music

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

Bear and the Piano

One of the most emotional picture books I’ve read for a while, The Bear and the Piano seems a simple story, but on closer inspection there is a depth and complexity to the book. It speaks of human endeavour and success. It asks what’s important in life, and addresses what it is to belong somewhere. It tells of friendship and the power of music, and all in a story about a bear and a piano.

One day a young bear finds a piano in the woods. He has no idea what it is, and it makes an awful noise. But after years of trying out ‘noises’ on it, the bear discovers that it can make beautiful music, and the other creatures in the wood enjoy hearing him play. Then a girl comes to the woods and tells him about Broadway and the opportunities there, and he leaves for the big city. When he finally returns, he wonders if his friends will have forgotten about him – or be cross that he left.

David Litchfield’s illustrations are magical. Each picture plays with a light source: the forest floor is depicted with dappled sunlight, which throws shadows from the tall trees. The scene in which the bear leaves the wood shows the sunlight over the water illuminating the fronts of the other bears – even though their backs are to the reader as they watch the bear and the girl row away in a boat. The electric spotlights and headlamps of the cars light up the big city, and in turn the reflection of the night-time buildings light up the water. The majesty of the forest landscape and cityscape is never in doubt.

Each detail is stunningly depicted – from the fur on the bear, to the expressions of the audience when he plays the piano. The bear’s face as he listens to the music he makes is beautiful – you can even see it on the book cover.

It’s a sweet story – but the depth of narrative and illustration is what pulled me in. The reader discovers that the bear only manages to create beautiful music after practising for years. (The height and bulk of the bear in comparison to the piano changes dramatically over the years). There is complexity in the choices the bear has to make – leaving home and exploring the world, or staying and retaining the sense of belonging. In the end he discovers that his friends and family support him in his success and are proud of him. And this is the sweetest music of all.

A lovely picture book – look at the backdrop of the forest through the curtains on the cover, and see the magic that awaits inside. One of my picture books of the year, and a debut too!

To buy a copy, please click here. With thanks to Frances Lincoln Books for sending a requested review copy.