BOOK REVIEW: The Song from Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Levi Penfold
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
They could hear their pursuers behind them. Frank knew from experience though, that they weren’t the sort of pursuers who actually wanted to catch their prey. It wasn’t like on the telly, where the lions or the cheetahs chase the antelope until they get their claws in, get their teeth in, get a grip and pull the poor thing down, down, down to be dinner. Noble wasn’t like that; he was the lion that loped alongside the antelope calling it names until the antelope started to cry. Only then would he be happy. It was as if he fed on frustration and tears, like a vicious, nightmare hummingbird.
Frank doesn’t know how to feel when Nick Underbridge rescues her from bullies one afternoon. No one likes Nick. He’s big, he’s weird and he smells – or so everyone in Frank’s class thinks.
After a moment he said, ‘You sure you’ve got to go? Already?’ But he said it softly.
‘Yeah. I’d better,’ she said. ‘They’ll be worried.’
He wanted her to stay. It was so obvious. God, she thought, Nicholas Underbridge thinks I’m his friend. What am I going to do? No one must know. I’ll die of embarrassment.
And yet, there’s something nice about Nick’s house. There’s strange music playing there, and it feels light and good and makes Frank feel happy for the first time in forever.
And although she couldn’t remember exactly how it had gone, couldn’t hum it, she never forgot it. It wasn’t that whenever she was sad (because sometimes things were still sad or frustrating or upsetting) she could take the memory of the music out and put it to her ear like a shell and become happy again. It wasn’t that, but it was a little like that.
But there’s more to Nick, and to his house, than meets the eye, and soon Frank realises she isn’t the only one keeping secrets. Or the only one who needs help …
She hadn’t known they’d been Nick’s dad’s paintings, but had liked them. She wasn’t sure that she’d want to sleep in a room with them though: they might have been full of light and colour, but there was a sadness in them too, as if a shipwreck was happening somewhere just outside the frame. She wondered if maybe it was to do with Nick’s mum being… you know… elsewhere. That was the sort of thing an artist would paint about, wasn’t it? Were they divorced? Was she dead? Nick hadn’t said.
A.F. Harrold’s previous offering of The Imaginary, illustrated by Emily Gravett, was this reviewer’s favourite book the year it came out (2014). The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, also illustrated by Penfold and released a matter of months ago is a favourite for this year. So this author/illustrator partnership was bound to be a hit, providing a book that is beautiful inside and out.
The end result is definitely gorgeous, and the message within an important one. But it can’t be denied that the writing, while still gorgeous and heartfelt, has a little less personality that Harrold’s previous book; and that the illustrations, while stunning, and dark, and evocative, have ever so slightly less scope to work with than in Penfold’s next most recent offering.
Taking this book as the standalone that it is, it is still an amazing book and an instant favourite, but when compared to the creators’ respective and amazing previous releases, it inevitably pales ever so slightly.
Adding to the disconnect for this reader was the fact that Frank’s stomach, ideas, moods, and everything else (it seemed) were referred to constantly as though they were separate and cognitive beings. She frequently engaged in conversations with her stomach, in which it would reply to her. She has a conversation with an idea, in which it seems to be physically separate from her.
‘Look, I’m so crazy an idea, aren’t I, that you wouldn’t think me, would you, Frank?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t.’
‘And yet here I am,’ said the idea, holding out its hand for her to shake.
There was a very convenient way in which these parts of the main character being separate from the rest of her could have been explained, but it was unfortunately never explored or resolved. As such, there is one of these jarring moments on every other page, drawing the reader out of the story they’re supposed to be losing themselves in, and it never eventuates into anything that would justify the frequent efforts to disconnect the reader form Frank.
But beyond the only major annoyance, this is a very touching story.
It’s about the varying levels of bullying, and how even those who are being bullied might turn around and bully others in a different way, out of fear of being associated with them.
In the story, the characters are in primary school, so this offers great lessons for middle grade readers about inclusion, looking beyond the surface, and discovering the things they have in common, rather than the things that set them apart. But it’s a story that will also resonate with many grownups; taking them back to when they were no doubt going through the same things, but also bringing home a lesson that it can be so easy to forget in the daily life of a so called “grown-up”.
Kids books aren’t just for kids, and like the previous respective offerings from these creators, this is a story that reminds readers of this fact and is bound to be enjoyed by those of all ages.
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