This is a superbly cute book, which presents me with a problem. It means that it’s constantly endearing, which obviously is great, but at the same time I’m always aware that I’m reading it, so I have to work to develop the intimacy with the story that its themes and subject matter deserve.
And it’s properly weighty stuff: Mabel’s dad’s gone, and she blames herself for it. It’s a familiar premise, but Williamson explores it in ways that writers rarely do, poking into the logical but uncomfortable consequences of that terrible thought. Mabel gets to mull it over thoroughly, and we see some of the horrible dark places her mind visits.
Because this is a story and a writer who don’t shy away from the truths of anxiety, and there’s the value in this book, really: that Mabel’s going to end up holding the hand and being the comfort and light to – I believe – many pre-teens experiencing difficulties with loss, responsibility and victimization. On that basis alone, this is a must for school libraries (which must despair at the condescending self-help style of titles nudging their way into the market-place).
So that’s the set-up, and that’s the direction. It’s explored within a fairly conventional arrangement – the recovering mum, the scarred older sister, mum’s trying-too-hard boyfriend, the class-room antagonist, the inspirational teacher – but it needs to be, because we can’t afford to be distracted from the proper service being done to Mabel’s interior life.
There’s an argument to be had as to whether the plot too conveniently mirrors Mabel’s journey and facilitates it, but I’m inclined to ignore that. Again it’s Mabel’s emotional journey that is the important thing, and it’s strong enough to sweep us along to a suitably victorious finish.
I like Williamson’s writing stylistically, but it does have a strong flavour. It may feel precocious to some readers, maybe a bit over-analytical, confessional, very heart-on-sleeve, but I imagine that more action-oriented readers will be opening up other books. I think if they do read this one, however, they will read to the end: Williamson is nicely witty, which is a very valuable alternative route to engaging the initially reluctant.
And getting this in front of all Year 5s and 6s would be a good thing to do. I’d hope a fair few would pick it up without prompting, but it is one of those books that surreptitiously will lay building blocks for empathy and self-believe in many young minds.
Finally, before I hog the entire page with this review, this may just be me – I hope it isn’t – but Mabel’s passion for astronomy opens up an endless store of perfect metaphors and allegories that I loved and appreciated.