Four powerful and inspiring books for young readers

Four powerful and inspiring books for young readers

The Lost Whale

By Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold, HarperCollins Children’s Books

Hannah Gold taps into something elemental in her new book, The Lost Whale. The protagonist, Rio, is sent to stay with his grandma in California while his mother is in hospital, receiving help after a long period of mental ill health. Rio has spent much of his childhood caring for her, and he feels the weight of her recovery on his shoulders. While in California where his mother grew up, he learns of her love of whales, whose migratory path takes them down the west coast each year. One whale in particular was once special to his mother: White Beak. When Rio comes face to face with White Beak, he feels a powerful connection to her, and to his mum. When White Beak runs into danger, Rio believes that by saving her, he can also save his mum. The story is beautifully told and issues of mental health are sensitively handled. The book resonates with the magnificence of the whales and the depth of Rio’s emotions. The Pacific Ocean lives and breathes, and White Beak is depicted so vividly she surfaces from the page – so close, we can smell her fish-oil breath. Rio’s immense skill is to listen, and the book asks us to do the same: to listen to the world and to know our power to save it.

When I See Blue

By Lily Bailey, Orion Children’s Books

This book gives a deep, and sometimes painful, insight into what it’s like to live with obsessive compulsive disorder. Ben, aged 12, has various struggles. His mother is battling alcoholism, his dad has left the family home, his brother is never around, and Ben is trying to settle into his new school and make friends, which he doesn’t find easy. For years, Ben has lived with obsessive thoughts – fears that his family are in danger – and he performs a series of debilitating compulsive behaviours (for example, opening and closing doors four times before he is able to walk through them) to try to stop the bad things happening. The problem is, they don’t, and the thoughts and compulsions become a vicious circle Ben is trapped inside, stopping him from living a ‘normal’ life. Ben narrates the story, which whips along, and he is a really likeable character. As readers, we will him to succeed – in his new friendship with April, and in his efforts to overcome his OCD – in the hope that he can banish the bully in his brain for good. The author, Lily Bailey, suffered from severe OCD as a child, and this gives real authenticity to the depiction of the disorder. Some of Ben’s thinking is identifiable, even for people who haven’t suffered with OCD. Children sometimes feel they have the power to control things they don’t, and I think it’s helpful to be reminded that there are things that will never be their fault or responsibility.

Sadé and Her Shadow Beasts

By Rachel Faturoti, illustrated by Rumbidzai Savanhu, Hodder Children’s Books

Sadé has always had a powerful imagination. When she closes her eyes, a vibrant world comes to life – of colourful creatures, candyfloss clouds, a bubbling sea and maze-like gardens. But after her mother dies, dangerous beasts start to emerge from the shadows of her mind and filter into the real world. They’re a manifestation of her anxiety. Supported by an anonymous grief counselling group at school, Sadé begins a journal and discovers the power of her words. As she writes, she finds her voice, processes her grief, and pushes back the beasts. When she’s asked to perform her words in a talent show, Sadé has the chance to speak her truth and banish the shadow beasts for good. The novel explores the power of creativity, but I think it’s interesting that it acknowledges that this power isn’t always for good. Our imaginations can lead us to dangerous places, especially if we’re carrying trauma, and it’s important to support young people – all people – through difficult experiences so that our minds – our inner worlds – can be safe. This is a rich book. The story has stayed with me – and Sade’s poetry and imaginary adventures add wonderful texture to her character and the landscape of her grief.

Once Upon a Fever

By Angharad Walker, Chicken House

A dark and atmospheric story of a world gripped by strange illnesses, Once Upon a Fever begins in the hospital of King Jude’s, where sisters Ani and Payton have grown up. It’s feelings that cause sickness. Ani’s friend Kitt’s supposed ‘greed’ has led to “Midas-finger”, an illness that makes things he touches turn to gold. The girls’ father is a methic, working on cures, and Payton longs to be like him, only better, so that she can cure her mother’s sleeping fever. Ani, however, believes the remedy for illness might be found, not through science, but in the wilderness. As the two girls pursue their own paths, they discover secrets and uncover mysteries that reveal sinister goings-on, putting them both in harm’s way. A fantastical exploration of the dangers of supressed emotions, this is a tense and evocative read for older children.


Reviews by Alice Ellerby

We feature a range of book reviews for adults, teens and children in each issue of JUNO, published bi-monthly. 

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