Review: Feathered by Deborah Kerbel

Welcome to Night Vale meets teenage reality.

Publication Date: 1st April 2016
Publisher: Kids Can Press

Feathered fell rather flat for me. I started off enjoying it, and I genuinely think that the more books about child carers available the better, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. What promised to be a book about dealing with grief, and dealing with a surviving parent who isn’t coping turned out two-dimensional. The most moving moment in the novel, when heroine, Finch, tells her mother that she “needs her to be alive” is incredibly poignant – unfortunately, I felt that the rest of the novel lets that moment down.

The writing is clear and enjoyable, although the plot tries to fit too many things into 148 pages. The main character is likeable and her story of bullying, difficulty in school, and juggling a chaotic home life is a sympathetic one. The ending is hopeful for Finch and her family, and Kerbel has managed to create a realistic picture of depression and 11-year-old confusion/inherent understanding of that internal turmoil.

What really ruined it for me was the use of the character of Pinky. What could have been a meaningful encounter with what it means to be Indian growing up in a white neighbourhood, is instead a collection of stereotypes with no meaningful exploration. When Pinky says that she’s “different” and Finch says “I know how that feels,” I wanted to sit her down and explain racism to her. I understand that the character is meant to be 11, but what’s the point of creating an auxiliary Indian friend (because that’s what she is) if it’s not to present the particular nuances of racism? In fact, Finch just uses Pinky and her family’s difficult adjustment to a country where they are victims of hate crime, in order to realise her dream of flying.

It’s difficult to recommend this novel unreservedly, due to its simplistic approach to the issues it tries to raise. I feel like anyone with an understanding of them will feel cheated, and anyone without one should be reading better books about them. It is generally an entertaining read, but nothing really special.

 

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Welcome to Night Vale meets teenage reality.

Publication Date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s

Radio Silence is one of the best books I’ve read this year, simply by virtue of how liberating it is. Every fear I think I ever had as an eighteen-year-old is voiced beautifully, and softly, honestly, laid to rest. The characters are complete, the perfect balance of simple concerns and life-changing ones. The surprising and improbable is blended with the real to recreate a brilliant portrait of the final two years of school.

The writing is fluent and comfortable, treating the reader as an equal with no need of overexplanation and simplification. The narration is conversational, with interspersed ‘transcripts’ from the Universe City podcast, a central feature of the novel, from which the character of Radio Silence comes. As a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, I could definitely see how Oseman had been inspired by it, as she notes in the acknowledgements. Dark and queer – in all the senses – Universe City acts as a ‘gothic double’ to the characters’ lives, the playground for unvoiced fears.

Oseman deals with a lot of heavy issues which are preoccupying young adults more and more: sexuality, gender, race and the influence of privilege. However, she achieves what many other writers have conspicuously failed to. None of these issues are shoehorned in to prove a point about teenagers, or to fashionably throw a minority into the mix. Oseman recreates the confused experience of actually determining identity, and by writing it so fluently she does these causes the best service. Her characters are not defined by these characteristics alone, they are fully rounded people for whom the above are just part – if significant – of their persons.

Radio Silence is an incredible novel and I recommend it is forced upon every young person you know, especially if they’re a bit nerdy and a bit scared of their future. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d read, and that I read now well into the early hours, just constantly agreeing with the story. Trying to explain what this book is “about” I cannot do it justice. It’s about podcasting, studying, being yourself, coping with abuse, dealing with friendship, fear of affection and fear of rejection. Just read it, and you’ll understand what I mean.

Review: Why I Went Back by James Clammer

A beautiful, often staggering, portrayal of a breaking home.

Publication Date: 7th April 2016
Publisher: Andersen Press

Why I Went Back is a fantastic debut, describing fourteen-year-old Aidan’s discovery of an ancient prisoner, as he struggles with his mother’s mental illness and his dad’s depression. In between trying to deliver the mail his postman father has neglected, and attempting to at least show his face at school, Aidan decides to help this stranger. Along the way, he is also able to open up to classmate, Daniel, whom Aidan had previously bullied. Clammer effortlessly shows how nothing is black and white, how tragedy does not have to mean despair, and how problems can always be overcome.

If I could only use one word to describe Clammer’s writing, it would be ‘strong’. The flow is eloquent and the feel of it is rich. Written from Aidan’s perspective, it demonstrates the mental processes of a fourteen-year-old boy as he deals with the collapse of his family life. With uncommon perspicacity, Aidan comprehends his impulses and feelings at the same time as the reader, painting a heartbreaking but powerful picture of a child having to prioritise between rocks and hard places constantly in order to carry on.

Despite containing actual instances of magic, the overwhelming sense is one of magical realism. It’s as if the magical part of the story is a side plot, a fancy, compared to the harsh reality of mental illness, bullying, young carers and neglect. The magic is ineffective against the cruelty of the world, but it is able to inspire Aidan; it can give him the push he needs to be able to deal with what life throws at him. If you are not a fan of fantastical fiction, I would suggest giving this novel a try anyway.

I cannot recommend Why I Went Back enough. I read it in one sitting and could have carried on. It strikes just the right balance, and is a pleasure to read. Anyone who is interested in the power of the human will, and an “invincible heart,” will find this novel really speaks to them. It can also be given to sensitive children of younger ages, well within the middle grade group – not just YA – and will offer them huge insight into the different lives people live behind closed doors. I look forward to Clammer’s next book.

 

International Women’s Day: Children’s book resources

Today, on International Women’s Day, I wanted to post a more practical article about women and children’s books. From the first picture books by Kate Greenaway through to Beatrix Potter, whose most famous creation Peter Rabbit now has his face embossed on a coin, and Enid Blyton, women have been creating beautiful writing for children. And those are just a tiny selection, from a very small island, whose works are old enough to be classics.

Only this year Judith Kerr produced the first picture book that was not published for World Book Day to top the fiction charts in the UK. Julia Donaldson came first in the Top 50 highest earning authors of 2015. J.K. Rowling came third – and that’s years after the last Harry Potter book.

So many amazing women have contributed to children’s literature for both girls and boys. Below, I have compiled a few resources to get you thinking about the way books influence children and can set them on the right track for equality.

#1000BlackGirlBooks

23 Feminist Books Every Child Should Read

A Mighty Girl (“The world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls.”)

Barnes Children’s Festival

HeForShe action kits

Sexism rife in textbooks, says Unesco

Let Toys be Toys (“Let Toys Be Toys campaign is asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.”)

Please do let me know of any other organisations or interesting links to include, in the comments!