Today is the 25th annual World Book Day so it seems a very apt moment to have another #KeepKidsReading week – an occasional series where I post reviews about children’s books. My days of creating World Book Day outfits for my primary school age children are long-gone, though it seems like only five minutes ago, and although at the time it felt like a huge pressure to come up with ideas and then scour charity shops for suitable garments, I genuinely think it is a brilliant concept and any initiative that gives out vouchers for children to get a free book, MUST be a force for good.
I’d like to tell you about Julia and the Shark. This book was heavily promoted in my local branch of Waterstones and I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the ‘Signed Exclusive Edition’ sticker and the attractive design. It is a beautiful thing: hardbacked, the cover is in tasteful shades of grey and bright yellow with shiny silver relief. Inside, the grey/yellow/silver theme continues, as do the illustrations of flying birds which decorate the edges of the pages almost zoetrope style. The images, brilliantly done by Tom de Freston, are stunning and a few of them are on opaque pages scattered throughout the book. In terms of design, the book, in my view, follows a trend set by books like The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse a couple of years ago, or even Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl, where the pictures are an integral part of the experience for the reader and convey something important about character or the state of their mind.
But what of the story? The central character is ten year old Julia, the only child of a mathematician father and a marine biologist mother. The story begins with the family moving from their home in south west England to Shetland, in the very northern isles of Scotland, for the summer. Julia’s father has been commissioned to convert a lighthouse, once operated manually, to an automatic system. The family will live in the building for the duration of the project (a few months) and Julia’s mother will pursue an interest of her own, which is to discover the whereabouts of a rarely seen marine creature, the Greenland shark. She is attempting to get funding for a research project to study the shark and learn about its long, slow life in the hope that it can help in the pursuit of a treatment for degenerative dementia, a condition which killed Julia’s grandmother.
Julia has mixed feelings about the trip; she is unhappy about being away from her friends for the summer, but, buoyed by her mother’s enthusiasm and excitement about her own project, she comes around. Julia and her mother get to know a few people in the local village and Julia makes friends with a boy, Kin, whose family owns the local launderette, out of which they also run a small library. Julia and Kin share a love of nature, she for the sea (a passion passed on by her mother) and he for the stars. Julia quickly becomes initiated into some of the problems that dog Kin’s life, most notably, that he is a victim of racist bullying from some of the local lads.
Julia becomes increasingly worried about her mother. At first, her mother’s spontaneous and outgoing behaviour is presented as a foil to her father’s logical, sensible character, and it is clear which behaviour Julia prefers! However, the behaviour becomes more and more reckless and bizarre; it starts when Julia’s mother purchases an expensive camera she does not really need and the family can ill afford. It peaks when she buys a run-down boat to go on solo expeditions in search of the shark when it becomes clear that the failure of her funding applications means she can no longer go aboard another working vessel as a paying guest. The boat and the solo expeditions prove both hazardous and fruitless.
Events come to a head when Julia’s mother has a breakdown. The nature of the emergency means that Julia is left in the care of a local shop owner the family has befriended, but she escapes during the night. She learns that there has been a sighting of the Greenland shark and Julia decides she will take her mother’s boat out to search for it. This proves highly dangerous and almost costs Julia her life when she sails into a storm that overturns the boat.
It is very tense at the end because it is not clear if either Julia or her mother will survive. The only indication that Julia does is a paragraph in the opening pages where Julia, who is the book’s narrator, tells us:
“This is the story of the summer I lost my mum, and found a shark older than the trees. Don’t worry though, that doesn’t spoil the ending.”
I was worried when I read this – a book where a young girl loses her mother! But rest assured, the mother does not die. She almost dies when she takes too many pills, and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but there is a happy resolution and Julia is saved from the waves.
This is quite a challenging book. It does deal with death (Julia’s grandmother’s death is referenced throughout), mental illness, bullying, difficult parents (not just Julia’s but it also turns out that the boy who had been bullying Kin had been abandoned by both his mother and father), and less seismic but equally impactful issues for kids like moving home, being an only child, friendship, and dealing with failure and disappointment.
This is a book that will suit quite a wide range of children between 9 and 13 – younger, stronger readers who are also quite emotionally mature will get a lot out of it, as will older kids who may identify strongly with the issues but perhaps need the pictures to keep them engaged. I loved Julia as the narrator, who was able to present complex issues in easy to understand ways. And it is a very compelling story with elements of adventure too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It would also be a beautiful book to give as a gift. My only concern with it is that the design has made it quite pricey; at £12.99 this will be out of reach of many parents and children. I hope to see it in libraries.