The day the screens went blank, by Danny Wallace (Simon & Schuster)
The Bobcroft family find that the technological devices that society rely on have all stopped working. Ten-year-old Stella, her four-year-old brother Teddy, Mum and Dad set off to check on Grandma. This involves a journey across the breadth of England, from Mousehole, their village home in Cornwall, to Suffolk. Without technology to help, what ensues is a road trip full of mishaps, adventure, and self-discovery.
Contrasts and comparisons of the impact of our current pandemic abound. Unlike our recent, enforced stasis, the family are off on a journey. They are driven to this because they can no longer rely on video chats as they have in the past (not a fully satisfactory means of communication and hinting at some deeper family malaise). Conversely, we are currently grateful for the chance to talk to friends and relatives via technology. Just as we have experienced, there are shortages in the shops as people panic buy. There are conspiracy theories, including a belief that the big tech companies have deliberately caused the crisis. As Stella comes to realise, when people can’t get reliable information, they sometimes make up their own.
Stella is a delightful narrator, sensible and orderly, and acutely observant of the peculiarities of adults, with the occasional, hilarious, childish misinterpretation. This is a truly funny book. It is refreshing to find acute observational comedy, rather than the gratuitous scatological humour that seems to be a trend in children’s publishing. Here is a full range of fun, from wry smiles to laughing out loud.
The reader is swept along: the story is so well-paced, and the design so clever, with graphic page breaks and cartoon-like illustrations. Nonetheless, deep themes abound: today’s over-reliance on technology, and the impact of its absence on people’s behaviour – for good or bad. There are life lessons in control, improvisation, and the joy of playfulness. The kindness of strangers and the true meaning of ‘We’re all in this together’ are explored. Family and reconciliation are celebrated.
Highly recommend for the whole class, book group, or solo reader.
I talk like a river, by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Walker Books)
This is quite simply one of the most beautiful and moving picture books that I have read. It describes the author’s own experience of a stutter, and the impact on his boyhood. The physical sensation of sounds that grow roots in the mouth, the variable experience of some days being worse than others – mornings being particularly tough, the social impact as classmates pick up on his difference and fear, are set within a warm, understanding, familial bond. On a bad speech day, the boy’s dad takes him to the river where they look and explore, and ‘It feels good to be quiet and alone with my dad’. It’s dad who coins with the apt and reassuring imagery of the lad’s talk as a river.
Sydney Smith is shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2021 for his wonderful book Small in the city. His illustrations for this book are breathtakingly powerful. In one instance, the same classroom scene is depicted in two different ways on each side of a double page spread. On the left is a teacher at the front of a class. We look from the back of the class, past the backs of pupils’ heads, towards the teacher. Placing is regular, colour is blocky, bold lines imply control. On the opposite page, the faces of all the classmates are turned towards you, the reader, as if you were the boy. Faces and forms are indistinct, there are no fast edges, there is blur and smudge and a sense of disorder, of loss of control. It engenders a sense of panic, which may be familiar to any youngster who has tried to hide away at the back of class, to avoid attention by becoming small and invisible.
With 7% of all children having a speech and language difficulty, it is the most prevalent childhood disability, but a condition that is much misunderstood. This book helps address misunderstanding, but it will also chime with any child who hides in social situations, and will also aid empathy and a visceral understanding in those children lucky enough to feel confident most of the time. It is a book with so much to offer, for everyone.