Zinnia and the Bees is a charming and peculiar story that celebrates the imperfections of family life, redemptive friendships and the pleasures of being an outsider.
The tale follows Zinnia through a long and eventful summer, in which her much-loved older brother Adam suddenly disappears, she finds herself hosting a hyper-conscious swarm of bees in her hair, and she develops a new friendship with another quirky-minded individual named Birch.
The voice of Zinnia somehow manages to be a real and authentic one, even despite the somewhat unconventional ‘Bees-Live-On-Me’ narrative arc. The chapters that are narrated by the bees themselves are a little strange, and few children would be able to appreciate the jokes, which are quite intertextual and may not ‘land’ for many of them.
I enjoyed this book for a few reasons. Firstly, I haven’t read another book that examines the complex relationship between 12 year old and 18 year old siblings and the idiosyncrasies that such a wide age gap can throw up; the raw feeling of abandonment when Zinnia realises Adam has left is one that must be reflected in many households when the idolised older brother or sister heads off to university, finds love or moves out. Seeing Zinnia’s confusion, hurt and anger is perhaps cathartic for a young reader whose siblings may seem to have outgrown them.
Similarly, there is a fresh honesty to the fragmented relationship Zinnia has with her workaholic social justice warrior mother, Dr Flossdrop, and the way in which they come to understand each other without a huge character transformation taking place. Zinnia’s aunt Mildred is dating a woman, but this is an unremarkable thing (except for me, here, remarking on it, I suppose) – this is another example of the way in which Danielle Davis manages to weave authentic experiences into a plot that revolves around the niche fusion of yarn-bombing, bee-crises, bird-watching, reality TV and dentistry.
With my own pupils, I think this would work best as a book that peeps out from the class shelf to tempt those similarly eccentric-minded children. For those kids in Key Stage 2 whose imaginations can sometimes get them into trouble, I think this great debut novel would provide them with something they rarely find – solidarity.
I will be recommending it to the children I know whose identities are shaped by their butterfly minds.
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