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Stand Up Ferran Burke

Authored by Steven Camden
Published by Pan Macmillan

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An historical fiction verse novel, Stand Up Ferran Burke follows the secondary school life of Ferran in the nineties. Accompanied by playlists and using a diary form, Camden explores the coming of age of Ferran as he finds himself living with his Caribbean father and brother after his mother has left to be with someone else. Dealing with fairly standard material, Camden also gives readers a peak at 90s West Midlands life by setting his story in Birmingham.

As a teacher I often struggle with ‘school stories’ as they don’t always capture authentic school life nor are they generally very complimentary towards teachers. Ferran gives a ‘lecture’ on teacher types, and as expected it is not complimentary to teachers in general. Those of us enjoying the profession are likely green and won’t last long, adding a footnote that the ‘Mayfly’ lasts two to five years.

Despite this, the teachers depicted are not mere stereotypes. Two very caring teachers support Ferran through his Year 7 to Year 11 years a counsellor/form tutor and a food tech teacher. The most powerfully drawn teacher is Ferran’s and Emile’s history teacher who is a bully. Through backstory, however, even he is given a personality and although still awful perhaps a little more understood by the end of the verse novel than is perhaps typical.

School is also described fairly authentically. The bullying banter is relentless and all too often teachers look the other way. However, Ferran holds his own and keeps his head above the water. He’s not overly popular nor is he overly bullied. He moves between groups in an effort to ‘find his tribe’ – powerful advice given to him by his form tutor on the first day of school.

His friend ‘Cello is brilliantly drawn. ‘Cello barely holds his head above water and some Goodreads reviewers have struggled with the portrayal of ‘Cello at the end of the novel but I see Camden’s depiction and choices as sadly familiar of young boys’ behaviour and choices and appreciate what he’s done with this character.

But at the end, this is a novel about Ferran and he does stand up. He stands up for what he believes in, his family, his friends and his culture. It’s a lovely depiction of a boy in a Caribbean family finding his place through food and music.

Ferran walks in the much larger footsteps of his very successful big brother Emile and in trying to navigate school in Emile’s shadow we see Ferran build a wonderful sense of self. Perhaps some of Camden’s choices are a bit anachronistic but it’s nice to see Ferran push back on misogyny and cruelty. It’s also nice to see him learn to embrace his Caribbean culture, especially in his love of food and cooking.

I read this book last summer for the UKLA 2024 longlisting process and enjoyed it. Reading it again for this review highlighted that it was even better the second time. Camden has built a realistic portrayal of a family, a school and especially of a young boy turning into a man. It would make a great class read and I highly recommend it for students in my classes for private reading.

Selected for the Empathy Lab Collection 2024