Review: The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head by Daisy Hirst

A bit like Inside Out but without the Hollywood whirlwind.

Publication date: 5th February 2015
Publisher: Walker Books

The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head is a wonderful book which really touches on the anger and confusion that comes with losing a best friend. After Simon moves away, Isabel is needs to learn how to spend time on her own. This turns into an attempt to ignore her loneliness by creating an organisational system wherein she categorises everything from books to wolves. The spiral of accumulating boxes is broken by the discovery of a new friend.

Hirst’s use of the almost obsessional image of Isabel separating all of her things into boxes is poignant. Amidst the emotional turmoil, Isabel is trying to find meaning and clarity, but ends up simply putting her “wolves” into boxes rather than confronting them. This is such a sensitive representation of the child’s inner world when their life changes drastically. The emphasis on an imaginary world further reinforces the internal nature of the boxes. With the introduction of a new friend, Isabel is able to release her creativity again, and expand it.

The illustrations suit the book perfectly. They have a childish quality which complements the raw sentiments behind the story, and a playfulness which really accentuates the concerns raised. It is also really good to see characters of colour represented in such a lovely way.

I recommend this book to anyone struggling with losing  a friend, or simply to readers who enjoy a considerate and unique picture book exploring children’s emotional worlds.

Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Story about a boy and his fox, with a serious look at war and its costs.

Publication date: 25th February 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins

Pax is a truly inspiring book, focusing on loss both personal and universal. It is especially topical at the moment when victims of war are in the news, presented through so many different lenses. The novel carefully avoids commenting on the positives and negatives of war, but highlights its implications.

Although arguably not much ‘happens’ in the book, I’m having a hard time reviewing it without feeling like I would be spoiling it for future readers with everything I reveal. Everything about this book was so well-written and intriguing, that I can only urge you to pick it up for yourselves.

I really enjoyed Pennypacker’s writing. Looking through the eyes of the fox was written eloquently; as far from a gimmick as possible. Her interest in the animal – as noted in the epilogue – is evident. The characters are beautifully constructed, and Pax’s is a fascinating portrayal, which avoids anthropomorphism whilst simultaneously exploring his personality.

I recommend Pax unconditionally. It’s wonderfully written and a captivating story for all ages. This is a masterful novel from Pennypacker, which touches on identity, regret and family. I look forward to reading her next book.

Review: The Search for the Homestead Treasure by Ann Treacy

Excellent historical fiction about a little-known Minnesota community.

Publication date: 19th May 2016
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

The Search for the Homestead Treasure spans two generations of Swedish immigrants to the US. Combining the carefully researched history of this community with that of the Romani Gypsies in the area – all under the auspices of a mystery story, the novel is ambitious and it pays off.

Treacy is evidently psychologically astute, tuned in to the actions and fears of a young girl from centuries ago. The extensive explanatory epilogue is a perfect conclusion to the book, as the reader is able to delve deeper into the reality of the characters. Treacy admits to autobiographical elements – which arguably give the work its distinct air of authenticity – as well as the extent of her poetic licence.

The Gunnarsson family are also sensitively presented, as they deal with the grief of losing a son and brother. The theme which underpins the reader’s growing relationship with the protagonist, Martin, is subtly expounded and fascinating to follow. It blends beautifully with the discoveries he makes about the family’s past, and its intertwined destiny with the eponymous Homestead.

I recommend this novel as a first foray into historical fiction. Especially interesting as a glimpse into rural life in the early 20th century, as well as as a mystery. The social issues raised by the depiction of family are also worth taking into consideration.

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.