Scarlet’s parents have separated, and mum has moved out, taking Scarlet with her. No-one is telling Scarlet the whole story. She is not about to accept this upheaval to her life without complaint – a lot of complaint. They’re treating her like a little kid, and she’s got every right to be furious. Her criticisms are pointed and apposite: mum is selfish, dad is weak. Anne Fine perfectly captures the feelings that teenagers go through when they realise their parents are flawed individuals muddling through life. Scarlet is intelligent and witty, at heart kind and caring, so holds our sympathy despite her belligerent selfishness. We understand her frustration at lack of control, paucity of explanation, inability to affect the flawed decisions of the grown-ups in her life. It’s a perfect novel for young teens.
As ever, Anne Fine takes this insight one step further and develops in Scarlet a growing self-awareness and an intelligent appreciation of her own flaws. Dad says Scarlet is a “positive joy and an asset”… Mum says “Yes… He’s absolutely right. You have become a positive joy and an asset.” Scarlet thought ‘that was interesting – Dad said he thought I was one, but my mum thought I’d become one…. I’d have to think about that.’ (p.252).
There are no baddies in this book. Mum and Dad co-operate, Scarlet’s best friend is staunch and true, adults are supportive, friends perceptive. Life is just not always straightforward, and adults as well as children have to learn and grow. Highly recommended for readers of 10 – 14.
A terrific debut novel from Helen Rutter, The Boy who made Everyone Laugh, is an authentic and warm story. The idea came from her son Lenny, who has a stammer: she wanted to write a book that he would love to read, starring a boy like him.
Billy’s starting secondary school, and he’s keen for a fresh start. He’s determined that his stammer won’t determine how he is viewed at his new school. He has various strategies to get rid of the stammer before anyone even notices it, partly so that he can fit in, and partly so that he can pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian
Billy is instantly likeable and his story zips along compellingly, with lashings of humour: some from Billy’s well-crafted jokes, and more from his astute, wry observations.
There’s a bully to dodge, and some great (and some unexpected) relationships to develop. The wider cast is well-drawn, and includes the deeply empathetic teacher, Mr Osho, who runs a lunchtime jazz club that starts out as a safe haven for misfits but becomes the coolest place to hang out.
Billy is naïve in some ways, but acute in his observations of others, noticing the different ways people react to one who stammers. This is a really enjoyable and entertaining book that everyone could learn from, particularly recommended for readers age 10-14, and for anyone who enjoyed Jemima Small Versus the Universe (reviewed here).
The Soup Movement, by Ben Davis, could be analysed as so full of big, scary themes, and so complex in structure that it might seem daunting, but this fantastic book, inspired by a true story, reads as a warm and humorous page-turner. Thirteen-year-old Jordan and Rio meet in hospital where they are both having treatment for cancer. They agree to spend a whole year doing of acts of kindness, ‘mitvahs’, to make the world a better, happier place.
Cut forward to Jordan’s life now he’s in remission from cancer and out of hospital. His family have moved out of the city, to a quieter neighbourhood where the air is cleaner – much to the irritation of his would-be influencer big sister, Abi. Jordan is keeping quiet about his illness at his new school, and finding it hard to explain his mother’s protectiveness to his new classmates. Mum’s nutritious, delicious, homemade soup is an embarrassment, so he gives it to a homeless man. Harry loves it, and, in the spirit of mitzvah, Jordan ends up secretly running a soup kitchen for many more homeless people in the town.
The story interweaves flashbacks to Jordan’s hospital blog posts, but flows beautifully and doesn’t get too complicated. It’s full of warmth and explores some important ideas about the power of kindness, and about social justice and taking action.
All the characters are well-drawn. Rio is a huge and influential presence throughout, and – like the book itself – brings sadness and joy, integrity and fun. Jordan’s descriptions of his cancer treatment are unflinching: there are moments of great sorrow, yet this story’s essence is inspiring, warm and humorous. Highly recommended for top juniors and beyond.
Onjali Rauf’s The Night Bus Hero also deals with homelessness, this time pitched at slightly younger readers (recommended for lower primary). What is unusual here is seeing the action unfold from the point of view of the bully. Hector is labelled as a bully and a menace; he is stuck in an endless cycle of rule breaking at school and consequent detentions. Hector’s parents have little time for him, as all their attention is given to good works and saving the world (shades of Mrs Jellaby, anyone?). The only way to attract notice is to impress his two – equally outcast – school friends, who egg him on as he makes life miserable for others.
Looking for a new way to impress, Hector targets a homeless man in a local park. As a number of threads weave together, Hector finds himself in a crime-busting mystery with Mei-Li, a classmate who demonstrates a respect and sensitivity to others that breaks barriers and moves beyond surface appearances. Hector finds himself the hero of his own story for the first time ever. There’s adventure and some heroic crime-fighting, but the real journey is Hector’s transformation from thoughtlessness to awareness – from bully to hero. Accessible, wide-ranging and thought-provoking, this book would make a great classroom read-aloud.