Julia and the Shark the latest book by awarding-winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave is the first that is a collaboration with her artist husband Tom de Freston and it is stunning in both presentation and content. Although slightly different in tone to her previous titles for children Hargrave’s fluid writing style and ability to convey great emotion in few words is apparent in this story of family, environment, friendship and mental health.
Ten-year-old Julia has travelled from her home in Cornwall to a remote Scottish island for the summer with her parents. Her father is working on the lighthouse there and her mother is about to embark on a mission to find the elusive Greenland Shark. Once there Julia’s dad is kept busy with his efforts to program the lighthouse and her scientist mother is totally preoccupied with preparations for her expedition. Left to her own devices Julia soon makes friends with a local boy, Kin, and he introduces her to life on the island which is very different to the one she has known before. There are subtle hints of the forthcoming changes including references to the death of Julia’s grandmother, also named Julia, and her dementia. However, the gradual descent of Julia’s mum as her obsession takes over the family is dramatic.
As one would expect of this author the writing is beautiful. From the opening paragraph, one realises that this is going to be an immersive and affecting read: “There are more secrets in the ocean than in the sky. Mum told me when the water is still and the stars prick its surface, some of the sky’s secrets fall into the sea and add to its mysteries.” Hargrave has an understanding of a child’s perception of problems, families and friendship shown in the early stages by Julia’s amused exasperation with her parent’s behaviour and then more emotionally as she watches as the friction mounts and her father becomes more concerned about her mother. All of this is conveyed with kindness and understanding and is accessible to its intended middle-grade audience.
The synergy between the text and the illustrations is remarkable in the manner in which the pictures fill the gaps sometimes left by the words. Where phrases are unable to convey the worry, the looming tension and the eventual anguish the illustrations portray them in mesmerising and dramatic fashion. The shark that so dominates Julia’s mother’s life and the story is a symbol for more besides in the illustrations themselves. This reminded me in some ways of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay with mental health as the subject conveyed through words and pictures rather than grief. There is repetition within the illustrations which builds throughout the story and this is both affecting and an important element of the book.
The different strands of the story; Julia’s friendship with Kin and his experience of bullying and racism, the importance of our natural world and its conservation, and in particular the issue of mental health all make this a book that would be excellent for classroom discussion as does the partnership between text and illustration.
This is a story that explores mental health and its impact on those both experiencing and witnessing it and is told in a wise and gentle manner with a calm hopefulness that will ultimately reassure and comfort. There are parts where that resolution feels unlikely and this is a book that requires time to read slowly and with attention. A stunning book and one with considerable impact.
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