#KeepKidsReading Book review – “Julia and the Shark” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave with Tom de Freston

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.

The Greenland shark can live for hundreds of years – https://www.britannica.com/animal/Greenland-shark

SPOILERS BELOW

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.”

BIG SPOILER

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.

Highly recommended.

Facebook reading challenge – March choice

In the last week or so of the month, I usually start to give some thought to the book that I am going to choose next for my Facebook Reading Challenge. I will remind myself of the theme. Sometimes, I already have a title or two in mind. And sometimes I have to do a bit of searching. This invariably throws up two or three choices and I will spend a few days ruminating before making a decision and posting on here.

Last month’s theme was “something that had been adapted for screen” and I had two titles in mind. I chose John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I had just seen the 2011 Gary Oldman adaptation and had enjoyed it. After a few opening doubts (the plot of the book seemed much more complicated than the film), I really got into the book and loved it. I finished it quite quickly, so I decided to try and read my February reserve choice as well, Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 classic Rebecca. I had seen the trailer for the new film version starring Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer, which looks really good, but I wanted to read the book first. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but, oh my, HOW have I not read this before!? I cannot put it down. Look out for my reviews of both books soon.

This month’s theme is “something for spring” in keeping with the fact that meteorological spring started yesterday on the 1st. In the three years or so that I have been doing this challenge, I have never had more difficulty choosing a book. There are a couple of obvious choices – Ali Smith’s Spring or Karl Ove Knaussgard’s Spring – but they were too obvious for my liking. I brainstormed: growth, renewal, uplifting, Mother’s Day, World Book Day, International Women’s Day, Mars, gardening, baby birds… But, alas, this bore very little fruit. There is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, but, hmm, set in Russia in 1913…this does not feel sufficiently optimistic to me, and I feel we need some positivity at this point.

So, my choice has only a very tenuous link to spring – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. My rationale? Well, it’s World Book Day this Thursday (4th March). Books can be found in libraries. It has been described as ‘uplifting’. Tick. Plus I really like Matt Haig. The central character is Nora, whose life is not going well. On the stroke of midnight of her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library where she is given the opportunity to explore all the alternative lives she might have lived. If nothing else, one good thing that has come out of this pandemic is that many of us have reflected on our lives and thought about what we might want to change. And spring is a great time for change.

So, I think that’s a wrap! Looking forward to this one.

Now, back to Rebecca

World Book Day…don’t you just love it!

world book day

I love World Book Day, truly I do, but I have to confess that by the time my third and youngest child was at the end of primary school I breathed a sigh of relief that no longer would I have to be knocking up a costume the night before. (Perhaps this says more about my approach to organisation than anything else!) One of my kids hated dressing up, another is highly imaginative and I’m afraid my sewing skills could never match up to expectations and another worried about their costume and how it would compare to others. It was SO stressful, and I began to feel, towards the end, that we were sort of missing the point.

Going along to the bookshop the following weekend clutching our tokens for a free mini-book was much more in my comfort zone, though, again, we would inevitably walk out with an additional book or two and I often wondered how parents for whom money was tight, or non-existent, managed this particular challenge and having to say no once again. Possibly avoid the bookshop altogether and quietly forget the token?

I saw a post on Facebook this morning suggesting that if the costume your child wants costs more than a book, don’t buy it and get a book instead. This is good advice! Children can be strong-willed little things, however, and it can be hard to hold the line. Schools could do more, I think, to reward and recognise ‘creative’ costumes, or perhaps set the challenge that a costume has to be assembled from a certain limited range of materials and take no more than an hour to put together. Most kids LOVE a set of parameters and this would reduce the peer pressure to turn to online sellers of fabulous ensembles.

My own take on this, as a parent of teenagers, is that books are for life and not a day, and we would all do well to try and incorporate books and reading into our children’s lives. I feel certain this would counter much of the anxiety around screen-time that so many parents experience. So, here are my alternative suggestions for celebrating World Book Day:

  1. Read a book yourself – model the behaviours you want in your children.
  2. Put down the phones, sit down and have a conversation with your child about a book they have read. Value their opinions and don’t judge.
  3. If they don’t like a book (that’s okay), as them why. This will encourage them to think about what they DO like.
  4. Make using their World Book Day token an occasion. Buy them an additional book if you can afford it.
  5. If you can’t, take them along to the charity shop where there will be hundreds of kids’ books.
  6. Get them a library ticket and visit regularly.
  7. Do all of the above. Again.

Nothing is better than reading to your child at bedtime. Yes, I know it can sometimes feel like a hassle, especially if you still have work to do, are tired or want to watch your favourite TV show, but, believe me, it stops and often sooner than you think. Even five minutes reading with your child is better than none.

There was some depressing research published this week showing that only around a third of children under thirteen are read to daily for pleasure by an adult, and the trend is downwards. This is not good. When we also hear about teenagers’ mental health issues, I’m afraid I can’t help thinking there is a link.

What are your thoughts on children’s reading habits?

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