Extraordinary women, doing extraordinary things. There are more of us than folk realise.
With a mantra like this running through the book, it is not difficult to imagine the kinds of classroom discussion that might emerge from sharing this text. If you add that it is well-written, fast-paced with enough cliffhangers to keep the reader engaged and would fit in with a topic on the Victorians, you surely have an upper KS2 classroom winner.
Katy Willacott lives with her older brother, her parents and grandparents at Rose Cottage in Kew. Her father is an archaeologist at the British Museum and her mother works in Kew Gardens as a botanical taxonomist. You might think that her mother being the first woman in her department would be sufficient inspiration for Katy, but no, she wants not to be cataloguing at Kew, but out in the field, on expeditions, making exciting discoveries. This is not just an idle dream: Katy soaks up scientific information, keeps her field kit ready and waiting and constantly asks why she cannot do the things her older brother does. We share her frustrations at the answers she receives and admire her ability to counter them with real life women who just simply got on and did. When she identifies an opportunity to join an expedition to Brazil, albeit disguised as a cabin boy, our intrepid heroine wastes no time.
Katy is well-drawn and three-dimensional. She is feisty but has bouts of homesickness on her expedition. She delights in the trip but feels remorse at the worry she will have caused her family. She tussles with her conscience: should she give up the meteorite she found in order to bargain for the safety of the cat-like creature she rescued? Her appreciation of her mother’s work on her return from Brazil shows her growing maturity. Other characters are less convincing: Sir Thomas Derby is undoubtedly the villain of the piece, but his tendency to roar and his constant knee-jerk reactions make him slightly too pantomime-baddie. Another niggle, addressed by the author in an afterword, is to what extent Victorian children would have been aware of the environmental issues arising from the destruction of the rainforest.
It is a long time since a book sent me scurrying to check historical facts quite so frequently. Which of the characters mentioned really existed? When was the rubber boom in Brazil? Did it involve, even then, significant destruction of the rainforest? These, together with discussions around the prevalence of the patriarchal canon, the environment and whether you really could disguise yourself as a boy and get away with it, will provide a rich seam for exploration.
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