Monday, 14 April 2014

My Brother's Shadow, by Tom Avery

When the wild boy shows up at the classroom window, Kaia is intrigued. He stares, but doesn’t speak. He sits in the seat next to Kaia, filling the empty space hovering beside her. She talks to him, but he doesn’t talk back; at break time they stare together at the trees and she writes in her notebook with the yellow cover and the grey pages. She tells him about her brother, about his shadow, about how since the day he died she’s been frozen in place.

My Brother’s Shadow is Kaia’s story about moving on, of finding a way to keep going after the death of her brother. For a long time she’s kept the world at bay, kept her friends at bay, but gradually the notebook and the boy give her the opportunity to process her pain and her hurt, to begin to share it with others and thus begin to let it go. Gradually, the boy’s continuous presence, his undemanding company, help her begin to thaw. It’s a story that will make you cry more than a tear or two, but ultimately has an upbeat, positive ending.

The book is reminiscent of Patrick Ness (and Siobhan Dowd's) wonderful, powerful story A Monster Calls, not only because of the emotional subject matter, but also because My Brother’s Shadow has received similar illustrative treatment: like Jim Kay’s incredible drawings that help tell the story in A Monster Calls, My Brother’s Shadow has been heavily illustrated in blacks and greys by Kate Grove. It is a lighter treatment than in A Monster Calls, thus perfectly attuned to the younger audience (My Brother’s Shadow is aimed at the 9–12 bracket) and to the fact that this is a story about moving on, rather than the heavier in-the-middle-of-it subject matter seen in A Monster Calls. The pages at the beginning are sprinkled with snowflakes and ice, but gradually change to petals, leaves, and then sunflowers.

Tom Avery has written a very emotional story and at first I wondered how much appeal it would have for it’s intended readers, but I soon realized what a silly idea that was. I’m fortunate to have never suffered a loss like Kaia, yet I appreciate and enjoy reading stories that cover such topics and there is no reason why much younger readers wouldn’t feel the same – because reading allows us insight into the full range of human emotion, the human condition, and the understanding of our world, something which is as equally valid for a ten year old reader as it is for a thirty, forty or fifty year old one. Both those who have and haven’t experienced loss have much to gain from reading such well-considered, well-written stories as this one.

Who is the boy and where does he come from? I have my theories, but I think it’s best to let you form your own. Avery’s storytelling is insightful and considered, and Grove’s drawings make it a beautiful book to look at too; just make sure you have a box of tissues to hand before you begin reading.

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