Ellie Pillai is Brown is a coming-of-age romantic novel told from the perspective of Ellie Pillai, a teenager who has perfected the art of being inconspicuous; who makes sense of the world through music; who doesn’t feel she fits in; but who learns to accept and love herself, and those around her, for the talents, gifts, flaws and imperfections that make them unique.
Ellie and her parents are the only Sri Lankan family living in small village on the east coast of England, a situation that has always made her aware of the differences between her and her white friends but also to her extended family, who live a far more culturally Tamil life. Ellie’s parents have high hopes for her academic performance, and as she enters her final year of school GCSE exams, she is aware of their expectations. However, Ellie has a secret: the subject she most wants to excel in, Drama, is one her parents don’t even know she is studying. Even worse, her mock exam grades are the worst on her previous end of year report. However, the arrival of a new teacher, one who understands not only Ellie’s feelings of difference but also of the difficulties of navigating major life events, signals a positive change in Ellie’s performance at school; at the same time, a couple of new students’ impact on Ellie’s social life in unexpected ways. A series of events and revelations mean all of Ellie’s relationships have changed by the final Drama exam, leading to her becoming a more mature and confident young adult, ready to move into the next phase of her life.
This is a readable and engaging first person narrative which depicts a very believable year in the life of a teenager. The characters are well developed throughout the novel, and the reader is taken along with Ellie as she learns new things about herself and all those around her in a sensitive and sympathetic way. The book comes with its own soundtrack, both through musical references (which may appeal at time more to adult readers than young adults) and through QR codes that take you to an original song list written by the author in character as Ellie. A range of themes are tackled – the weight of expectations, bereavement and loss of a sibling and a parent, mental health and bipolar disorder, racism, cultural difference and belonging, friendship, family, sexual orientation, consent, acceptance, trust and forgiveness – all approached in a matter-of-fact way that avoids sensationalism without diminishing the impact.
Overall, Ellie Pillai is Brown would be suitable as an independent reader, a guided reading text and as a class novel, and could be used to sensitively prompt discussion around any of the themes raised.
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