The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon Age 13+
“Subhi is a refugee. Born in an immigration detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. The night sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and birds tell their stories. The most vivid story of all is in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears one night from the other side of the wires. Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold – but not until each of them has been braver than ever before.”
This is quite simply a heart-rending, beautiful story. From the first line I knew that I would be utterly moved by the words written so passionately, weaving a narrative that is at times difficult to read. The story is not gratuitous, but highlights the innocence of a young boy surrounded by such ugliness. It is a stark picture of the realities of life in a detention centre.
At the heart of the story is Subhi, born in the refugee camp, the only home he has ever known. Raised by his mother and his sister, Subhi is an extraorindary voice telling us the realities of the world as he knows it. The Family tent where he lives with his mother, sister and forty-two others; the shortages; little or no water; the rancid food; the total lack of sanitation; the ‘Jackets’ who ‘look after’ the immigrants. It becomes clear the camp is little more than a prison, hidden from the outside world, with concentration-camp like conditions; the ‘Jackets’ little more than prison guards, with a penchant for mistreating their charges. Subhi’s best friend is Eli, a young man determined to survive and help the other camp inmates to do the same. Moments of humour lighten the darker side of life in the detention centre but Subhi’s saving grace is his own, unique and wonderful imagination. Each night he conjures up the Night Sea from his mother’s stories, washing treasures into his hands and giving him hope. Subhi shares his imagination with others, hungry for stories, hungry for memories to build a picture of the world outside the fences.
There are so many moments in this book that are really quite beautiful; every small sign of hope that Subhi can find, he holds on to, keeping his dreams alive. One day, his dreams bring him Jimmie, a local girl with grief of her own, who starts to show him what the Outside is really like, through her own stories and pictures. She even brings him hot chocolate! From a poverty stricken background, Jimmie’s world suddenly seems rich compared to Subhi’s and she cannot understand why people are being treated so badly. The Bone Sparrow necklace entwines their stories and determines the outcome of their friendship. How much bravery can one young boy and one young girl find within themselves, to save each other from their respective fates?
‘Hope’ takes on new meaning in this book and the story questions shows how the human spirit can stay hopeful in the darkest of times, when it seems no one cares and no one can ‘see’ you. The story is weaved by an author who is clearly passionately wanting to address an issue that is now so prevalent in our world surely it cannot be ignored. This is a book that will make change happen.
Also reviewed for The Reading Zone
How to Capture and Invisible Cat by Paul Tobin Age 9+
'This is the story of how my friend Nate created a giant invisible cat on Friday the thirteenth. I won't tell you about the mouse costume I wore to try and catch it. What I WILL tell you about is a talking dog, a death-dealing secret tea-drinking society and me, Delphine Cooper, jumping out of a plane with no parachute. Just your average day when your friends with a genius.'
A fantastically thrilling, barmy adventure, featuring Nate (the genius), and Delphine (his only friend), on a mad-cap race against time to capture Nate’s invisible cat Proton. Invisible I hear you say? Well, yes, thanks to Nate’s regular attempts to challenge his genius mind, every Friday 13th doing three ‘not-so-smart’ things, with interesting results. This time he’s made the cat, not only invisible, but enormous and now it’s up to him & Delphine, his new found friend to stop the cat destroying the town. However, they soon find themselves up against the Red Death Tea Society, suitably villainous bad guy, who want to destroy super-genius Nate at all costs. The excitement doesn’t stop all sorts of unusual situations requiring, not just Nate’s genius, but Delphine’s common sense too, as well as a whole host of fantastic inventions. The question is, how clever do you have to be to rescue your hometown from inevitable destruction?
Totally inventive and great fun, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, laughing out loud on numerous occasions! The more ridiculous the inventions got the more I loved it – you can almost hear the author chuckling to himself whilst throwing another crazy, but brilliant idea into the plot. From talking dogs to friend ray-guns; I love the imagination, every moment you think there can’t possibly be anything else, but there is! Nate’s logic that the reason for being smart is ‘to make life better’ and that sometimes ‘a bit of chaos’ makes life better runs throughout the story, as does the wonderful Delphine’s wit and wisdom. You can’t help but enjoy the situations the pair find themselves in, even when they seem to be facing certain doom from the evil Red Death Tea Society. Could there be a better name for bad guys? I think not, and as a regular tea drinker, what better past time? And the simple and bold illsutrations enhance the narrative perfectly. I didn’t even mind that the cats in the story got a bit of a raw deal, because, let’s face it, at two in the morning when they’re charging around the house for no apparent reason, they can be really annoying! On a more ‘serious’ note, the theme of friendship is wonderfully evident throughout and how some kids just find it hard to fit in. I like the ending too, leaving the reader expectant for book two but also reflecting on the difference finding a new friend can make.
For more info see: www.paultobin.net
The Best Medicine, Christine Hamill Age 11+
“Things are going wrong for Philip Wright: detentions, broken specs. An English teacher who thinks he’s a poet and a mother who’s started acting weird. She no longer laughs at his jokes, cries a lot and bakes wholemeal buns. And then there’s The Yeti, The Goddess, The Meerkats and Philip’s best friend Ang. Oh, yes, and Mrs Chihuahua next door and her annoying mutt. Not to mention Philip’s hero, a certain TV comedian.”
A really great story about facing an unbearable situation that will be all too familiar for many readers. Philip is a ‘normal’ twelve year old boy, with a crush on a suitably “Goddess” like school girl, a problem with a bullying “Yeti” and a very good mate called, unusually, Ang. Philip is also a huge Harry Hill fan, with his sights firmly set on being a comedian when he grows up. Philip’s mum, usually his number one fan, has stopped laughing at his jokes and is behaving in a worryingly strange fashion. This, along with issues of unrequited love (The Goddess), broken brand new specs (The Yeti) and misunderstandings with his friend (Ang) cause Philip to seek advice from his comedy hero. But with his letters to Harry Hill going unanswered, the situation at school getting worse and ever increasing erratic behaviour from his Mum, what can Philip do?
The light-hearted touch in this story stops it from becoming a maudlin tale about illness, which is particularly clever given the subject matter. Instead, it is a down-to-earth, funny, emotive story which has you laughing and crying at the same time. Philip’s observations and reactions to his Mum’s perplexing behaviour are utterly realistic and many will be able to relate to his feelings of desperation. When the truth is finally revealed, that his Mum is facing a battle with cancer, it is done so with extreme care by the author. Whilst the realities are bleak, Philip sets about trying to cope, sort out his problems and help his Mum, with hilarious and moving moments throughout. And as a mother myself, what is amazing is how far Philip will go to show solidarity with his Mum and support her in her hour of need. Just when Philip is at his wits end, his friends turn up trumps and there is a wonderful surprise waiting at the end of the story. This uplifting book will open the eyes of those who think illness should be kept behind closed doors and only whispered about. After all, when everything in life is just about as bad as it can be, the only thing to do is find the ‘funny’ in the situation and laugh through the tears.
For more info see: http://www.evewhite.co.uk/authors/christine-hamill/
‘Nothing Tastes As Good’ Claire Hennessy Age 14+
‘Don’t call her a guardian Angel. Annabel is dead – but she hasn’t completely gone away. Annabel immediately understands why her first assignment as a ghostly helper is to her old classmate: Julia is fat. And being fast makes you unhappy. Simple right? As Annabel shadows Julia’s life in the pressured final year of school. Julia gradually lets Annabel’s voice in, guiding her thoughts towards her body, food and control. But nothing is as simple as it first seems. Spending time in Julia’s head seems to be having its own effect on Annabel....And she knows that once the voices take hold, it’s hard to ignore them.’
Annabel is angry. She doesn’t want to help anyone, least of all a fat girl. But perhaps that isn’t the real reason for her anger. Perhaps Annabel knows taking the assignment on will make her confront her own demons (not that she believes in that stuff; heaven or hell included). Her ‘assignment’ is Julia; a kind, caring girl coming to the end of her college education. With parents working shifts on the police force, a baby sister to take care of and high grades to maintain, Julia is busy. She has friends and enjoys working on the school newspaper, with a dream of one day becoming a ‘real’ journalist. So it seems ideal when the position of Editor on the school newspaper is offered to her and she takes on the role, despite any misgivings; including working closely with Gavin, someone who she has grown increasingly fond of. The stress and strains of her workload begin to show; the politics of a school newspaper are more complicated than she realised and her ‘friends’ don’t seem so supportive anymore, let alone her parents. A darker secret begins to creep out of the shadows and allows Annabel to make her voice heard. Why does Julia need to prove herself so much? What drives her to find comfort in food? And will Annabel succeed in controlling Julia, setting her on the path to self-destruction before anyone can help?
I didn’t want to read this book. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading, but I find certain topics difficult. I remember watching a film about a girl with anorexia when I was young and it disturbed me. But this isn’t just a book about anorexia: it’s a book about relationships. Between friends, boyfriends & girlfriends, parents & daughters and even working relationships; all through the eyes of teenagers on the cusp of ‘adulthood’. Annabel might be dead, but she literally screams off the page. Her anger and frustration are palpable throughout the narrative and make you want to yell right back at her. The brilliant writing gives voice to Annabel’s self-destructive ideas and they are frightening. As the reader, you see how terrifying her illness was and of course, how this is then passed on to the unsuspecting Julia, who is desperately looking for some way of controlling her spiralling lack of confidence and self-esteem. The difference being, Julia's problem with food initially making her hugely overweight.
I found the characters to be totally believable; Julia’s desire to please everyone and be a success; her best ‘friend’ Debs absolute inability to notice anything other than her own problems; Gavin and his genuine concern for Julia but attraction to other girls. They are all totally real which makes the story that much more real; I was hooked. I love the observations Annabel makes and the insight she has into Julia, which reflects right back at her, showing her how she got it so wrong. There is real cleverness in the flashbacks to Annabel’s past, as well as seeing the people that Annabel left behind in present day. The devastation that an illness such as anorexia can cause is quite horrific; but whilst the story is challenging to read, there is a thread of humour throughout lightening the subject matter. We see the difficulties many teenagers face with friendships, making decisions about their future, putting up with parents who don’t always get it right, school teachers and school politics, dealing with issues such as divorce and bullying. Not wanting to give anything away, when we finally discover Julia’s awful, dark secret, Annabel, perhaps without even realising, becomes her champion. And little does Julia know she gives Annabel what we all need: hope.
A really great read; brilliantly written, challenging, believable, real.