Reviews /

Max Counts to a Million

Authored by Jeremy Williams
Published by Nosy Crow Ltd

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Max – just ‘Max’, not Maximillian or Maxwell – doesn’t fully understand the grown-ups’ strange reaction to the news of Covid spreading across the world. When his parents start acting oddly, with their covert whispers and secretive behaviour, Max makes sure he knows exactly what is going on and tells the story – at once as full of humour and youthful innocence as it is reflective and empathetic – of his experience of Lockdown.

For many of us, the events of 2020 happened in a whirlwind of fear, confusion and just plain weirdness. Looking back now, with its school ‘bubbles’, one-way routes around the supermarket, and ghost-town streets, that time is recalled as an unreal, nightmarish situation. But such a retrospective view also demonstrates to us our resilience in overcoming a global horror. It is this that today’s young people, who spent a significant period in their childhood constrained by the social anxieties of that time, need most of all to understand and acknowledge. By their resourcefulness, their compassion and their determination, they got through something that we grown-ups never had to deal with when we were that age.

The main story is entertaining, with a brilliantly witty narrator, and will be enjoyed by children from ages 8 to 10; but it is the qualities of childhood that are so beautifully described in the spaces around the words of Max Counts to a Million that will linger. The best of children’s literature always does this. In this book, Max’s own angry pledge to count to a million when his mother advises some calming-down time in his room is an obvious example and one that may be familiar in spirit to many young readers! There’s the moment  where Max describes the ‘Covid Game’, ostensibly a game of ‘It’, which is banned as ‘offensive’ by one of the teachers and while the children change the name and a few minor details to suit the grown-ups, they continue playing  the game regardless, just calling it ‘Zombies’ this time but with ‘[e]xactly the same rules’. And, most touching of all, there’s the heartbreaking ‘survey’ that Max, misunderstanding why his mum is so distracted, makes to see just how annoying he can be.

The ‘Legacy of Lockdown’ for the young people who lived through such a strange time in their education will surely, in time, be more widely understood. It’s interesting to ponder how this book might be read by a nine-year-old in 2035, a child whose life was not affected first-hand by the pandemic. Will Max’s story seem like a fantasy to them, or will they read it, wide-eyed, as a fiction that scarcely reads anything like the truth of what happened? And for those who lived through it? Today’s children may now be moving on from this bizarre anomaly of their childhoods, but perhaps a book like Max Counts to a Million will help, looking back, to help gain some perspective on a very strange experience indeed.

Longlisted for the Spark Book Awards 2024 Fiction for 7+ Category