannah and then harsh boarding school of The Girl Savage, and yet the books also manage to speak to the reader with a simple sublime truth. Rundell’s latest, The Explorer, takes the child protagonists to an even greater extreme, crash-landing them in the Amazon jungle.

Fred, Con, Lila and Max are alone with no food and no shelter. They must learn to navigate the unknown territory in which they find themselves, as well as find a route back to civilisation. At first, they look only for food and water, but then by accident, stumble across a map marked with an X – a sign that they are not alone, as they had envisaged. With growing courage, and a desire to survive, the children handcraft a raft which should take them to the X. But X marks the spot of someone else’s home, and they are not entirely welcome.

Rundell’s ability to handle the very different characteristics of the four children is apparent from the beginning, each personality drawing conflict with the others, and yet each being endearing and frustrating in their own way. The interaction between them, in very difficult circumstances, is as dramatic as any theatre production – the children forge through the jungle, all the while perpetuating the conflict between them, and quite often the struggle within themselves. Fred is loveable as a clear leader, but one obsessed with his perception of his father – as a parent who only sees his son’s shortcomings. Con struggles terrifically with the gendered role she has been assigned at home. Lila, with her younger brother Max, is perhaps the most sympathetic and nurturing of the four – she even adopts a sloth – but she too is nuanced – there are no cardboard cutout characters here.

The book immerses the reader in the Amazon. Rundell brings alive the sights and smells of the jungle, the pervasive problem of what to eat, and not only the wildlife, but the children’s relationship with it. Her sense of place is extraordinary, and it is no great surprise to learn that it is taken from first-hand experience. And the added element of Hannah Horn’s illustrations imbue the book with a sense of the wonder and beauty of the Amazon.

But tied up beneath the surface story of children surviving in this jungle environment are intricate questions of belonging, and the spaces we carve out for ourselves in society and culture, the expectations upon us, and also the balance of exploration and exploitation of other cultures.

The reader excuses the ease with which the children stumble upon the map and ‘the explorer’, because the enthusiasm and exuberance with which Rundell brings each new element of the story to light is utterly compelling. The power of flight, the joyfulness of discovery and escape, and the flourish with which Rundell furnishes her novels with truisms and wisdom:

“You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer…Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention…If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.”

There’s an extra swiftness to this latest Rundell story, which in part lends it to an even younger readership than that of Rooftoppers and The Wolf Wilder, and although the prose is equally beautiful, the descriptions too are faster. With four child characters there is more dialogue, more action than before.

One can’t help feel that Rundell very much takes her own advice. Her stories bear out that she pays enormous attention to what’s going on around her, as well as plucking the richest bits for her prose. The Explorer bursts with ferocious energy, and each character carries an undercurrent of fierce passion. It’s a book that can’t help but inspire children with their own passion for life. You can buy it here.

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan, illustrated by Jane Tanner


There are many sorts of picture books. The ones that tickle and inspire giggles, the ones that teach a lesson on manners, those with silly monster and toilet jokes, and those that are cute and fluffy, but every so often comes one with text that reads like grand poetry, illustrations that demand to be pinned upon the wall, and an ending that calms, but also brings tears to the eyes.

Storm Whale is one of the most sumptuously illustrated, quietly intelligent, and emotional picture books I have read in some time. It tells the simple story of a beached whale and three girls’ attempts to save it. In this way it perhaps invokes memories of The Snail and the Whale, and a picture book with the same name, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies.

However, this is set apart in that it meshes together the best from each aforementioned title. The text rivals that of Donaldson’s. Sarah Brennan’s text rhymes too, and reads even more lyrically, with a lilt that gives a nod to the rhythm of the sea.

“Bleak was the day and the wind whipped down
When I and my sisters walked to town.”

It begs to be read aloud, and paints a magnificent picture of the atmosphere and the power of the wind and sea. This may be summer, but it’s a wild shoreline here, no ice creams and sandcastles, but nature – birds, unspoilt coastlines, shells and seclusion.

Brennan has carefully chosen vocabulary to illustrate the sounds of her poem, from ‘wrack and wreck’ to “the waves slip-slapped,” and the imagery is pure gold, “seaweed, high as a mermaid’s throne…” but I think it’s more than the sum of its parts. For all that the words sing, they come together in a rhythm that lulls and pulls on the emotions.

But it is also the partnering with award-winning illustrator Jane Tanner that lifts this picture book into new territory. The illustrations have a distinctive style (vastly different from Benji Davies, but with their own inimitable grace). At first the images are pencil sketched black and white, and drawn with such dexterity that the image almost makes the reader believe that the wind is rushing through the pages. The girls’ faces are expressive, betraying their delight and innocence. Then, on discovery of the whale, the colour floods in, as the sea floods into the bay, and the angle zooms out, so that the reader sees the beach from a gull’s view. Again, the movement is sweeping. Zooming in again a page later to the girls, with an intensity to their body language that implies their desperation as they try to save the whale. The illustration is so detailed and packed with emotion that the sound of the ocean’s roar is loud in the ears, the girls’ futility against nature deafening.

And then, in perhaps the most startling illustration of the book, the girls are shown warm at bedtime, home in the sanctuary of their mother’s arms. Tanner has used a mass of yellows and oranges to contrast with the blues and greens of the sea, and the page feels alive with the flicker of fire and warmth. Again, the faces of the girls are illuminated, sharp and expressive. And the ending, back on the beach, when it comes, is uplifting with hope and sunshine after the storm.

Picture book of the year. It publishes 1st August, and you can buy it here.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crazily enough, this children’s novel is the second I have read in the last two months that is rooted in an historical leprosy colony, and explores the effects on families and society. The other novel is Lauren Volk’s Beyond the Bright Sea.

Millwood Hargrave’s second novel, The Island at the End of Everything, is set in Culion in the Philippines, which in 1902 was established by US forces as a leper colony. Ami’s ‘touched mother’ gives birth to her on the island, and they live fairly simple lives until Ami’s thirteenth year, when US forces take over the island and decree that it is to be home for the ‘touched’ only, and they ship in many more lepers, segregating them from the untouched. The new governor then strips the island of the disease-free children and ships them to an orphanage on another island, so Ami takes it upon herself to find her way back home.

The story is told in Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical style, with her zing of brevity that wings the reader through the book. She has a poet’s eye for relaying a scene swiftly without flowery embellishment, managing to write vivid descriptions that all strive for the specific. The Philippines lend themselves to this prosaic style, and their lush landscapes are brought sharply into focus – the scent of oranges and colour of butterflies remain long after the book is finished.

The prose is startlingly different from Lauren Wolk’s book. There are no truisms spoken here, although they do exist – they are more subtly buried in an undercurrent of the adventure. But Hargrave’s characters are equally impetuous – particularly Ami herself and her friend Mari – they do not stop to think or listen to the grown ups around them, but take matters very much into their own hands. This plays with a general theme in current children’s fiction in which children often try to please their parents, not realising that they have misunderstood the essence of what will make their parents happy.

Millwood Hargrave also brings in her now characteristic element of writing strong female protagonists, and managing to instill a slight feminist agenda –  in that she shows her protagonists’ ability to act equally to the boys around them, despite them often being belittled by older boys or men.

But above the layers of all this, is a page-turning adventure story, packed with verdant scenery, and a demonstration of characters’ defiance against hatred and judgement, and their defence of love and friendship. There’s a sort of ‘no man left behind’ feel to the adventure, which is populated by good people, especially children, who are all overcoming adversity and striving to do well.

I actually preferred its simplicity and pace to the Millwood Hargrave’s debut, The Girl of Ink and Stars, for which she won the overall Waterstone’s Book Prize. Island feels more effortless, as if it flowed from the pen more easily, and is a kind of flawless adventure that definitely fulfills the author’s aim in showing children how to wonder at the wonders around us. I can’t wait to see what she does next. You can buy a copy of Island here.