Frank Cottrell-Boyce won the Carnegie Medal for his debut children’s book, Millions, 2005 and has since been short-listed for countless major children’s book prizes. He is as popular with his young readership as he is with adult award judges, taking big and important themes and mixing them together with well-drawn characters, adventurous plotting, believable dialogue, and pages packed with humour. His new book, Noah’s Gold, has all these ingredients in spades.
Young Noah accidentally stows away on his older sister’s school trip. Through over-reliance on the satnav (neatly, by the geography teacher), Noah and the year 9s find themselves stranded on a small island off the coast of Donegal. Then the minibus is destroyed and their teacher goes missing. The island is uninhabited, yet is home to some very important cables. Accident-prone Noah “switches off“ the internet, resulting in chaos and comedy. Add in a treasure hunt for a fast paced, humorous story of survival, tolerance, and teamwork.
The story is mostly told through letters Noah writes to his parents – and their occasional reply. How did their letters reach him? All is revealed later, when the reason for the bracing tone of Mum and Dad’s letters becomes clear. Granny’s nuggets of sage advice also shine through.
“Don’t curse God for inventing sharks. Thank him for not giving them wings.”
“If you find yourself wanting to wander off into the forest, that might be because the wolves have been praying for lunch.”
Food is a key theme: the search for it, Noah’s inventive ways with scarce and mis-matched ingredients, the matter-of-fact way it’s revealed that Noah’s family use a food bank from time to time. Cottrell-Boyce characteristically reflects the real experience of so many children in the UK today who live with poverty, and yet thrive through family love, grit, and good humour.
Interviewed in the Guardian Review Books that Made Me Q&A (20/8/2021), the author answers The Most Overrated Book question as “unquestionably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. An enjoyable romp that people have taken as a revelation about human nature, which could not be more wrong.” As a counter to this, in his author’s note, he cites the true story of the group of Tongan schoolboys who, in 1965, ran away from a school, stole a boat, and became shipwrecked on a remote desert island. Despite deprivations and injuries, the boys worked together to keep themselves fit and healthy for fifteen months. South Pacific teenagers are brought up with strong community beliefs, obligations of friendship, and good practical skills around fishing and gathering – and South Pacific islands are fruitful. Which way would a group of children react to such challenges today? Would they survive and grow through co-operation, or would they fail, hopeless and helpless, or feral and vicious? There are other big questions posed by this thoughtful story – the benefits and disadvantages of modern media, the use and acceptability of white lies.
This book is a true joy to read. The characters are distinct and recognizable, the plot a real page-turner, and the dialogue sings with the kind of daft things that children sometimes say. Here’s Ryland talking about Noah:
‘He’s jinxed. Definitely, definitely jinxed. Think about it. Since we met him, everything’s gone wrong. Our bus fell off a cliff, we’re stuck on an uninhabited island. EVERYTHING NOT SAVED IS LOST. We should do what they did back in the day and throw The Jinx in the sea. We should let the sharks eat him, like they ate Henry VIII.’
‘The fact is,’ said Dario, ‘sharks did not eat Henry VIII.’
‘Who did eat him then?’
Also highly recommended:
Tony Ibbotson has inherited his mother’s storytelling skills. This a great journey of adventure from England to the north of Sweden. A disparate group of travellers come together on a quest, ending up in a very harsh landscape, learning and growing along the way.
William is different, and an outsider. Judy is difficult, and an outsider. Trust and friendship grow between the unlikely pair: a boy with a chaotic home life and a girl whose dissident Iranian father disappears while on a rescue mission. They travel in a dilapidated campervan, driven by the unusual Mr. Balderson, who who never seems fazed by anything. They are given shelter by a practical Swedish boy, Stefan, and his grandmother, and grow to value a completely different way of life. It is a story firmly located in the real world, yet with a touch of magic too.
The author writes from first hand experience, and this warm, honest, and very funny book rings true.
Billy Plimpton has a big dream: to become a famous comedian when he grows up. He already knows a lot of jokes, but he has one big problem standing in his way: his stammer. Starting at secondary school, Billy’s tactic to avoid his new classmates discovering his stutter is to avoid speaking – but it’s very hard to tell a joke without getting a word out. Billy is clever and resilient, and with the help of a wonderful and wise teacher, and time and patience, wins over his tormentor, loses and regains some good friends, and eventually takes centre stage.