My reviews of Julia and the Shark and Leila and the Blue Fox, by bestselling author Kiran Millwood Hargrave, whose recent children’s novels explore issues of global warming and environmental damage to wildlife.
About Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a poet, playwright and novelist, writing for adults and children on a variety of subjects. She was born in 1990. She has received many accolades and awards since she was first published in 2012 with Last March, a poetry collection. It was written in collaboration with the Scott Polar Research Institute to mark the centenary of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the South Pole.
They left in a time for heroes
To arrive in a place for ghosts
Children’s novels by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Since the publication of Last March she has been astonishingly productive. I came across her children’s novels last summer when my granddaughter, then 10, told me that her favourite book was A Girl of Ink and Stars. I loved it too, and included it in my June 2022 blog 5 fantastic summer reads for children.
A Girl of Ink and Stars was an instant bestseller, and brought its author much well-deserved attention. Several books later, she returned to her early inspiration, the far reaches of the planet.
Her interest in the changing arctic landscape and the threat to the wildlife of those areas is reflected in two of her recent novels for children; Leila and the Blue Fox and Julia and the Shark.
‘Julia and the Shark’
Julia is staying with her parents on the tiny island of Unst, where her father is repairing the lighthouse. Her mother, a marine biologist, is desperate to sight the Greenland shark, which has been sighted in the North Sea waters on its way to Norway and beyond. Julia is befriended by another lonely child, Kin, who is bullied by a group of racist boys in the village. He is fascinated by stars, and teaches Julia how to read the night sky.
When Julia’s mother is taken ill and has to be hospitalised, Julia knows that the only thing that will make her better is if she, Julia, locates the shark and photographs it for her. In a dramatic and terrifying night storm, Julia pilots the boat on her own. Her near-drowning and rescue are described in an extraordinary episode of magic realism, matched by the stunning illustrations of Kiran Millwood Hargreaves’s husband, Tom de Freston.
Julia’s mother’s illness is caused by a mental disorder. She is highly volatile and charismatic, and has become obsessed with finding the Greenland shark. To Julia and the reader her behaviour is disturbing and irrational, until it is revealed that she is bipolar. She becomes very ill and attempts suicide. She is eventually hospitalised. Julia’s sense of exclusion, bewilderment and frightened concern is very sensitively handled by the author, who has herself suffered mental health issues.
On her website, Kiran says:
I have had depression and anxiety for several years following a trauma when I was 19, and it’s an important part of my past and occasionally my present. I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of, or to hide. For more on how my mental health has affected my writing, please see this piece I wrote for Waterstones.
The Greenland shark
Greenland sharks do exist. They can be up to seven metres long, and have indeed been known to live for four hundred years at least. In an article in the Guardian Kiran Millwood Hargrave explains that these particular sharks are dated not by their bones but by crystals in their eyes that have trapped light from hundreds of years ago.
Is it any wonder that scientific research is such an inspiration to her, and is reflected in her writing for children!
Tom de Freston
The dramatic illustrations in Julia and the Shark are strikingly achieved by her husband, Tom de Freston. They are particularly poignant in this book because the materials he used are the ashes and fragments of destroyed frames and artwork rescued from a devasting fire in his studio. It happened just before the pandemic lockdown. He says:
Much of the artwork for ‘Julia and the Shark’ was made using these materials, as an act of mourning, transformation and repair. It reflects the central message of the book, that even in the deepest darkness there is always the light of hope.
Tom de Freston has written and illustrated several books that focus on the struggle for survival through natural disasters.
My thoughts on ‘Julia and the Shark’
This is such an important book for readers of 9+. It is beautifully written and extremely well researched. The landscape/seascape described both visually in the illustrations and verbally in the language enhance an exciting storyline. The two children in the story, Kin and Julia, both have personal worries that will be recognised in the circumstance of many young readers, and are sympathetically dealt with and resolved. I would recommend adults to read the novel, not just because it is a wonderful book for any age, but because there are many aspects of the plot which can lead to discussion and sharing.
‘Leila and the Blue Fox’
Leila’s mother, like Julia’s mother in Julia and the Shark, is determined to the point of obsession to track the incredible journey of a small blue fox. When Leila travels to meet her in the Greenland research base where she is stationed, she feels abandoned for a second time. Her mother has no time for her, she only thinks about her work, the blue fox and its scientifically tracked journey. But the ice is melting; its food is growing scarce, and finally the piece of land it is standing on breaks away. It isn’t land at all, it’s a tiny island of floating ice.
Leila joins the team and understands at last how powerful the mission to help this small creature is. She plays an enormous part in the dangerous rescue of the fox, and also in raising global awareness of its plight. One small endangered creature represents the desperate plight of thousands more.
The story has the message of environmental damage and climate change, but it also has a very strong parallel with Leila’s own history. She and her mother, her aunt and cousin had come from Syria. They too are refugees in a foreign land, and homeless.
The Arctic fox
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel is actually inspired by true scientific research. In 2019 scientists of the Norwegian Polar Institute fitted a young fox with a GPS device which tracked its journey across the ice from Svalbard to Greenland. It made the journey of over 940 miles (1,512 km) in exactly three weeks. It then moved on across the ice to Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada (2,179 miles, 3,506 km) in 76 days – at which point tthe GPS tracker broke down! So it isn’t known how much further it travelled, but at the recorded rate it was averaging 29 miles (41 km) a day – and one day it recorded nearly a hundred miles (155 km)! No wonder Kiran was excited by this extraordinary little animal.
My thoughts on ‘Leila and the Blue Fox’
Leila and the Blue Fox is another story of love and courage, based on scientific evidence. The sense of place is again vividly created by the author’s vivid description and the stunningly dramatic illustrations of Tom de Freston. This novel will again touch the heart of its young readers as well as increasing their knowledge of environmental issues.
Children who are interested in reading fiction about the natural world and environmental issues will also love books like Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis, The Last Bear and The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold and The Song That Sings Us by Nicola Davies.
Over to you
Can you suggest more books where the illustrations play a major, dramatic part in the storytelling? Let me know in the comments below.
This post has 0 comments