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‘October, October’ by Katya Balen – 2022 Carnegie winner

October, October By Katya Balen

The 2022 Yoto Carnegie medal for outstanding fiction written in the English language for children and young adults was awarded to October, October. The novel was written by Katya Balen, illustrated by Angela Harding and published in 2021 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

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Published by: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021. Available from Amazon.

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About ‘October, October’

October has an idyllic life in the forest with her father. She is a wild child, independent and free, at one with the creatures of the forest. ‘Whenever I find a new secret in the earth I put it in my treasure box and it’s like my head is full of other lives.‘ These secrets are bones and ‘feathers of a bird that could mend burns with its song’. When she finds an orphaned baby owl, Stig, she nurtures it with total commitment and determination. October and her father live in a house in the forest, and this is all she has ever known.

But somewhere out there, in October’s past, lurks ‘the woman who is my mother’. Hers is the world of cities, shops, cars, noise. It’s an alien, unknown world. There is no enemy, nothing to be afraid of except for the demon that exists in October’s own heart. But one day, dramatically, the two worlds collide and October’s life is changed forever. The forest life that she has always known comes to a frightening and dramatic end, and she has to find a way of working through fear, guilt and confusion in a way that brings out her inner strength. 

From my week of reading all Katya Balen’s novels I see this thread of inner turmoil and growth as a powerful characteristic of her themes.

My thoughts on ‘October, October’

I loved this book. I immediately took to October, the central character, with her love for wild things and the forest that is her home, and the virtually self-sufficient, complete life that she shares with her father. Reading the book you enter into this world and embrace it. You believe that it is the perfect environment for a child to live in. When October is torn away from it, your heart aches for her and with her.

Every child will recognise the fear of rejection and the terrible sense of loss that October experiences when she has to leave the familiar and the safe, the home that her father made among the trees. She must learn to live away from the forest, and now we know that October will never be the same child again, never be truly wild. As a reader, we know it has to happen. She learns new, sharing joys, she makes friends, she learns to play. All this is beautifully realised.

The two worlds of forest and city are minutely described and recognisable, as are the two inner worlds of October as she struggles to come to terms with what is inevitable. The writing is beautiful, often startlingly lyrical.

October, October is truly a classic children’s book, full of pain and joy and ultimate fulfilment. I’m delighted to recommend it and to welcome this very talented new author.

‘October, October’ and The Carnegie Shadowers’ Award

Every year groups of children in schools and libraries across the country read the shortlisted books and make their own recommendations for the Carnegie medal. I was with Bookasaurus Rex, the Carnegie shadowers of Hope Valley College in Derbyshire, on the day this year’s awards were announced, and we were all thrilled to hear that October, October also received the Shadowers’ Award for 2022. This a huge accolade for this novel.

Here are some of the things that the members of Bookasaurus Rex said about October, October:

Bookasaurus Rex – Hope Valley College‘s Carnegie shadowers
  • Beautifully written
  • It just flowed
  • Really attractive cover
  • Beautiful cover
  • Great book for any reader
  • Happy/sad
  • Introduces you to the wildness of the imagination
  • Wonderful
  • Creative
  • Beautiful
  • Loud
  • Quiet
  • Curious
  • This is Art
  • It’s about owls, forgiveness, exploration
  • Friendship
  • Emotional
  • Nature
  • New beginnings

Also by Katya Balen

‘The Space We’re In’

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Published by: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020. Available from Amazon.

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Katya Balen’s first book, The Space We’re In, won her immediate acclaim. It’s the touching and very well realised story of 10 year old Frank and his 5 year old brother Max, who has severe autism. The strain of caring for a small child who ‘melts’ frequently, who can’t cope with change or surprise or colourful food, who needs so much attention and patience and understanding, brings enormous pressure on the whole family. These tensions are really well drawn, as are the feelings of tenderness, protectiveness, rejection, resentment and confusion that Frank experiences.

There is a pivotal centre to The Space We’re In, an event that every child in the world fears more than anything else. Balen’s treatment of this traumatic event is almost unbearably distressing, described in the language of a bewildered and angry 10 year old. ‘Max and Dad and I have fallen apart and there’s no-one to pick up the pices and glue us back together again. Max spins further and further away from me and Dad is far away across the galaxy and I can’t reach out and touch them’. Frank tries to make sense of everything with codes and numbers; it’s his way of hanging on to an internal reality. Frank is an utterly adorable character, and so is Max, trapped in his own confused and helpless world.

This was an amazing, admirable and beautiful debut model, richly deserving the high praise of reviewers.

The Space We’re In is very sympathetically illustrated by Laura Carlin.

‘The Light in Everything’

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Published by: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022. Available from Amazon.

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And if I loved the first, and loved the second, what do I make of Katya Balen’s third novel, The Light in Everything, which was published in 2022?

The Light in Everything is a two-voice novel, again featuring children with needs and inner traumas. Zofia, born in a storm, lives in a storm of jealousy, resentment and fury when her father brings his pregnant girlfriend and her son Tom to live with them. Zofia can’t believe that her father would be willing to break up their home and their special relationship in this way.

Tom is small for his age, frightened of many things, especially the dark, and is haunted by the memory of his abusive father. He feels he has no place in this new family or this new school. ‘I sit quietly on the edges and there will be no empty space left when I go.’ And yet Zofia’s friends take to him, her father is gentle and kind to him, and it is Zofia who begins to feel left out, on the edge.

This is another beautifully written novel with a strong, lyrical voice.

The gorgeous cover illustration is by the 2018 and 2021 Kate Greenaway medal winner Sydney Smith.

A favourite?

So do I have a favourite among these three lovely books? Nobody’s asking me, I know, so I won’t even try to decide – but of all the child characters Katya Balen has created, my heart goes out to the two boys Frank and Max in The Space We’re In. Their loss and frustration, their fury and their tenderness, make me want to put my arms round them and tell them that everything will be all right. They will stay with me for a long time.

New publications

Newly published as I write this is a novella published by Barrington Stoke. Birdsong is the story of a young flautist who can’t play her flute any more because of a traumatic accident. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Katya Balen also tells me: ‘I am working on book 4, which is about two sisters who set out into the wildlands to find their mother. It’s very different to my previous books but I’m excited about it.’

So am I!

About Katya Balen

Katya Balen

It is not surprising to discover that Katya Balen’s university degree was in English, and that she went on to complete an MPhil on the impact of stories on autistic children’s behaviour. She has been a teaching assistant in special needs schools. She emerges as a caring person with deep, particular concerns for children with emotional and behavioural needs, and she brings her acquired knowledge and understanding into all her writing.

More recently, she co-founded Mainspring Arts – a not-for-profit organisation that provides mentoring and creative opportunities for neurodivergent and autistic people to access creative opportunities. ‘I founded Mainspring Arts in 2015, with my friend Miranda. I had worked with autistic children, and more broadly with children with profound disabilities, for years, but was frustrated by the lack of creative opportunities for them and the lack of representation in the mainstream arts world. We’re now a charity, and looking at new ways to expand.’

It’s also interesting to know that the inspiration for October’s father’s chosen way of life was in fact Katya Balen’s own father-in-law, who lives off-grid.

The early writer

So my writing as a child … hmmm. I definitely remember writing my first story about a lemur named Lemur who lived in Lima, but inexplicably turned up at my house in Peckham. I think I’d seen a documentary about lemurs … but after that, I kept everything quite private. I’d write lots of stories, or half stories, in notebooks, but rarely shared them. I had a few amazing teachers in primary school who would let me do creative writing as a treat in some English lessons. It meant a lot that they took my interest seriously, and encouraged me in a meaningful way.

Oh, I absolutely endorse that! How important a role teachers play in recognising and nurturing creative ability.

My own Carnegie Medal winning books

Granny was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody.

Granny Was a Buffer Girl by Berlie Doherty, 2007 edition
Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty, 2016 edition

Over to you

October, October is the story of a child brought up in a wild place. Can you recommend any other books about wild children, or children who live very close to the natural world? Please write recommendations in the comments box.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams, is out now. Her forthcoming novel The Haunted Hills will be published later in 2022. See the About me page for more information.

This post has 2 comments

  1. Have just finished a relaxing summer holiday reading of October, October, when I could take my time and properly savour it all. I loved the way the author chose her words (“wind-blasted and wings flight-frozen”) and the way her sentences rolled along, strung together with endless ‘and’s. I loved that I loved all the characters and sympathised with each of them. I loved the gently recurring themes (gold rings, letting go, acceptance, change) and I loved the not-completely-perfect ending which was plausible and satisfying. I had wanted this to win the Carnegie Medal from a hasty “my-turn-next” reading, and now I know it was the clear winner. Very glad it won both the judges’ and the shadowers’ votes. Mine too.

    1. This is such a lovely response to a beautiful book. Thank you so much for sharing your views, Harriet

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