The Roehampton Readers Group has been going for several years and was formed as part of The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Shadowing Scheme to read and discuss texts that have been shortlisted for these awards. Below are the results of the group’s thoughts on their latest readings. PLEASE BE AWARE THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW!
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Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk. (Puffin Books)
Review by Brenda Davies
Echo Mountain is set in America during the Great Depression. It focuses on a family with two professional parents and three children who are forced out of suburbia because of the economic conditions. They move to the mountains of Maine where they forge a living in the forests. Twelve-year-old Ellie, the protagonist, and middle child, takes well to living in nature and has a close relationship with her father. Ellie’s father is injured during a tree-felling incident and spends most of the story in a coma. It is Ellie’s efforts at waking her father that propel the plot forward. During one of her excursions on the mountain Ellie meets a woman called Cate, otherwise known as ‘the Hag’, who herself is injured and in need of help. Ellie’s strengths, natural abilities and inclinations come to the fore as she seeks to heal both Cate and her father.
Many interesting characters feature in Echo Mountain, including three dogs named Maisie, Quiet and Captan. In fact, the novel opens with the words ‘The first person I saved was a dog.’ This sentence speaks to both the themes of healing, and equality with nature/animals that are apparent throughout. Equality across classes is another theme that is portrayed through the characters. Whilst Ellie’s family is new to the mountains, others have been there for some time and there is a class divide between the two. Cate and her grandson Larkin (a Charles-Dickens-type character) fall into the latter group and are looked down on by the former. However, through Ellie’s healing interactions with Cate, it emerges that Cate, too, lived in suburbia at one time, but has been reduced through circumstances. Cate’s ‘abnormal’ family and Ellie’s ‘normal’ one are contrasted, and emerge at the end on a more equal footing. This is partly due to the plot device of keeping Ellie’s father in a coma for most of the story, allowing Ellie’s family, like Cate’s, to operate without a man/father figure.
Reviews of Echo Mountain by child readers reveal that readers in the seven-to-ten-year age group enjoy the book. This surprised us. Although the writing is simple and the chapters short, the story and its themes are sophisticated and we felt the book was more suited to ten-year-olds and older. Most of us felt that although engaging as a protagonist, Ellie’s sacrificial nature was unrealistically mature for her age. We also questioned the ease/legality with which the families moved onto the mountain and setup home. However, this was answered by seeing it possibly as an allusion to early and then later settlers to America. Finally, in the story and the illustration on the front cover, we saw elements of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, but portrayed differently.
Echo Mountain is a captivating read that we all enjoyed. We think it a strong contender as a winner.
On Midnight Beach by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick. (Faber & Faber)
Review by Lorna Collins
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, grew up with the legend of Tain Bo Cuailnge (amongst others) and wanted to look at the female perspective and to understand why the characters did what they did. We felt that the characters of Emer and Dog were well drawn, but possibly some of the other characters (for example Fee) were a bit simplistic. Fitzpatrick feels there are bits of her in Emer who is quiet, measured and thoughtful, but a bit naïve. She is also the stronger character, not Dog, who is a slave to his temper (as we see in the descriptions of his face before a fight) and for her, Emer is the hero of the book.
On Midnight Beach is Fitzpatrick’s first YA novel, although she has had several successful books previously, including Owl Bat Bat Owl, which she says (and we agreed) ‘couldn’t be more different’. We wondered how many authors have written and illustrated a picture book, then followed it by writing a YA novel.
We agreed that the book has a very attractive front cover—a simple illustration capturing a midnight swim.
Most of us had not realized before reading it that the book is a retelling of an Irish legend. Those who then read the legend felt that it added to their understanding of the book, although it is not necessary to be familiar with the legend as the story does stand alone. The book is set during the hot summer of 1976, when the whole of the UK experienced unusually high temperatures and for an unusually long period of time. Fitzpatrick was a teenager at that time and deliberately set the narrative then because she wanted to write from her own experiences. We felt this worked well as it would have been more difficult to write in the present, given all the current technologies used by teenagers. It was also quite refreshing to read a YA novel with no mobile phones! We wondered whether some of the references to 1970s TV and magazines might be lost on a teenage audience (for example, Flipper is alluded to a couple of times, as is Jackie magazine). However, all the reviews currently on the Carnegie web site seem to be very favourable, so even if those references are lost on younger readers, it clearly has not affected their enjoyment of the book.
The story is told from the perspective of two young people, Emer and Gus. Emer lives in Carrig Cove and Gus, although originally from Carrig Cove now lives in the rival town of Ross. We felt these two perspectives worked well, showing the reader, as Fitzpatrick intended, much of the motivation for the actions of the protagonists.
We commented on the cleverly orchestrated gradual progression from Emer’s seemingly carefree childhood (she is pictured skipping with her friend, Mary at the beginning of the book) to having to leave home in disgrace after the tragic deaths of two young people, Ferdia and Dog, as well as the death of the dolphin they had all grown fond of. We felt the deaths of the two young people, although quite a shock, were a good way of avoiding having to deal with how either of them would have been able to continue after the death of the other. We also agreed that Emer’s pregnancy came as a surprise.
Emer’s gradual progression from childhood and the increasing tension in her relationship with Dog, is matched by the increasing violence between the two towns in their rivalry over the dolphin, as well as the intensity of the heat experienced during that summer. We agreed on the skilful way these threads were intertwined without the reader being conscious of it.
We enjoyed the descriptions of the midnight swims with the dolphin, commenting on the fact that it would have had to have been a very hot summer for swimming at midnight to be feasible in UK waters!
We all enjoyed the book, although we agreed that there are some very strong contenders this year, so not sure if it will be a winner.
Small in the City by Sydney Smith. (Walker Books)
Review by Lorna Collins
Spoiler Alert! (We agreed that the book would be a very different experience on subsequent readings. Read it before reading this review if you can.)
The reader is taken on a journey through the city and also on an emotional journey through the book. To begin with, the child seems to be addressing the reader and offering advice on how to negotiate what can seem a frightening place. The first illustrations look at the bus window and we see the child looking out of the window. As the narrative progresses it becomes less clear who the child is addressing, particularly when a tree is suggested as a good place to hide, or under a warm vent might be a good place to curl up for a nap. Gradually, the reader realizes the child is addressing a lost cat and the journey through the city is one of searching for the cat and putting up missing posters.
To start with, Smith uses muted watercolours with a lot of black and angular black outlining to illustrate – very convincingly, I think – the confusion the child feels in the city. In the video on the shadowing web site, Smith states that the book is set in Toronto. He came from a much smaller place in Novia Scotia and some of his own experience of feeling overwhelmed in the much larger city of Toronto is reflected in the book. All the illustrations are parts of the neighbourhood where he lived in the centre of Toronto. Towards the end of the book the colours become more muted and the weather is clearly worsening creating a growing sense of menace and making the reader feel uneasy about a small child alone in the city. There is also a sense of unease when the reader becomes a bit confused as to who the child is addressing. Gradually that sense of unease lessens when the child’s mother comes into view and finally there is a sense of relief at the brilliantly understated last illustration, showing the return of the lost pet using footprints in the snow.
Sydney Smith has won the Greenaway medal previously for his illustrations of Town is By the Sea, by Joanne Schwarz and has also been shortlisted for Footpath Flowers, by JonArno Lawson. He has always seen himself as an artist, stating that words take much longer for him to find. For this book he filled numerous sketch books with illustrations before ‘finding’ the text and it is the first book he has both written and illustrated. His aim was to create a book where the story is told not just through the words or through the illustrations but where both respond back and forth to each other. This synergy of text and illustrations is one of the criteria for the Greenaway Award which we all agreed had been achieved successfully.
We could not decide whether the child is male or female and in the shadowing video Smith just refers to the child, leaving it to the reader to decide.
We agreed that the book would be a very different experience on subsequent readings and that it held much to be discovered on each reading. Smith has quite a distinctive style and we particularly noticed his use of small red spots of colour.
Subsequent to our discussion, I have used the book with a Year 6 class (10-11 year olds) and a small group of Year 4 children (8-9 year olds). Interestingly, the first comment from both groups concerned the location, which they thought was America (close!) or Japan. Both groups also found it difficult to grasp what was going on in the narrative, although this may have been because I was reading the book from the front and they didn’t have a close-up view of the illustrations, some of which are quite small. Both groups decided it was for older children than the suggested 5+ age group.
I Go Quiet by David Quimet. (Canongate)
Review by Eva Wong Nava
- I GO QUIET by David Quimet is a picturebook published in 2019 by Canongate Books.
- It is 54-pages long end to end; I included the end papers, stuck and loose.
- The story starts on page 7 “Sometimes I go quiet”, though the book is not paginated.
- The cover/jacket has a quote or endorsement by Philip Pullman “Completely original. Unique, in fact.”
- The most colourful page of the book, if it can be considered a page, is the cover. We see green, brown, blue, black, grey.
- We also see a girl with the face of an animal. It is a mask she wears. I am not sure what animal it is but the whiskers suggest a mouse and the text “I go mousy. I go grey” support this suggestion. Perhaps Quimet is playing with the metaphor and idea: “As quiet as a mouse.”
- Other animals feature in the illustrations: “raven”, a group of lemur-looking type animals with stripes bounding along as the main character rides on one [“From time to time I imagine where I’d like to be”] , a rabbit (maybe) and some ducks [“I think I may be part of everything too.”]
- The rest of the pages are darker: illustrations in sepia tones, monochromatic, twin-tones i.e., two-toned.
- The dark hues set the mood for this lyrical text as they suggest a kind of quietness, not loud and garish colours.
- Written in the first-person/I, the story is of a girl who is “quiet”, “not understood”, who “hear[s] whispers” and doesn’t know how she is ‘supposed to be”.
- We see the main character descending into depression (suggestion) — “I sink into a slow-moving smog.”
- What saves her are books.
- This story is about reading and how reading opens up worlds. It is also a story about how books can change a person and how books can save lives.
- There is an element of bi-lingualism or multi-lingualism being celebrated “When I read, I know there are languages that I can speak.” This is underscored by a double-spread with French, Italian/Spanish and English words on buildings, for example, “Silencio”, “Es-tu petit?” and “Are you different?”
- There are some lovely turns of phrase like “When I am heard, I will build cities with my words.”
- Quimet’s writing is lyrical, poetic, and metaphorical.
- This book is above all a celebration of reading and the importance of literacy.
- It is a celebration of difference, respecting the need for ‘quiet’ because in quietness we grow, create and find ways to “make a shimmering noise.”
- It is a book that explains introversion to a child audience by speaking in a child-friendly language without overwhelming or underwhelming them.
- Other than that, I also thought this Quimet’s book celebrates nature and the natural world.
Would I recommend this picturebook?
This is a picturebook I’d likely recommend for a child who is quiet. It is important that such children feel understood. I think Quimet’s story tells a quiet child this. There are indeed many quiet children amongst us who often do feel misunderstood. These children grow to become quiet adults, who then find ways to help their own children not to be misunderstood. I have a child like this. I am a quiet adult. Reading Quimet’s book made me think of this one: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t stop Talking by Susan Cain.
Run Rebel by Manjeet Mann. (Penguin Random House)
Review by Julie Mills
On the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway website and on her Shadowers’ challenge video Manjeet Mann says that some of Amber’s experiences in the book Run Rebel were also her own experiences, so this is written from the heart. And that rings out in this verse novel – a form which enables portrayal of emotion and the inner voice effectively and particularly economically – every word counts. The story of Amber who is part of a family with an abusive and controlling father is told in first person and tracks her journey from oppression to empowerment. Manjeet Mann has written on this before and continues to develop work around it. Her next novel to be published in June 2021 is The Crossing which has the themes of bereavement and refugees and empowerment through sport.
Other stories involving running which it brought to mind were Cynthia Voigt The Runner (1985), Elizabeth Laird The Fastest Boy in the World (2014) and Heartbeat by Sharon Creech also a verse novel published in 2005.
Reviews from Carnegie Award shadowers webpage are overwhelmingly positive with only one I found who thought the verse form distracting.
Run Rebel is a fast paced, page turner and although it might look daunting in length it is easy to read albeit emotionally demanding. The opening, in the prologue, a shocking story of Amber’s mother as a young woman is both horrifying and captivating. This is closely followed by Anatomy of a Revolution Stage 1 Restlessness, and then I am 1 which sets the scene for how worthless Amber has been made to feel in her home life.
Structure and narrative progression is added through linking Amber’s developing opposition and bid for freedom with her history study of the eight stages of revolution.
This is a collection of poems and although some could stand alone as style pieces, they need to be read as a whole for the narrative impact. The verse novel form of Run Rebel is visual as well as aural so there is a lot of playing with space on the page for example – columnizing in Two Sides to Every Story (p348) which is a dialogue between Ruby and Amber and can be read downwards as well as across the page; largely blank pages increasing the impact of a few words giving the reader the space to think as in Like Father Like Daughter (p255);
shape is incorporated into some poems as in at the end of Tears (p113) and Tell Them
(p 243) where the words go down the page as if going downstairs as Amber is in the poem.
She also plays with words such as acrostics and highlighted words or letters giving an additional layer of meaning. For example on page 421 the words “Something still doesn’t feel right” are picked out from the verse and in Tiya on page 147 highlighted letters spell out GIRLS. This variety of form keeps the reader active and engaged on different levels of attention and emotion.
The group discussed themes of the novel as being typical of a YA novel but so much more – teenage love and friendship, jealousy, anger, fear, poverty, exploitation, literacy, oppressive community, female empowerment, escape in competitive running. The group discussed some concerns about the largely negative portrayal of the community which is constantly watching and reporting back any lapses, and the pressure of the rumour mill, the Temple and perceived dishonour. Control is ever present in the community and there is a terrible example in Harpreet a girl who tried to break away for love and is forced to return and grovel to all. The man in the house opposite is rumoured to have killed his daughter for her disobedience – all lies but another control mechanism.
This portrayal is predominantly from Amber’s point of view. Balance is present in the characters of Jas – Ruby’s husband of an arranged and happy marriage – and Beena, David’s mother who also had to rebel and break free and now helps others to do so safely. Jas is not controlling and, once he realises what she wants, is supportive of Ruby in her university ambitions encouraging her to aim high. Beena helps Amber’s mother to break free and to realise her full potential.
We were impressed by the inspirational portrayal of the role education has to play in Amber’s story and her mother’s; Amber teaches her mother to read, and some of her own teachers are enabling and show some insight. The lesson of history on the stages of revolution is crucial. And yet Amber has been held back by her situation and only at the end can she say that “There is space in my head to retain information”.
Insight into the emotional experience of anger, fear and mistrust and feeling of worthlessness is complemented by mundane but vital detail in Amber’s family life all of which create a convincing world. For example reading shopping receipts for her mother, translating official conversations and written communications, attending appointments with her parents and Amber’s necessarily restricted training routines like running up the stairs and doing arm curls when carrying home the shopping.
Characterisation of Amber is complex and shows the effect of control and constant fear of being caught out. Her father’s control is destructive in every sphere of her life holding Amber back. It affects her trust of her friends as well as her learning and social life (none!) Her character develops as she shows growing awareness of her need and capability to break out. But Amber herself is also a bully, ultimately realising that she bullies Gemma because she feels better for it – experiencing power over someone else. This is chillingly described in “Consumed” p 387. She tries to see why her father is like he is and tries to give him a second chance but is tragically disappointed. “Conflicted” p427
Amber’s mother Surinder develops as a character who finds her identity and this is linked to learning to read and write and to education. There is a significant moment when Amber realises that her mother can write her full name and by the end of the book she is influential in working with other women in her community.
Amber’s father is also more than just the monster he is. His character is rounded out by looking at his past in a moving poem “What Happened to Dad”. Amber gains understanding through insight into his fear of change and feeling of powerlessness and lack of love in his childhood. We asked the question – would Amber and her mother have been able to break away if he was not a drunk?
Ruby’s character is developed through dialogue with Amber, and some contrast printed pages are written from the points of view of Ruby and Surinder. Friends David and Tara are seen through Ambers eyes and, although Tara’s endearing qualities are affectionately portrayed, they are less fleshed out as characters perhaps because part of plot is Amber’s misunderstanding of Tara and David’s affection. Amber’s bullying victim Gemma’s motivations are also less explored. Dialogue is strong and true but confusingly written and sometimes it is hard to follow who is speaking. Dialogue is used to introduce other points of view and to develop more minor characters.
This novel ends on aspirational and inspiring note. If the ending might seem a little too happy ever after with so many obstacles removed, Amber and her Mother speedily re-homed and goals achieved, it is saved from being incredible by an open ended conclusion, with Amber running purposively into her future. Manjeet Mann balances encouraging aspiration and action whilst acknowledging the difficulty and complexity of the situation and the range of emotional consequences. Amber continues to have ambivalent feelings about her rebellion saying about her new found freedom “Being removed from a situation doesn’t necessarily free you from yourself.” (p447) and “I feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty” (p451).
Structurally, the Epilogue is balanced against “I am 1” at the beginning which shows Amber’s shift from “I am useless” to “I am rebel”.
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