‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan – children’s fiction for June

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature. I aim to read and review at least one children’s book every month, so here is my offering for May.

The Weight of Water imgThis was the third book I read last term with the children’s book club at my daughter’s primary school. It was something of a risk as it’s not conventional either in its subject matter or its format. But having read Time Travelling with A Hamster with them (which they loved) and The Snow Spider (which many of them were lukewarm about), I felt they were ready for the more complex themes and the quirky format. The kids in my book club are 10-11 and it’s well-known that children tend to like reading about characters who are a couple of years older. The central character in this book, Kasienka, is 13, so that fits, although some of the themes are quite mature. For example, she mentions her periods, puberty more generally and her feelings about a boy at school, which had some of my book club attendees sniggering! That could have been down to the group situation, however, and read alone or with a parent, this might actually be an opportunity to have a proper conversation with a child about such issues.

The book starts with Kasienka and her mother leaving Gdansk, Poland, with just a suitcase each. They are travelling to England to join Kasienka’s father, who left some months earlier. They are heading for Coventry, as they know he is somewhere in that city, but they have not heard from him for some time and have no address for him. There are clearly two things going on here: firstly, there is the immigrant experience, people leaving their home country in search of a better life, but there is the sub-text also of the mystery of the father’s departure and possible marital issues between Kasienka’s parents.

When Kasienka and her mother arrive in England they find themselves in a dingy bedsit, living amongst other immigrants, including Kanoro, a Kenyan doctor working as a hospital porter. Kasienka is placed in a local school, but is put down a year because of what are perceived to be her inferior language skills. She is resentful at this humiliation not only because she finds the schoolwork very easy, but also because she struggles to be accepted amongst the girls of her own age. Parents of teenagers will know there is usually quite a maturity difference between 13 and 11/12 so one can only imagine what it must have been like for Kasienka to be placed in this situation. There is a sense that the authorities at the school do not necessarily have her best interests at heart either, that perhaps they feel the additional demands placed upon them by immigrant pupils are a burden. There is a feeling that Kasienka is being made an example of.

Kasienka finds her relief in swimming, it is where she feels free and where she feels equal, and it is where she is able to prove herself to her enemies from school. It is also where she begins a relationship with a boy from school, William. There is some kissing here, which the kids in the book club found deeply amusing!

The second strand to the book is the search for Kasienka’s father. Her mother sets about the task with great energy, knocking on doors, marking off the streets on the map as they go. Kasienka is doubtful about this work and you sense early on that she realises long before her mother that her father does not want to be found and that they would be better off giving him up. They do eventually find him, with a new (English) partner and a baby. Kasienka then has to cope with her mother’s depression and despair. Things do work out in the end for them but the themes are clearly quite challenging. The book club coped well with it and particularly enjoyed the occasional minor swear word!

A word on the format, which is quite unique. It’s written in verse form, although it flows more like prose and each chapter is very short, with each topic covered as an extended poem. This makes it quite powerful. Here is an example of one of the early chapters, entitled ‘Mistaken’, when Kasienka is beginning to realise the scale of the challenge facing them in their new life:

“When Mama said

‘We’re going to England,’

I didn’t see myself

Alone.

I knew I’d be different,

Foreign.

I knew I wouldn’t understand

Everything.

But I thought, maybe, I’d be exotic,

Like a red squirrel among the grey,

Like an English girl would be in Gdansk.

But I am not an English girl in Gdansk.

I’m a Pole in Coventry.

And that is not the same thing

At all. “

I really enjoyed this book and my 11 year old daughter did too. It’s a good one for this age group so if you have a child transitioning from primary to secondary I’d recommend it for the holidays perhaps, particularly if you’re travelling abroad; it may help them to think about what it feels like to move to a foreign country.

A nice book for kids for the holidays

xmas-1-2Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature. My children are part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. JK Rowling is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons, but primarily for all that she has done to get (and keep) children reading, particularly those who might otherwise not have done so. Harry Potter wasn’t the first literary character to bring wizarding and magic into children’s literary lives, however. The Snow Spider was first published 30 years ago and was a multiple award winner. It was originally published as a trilogy, but this anniversary volume has been issued as a stand-alone. I chose it for the book club I run at my daughter’s primary school.

It’s set in Gwynedd, rural Wales, where our central character, nine year-old Gwyn Davies, lives on a farm with his parents. It starts on the morning of Gwyn’s birthday with his grandmother, the eccentric Nain, giving him five gifts: a brooch, a broken wooden horse, a yellow scarf, a piece of seaweed and a tin whistle. It turns out that these rather unusual tokens are in fact a kind of test, designed to determine whether Gwyn has inherited the magical powers that run in the family line but which have now missed several generations.

We learn that Gwyn’s birthday is usually a quiet and fairly sombre affair because it is the anniversary of his elder sister’s disappearance, four years earlier. Bethan went out in search of a pet lamb belonging to her little brother, after he begged her to do so, and never returned. Gwyn’s father blames Gwyn for his beloved daughter’s disappearance and has since become a cold and distant figure in his son’s life.

Gwyn soon finds that he does indeed possess certain magical powers and each of the gifts given to him by Nain has an individual significance, a power he must explore and learn about. The first sign he receives is when the brooch becomes a delicate and beautiful silver spider, Arianwen. The spider becomes his guide and companion throughout the rest of the book and on his journey of self-discovery. The broken horse unleashes some malevolent forces that Gwyn must learn to control – this is a very high-action chapter! The yellow scarf, which had belonged to his sister and was the only sign of her left on the hills after she vanished, attracts Bethan back into the family’s life, but in an abstract way; Eirlys is introduced about halfway through the book when she arrives at Gwyn’s school, apparently an orphan. She lives with a family in the village, but after becoming trapped in a storm finds herself spending some days with Gwyn and his family. Eirlys clearly reminds Gwyn’s father of his missing daughter and her presence brings about a softening in his relationship with his son.

The children in the book club had mixed feelings about The Snow Spider. Some did not like it at all – one even abandoned it! For others I think it was perhaps rather gentler than their usual reading, with not quite enough “action”. Compared to many of the books published today it has a certain innocence that I confess made me rather nostalgic! I loved the sense of place; rural Wales, with all its traditions of myth and magic is beautifully evoked, and the characters are well-drawn and familiar.

The recommended age group for this book is 8-12 years, but I feel it would probably work best for children at the younger end of that spectrum, and it’s a lovely one to read aloud together; some of the keener children in the book club raced through it (it’s quite short) and I think this may have compromised their enjoyment. I think it also helps to have an adult to discuss the book with as it deals with some challenging themes, not least the disappearance of a child. Gwyn’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, is quite a tricky issue, as is the question of acceptance by peers (once Gwyn’s ‘visions’ become playground gossip, he is teased by some of the other children). Also, Gwyn’s discovery of his magic after his 9th birthday is, I think a metaphor for puberty and adolescence, which may resonate with children approaching double figures.

It is a lovely book that I think quieter, perhaps more thoughtful children will enjoy, or children who like to read with an adult. But it isn’t Harry Potter!

Reading Heaven for kids

I’ve recently started running an after-school book club at my youngest daughter’s primary school; I am a passionate advocate of enhancing children’s access to and enjoyment of books, perhaps because reading gave me so much as a child and in a sense has shaped everything I have done in my life. It can bring particular benefits to less well-off, less confident and less academic kids, and children’s authors in recent years have embraced this wholeheartedly. There are some truly fantastic titles out there for children at the moment – I wrote about some of them in a couple of blogs I published before Christmas.

time-travelling-with-a-hamster-imgTime Travelling with a Hamster was the first choice of the book club, and what a joy it is. At the heart of the plot is a tragic event – a boy who loses his father at the age of eight – but the author handles this so deftly, acknowledging the huge emotional impact it will no doubt have had on such a young child, but also deploying humour and intelligence to help child readers deal with such a challenging topic. I think it shows a great respect on the part of the author for the maturity and strength of his young readership.

When we meet him, Al is 12. His mother has remarried and the family now lives with Steve, with whom Al has almost nothing in common, and his teenage daughter Carly, who is openly hostile. The other main character is Grandpa Byron, Al’s grandfather on his father’s side, with whom he has a warm and loving relationship. Grandpa Byron is a wonderful, larger-than-life, eccentric character, a perfect foil to his rather serious and conservative grandson.

For his 12th birthday Al is given a hamster (whom he calls Alan Shearer, to please Steve, who is a football fan and always trying to involve Al in his hobby). He is also given a letter from his father, written before he died. In the letter, Al’s father makes a huge request: he wants him to travel back in time, using a time machine he had invented before he died, to when Al’s father was a boy. Pye (Al’s father) had a go-kart accident, also when he was 12, which left a fragment of metal lodged in his brain. It is this fragment of metal that will later cause a brain haemorrhage that will kill Pye at the age of 40. Therefore, if Al can just prevent the go-kart accident happening, he will effectively be saving his own father’s life. Naturally, it doesn’t quite go to plan, and this is why the hamster is important. I don’t want to tell you anymore because it’s a cracking story that had me on the edge of my seat (and staying up far too late with the light on!).

There are some big themes in here: loss of a parent, step-families, mixed-race families, bullying, social awkwardness, as well as time-travel, of course, and some of the science around it! But the author handles these so skilfully that I don’t think it is too much for slightly older primary school-age children. The kids in my book club are 10 and 11 and are loving it. Although it’s quite a long book, it’s a fairly quick read because the pace is pretty fast. Events spiral very quickly. There are one or two chapters dealing with ‘the sad stuff’, but these are short and well-contained, and the pace of the action means the reader won’t dwell on them too long. Rest assured, the ending is a satisfying one for readers of all ages!

I heartily recommend this book for children 10-13. It’s also a good one for adults if you’re following my 2017 reading challenge! (January’s challenge is to read a book with a child)