Published by Pushkin Press on July 1, 2021
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Calla’s mum has never been normal. She’s been known to go out in a lab coat and slippers and often forgets to perform basic tasks because she’s been thinking about ducks. When a job offer arrives to study her beloved birds in the Amazon rainforest, Calla knows her mum has to go. Nervously, she agrees to go to boarding school.
She quickly learns that trouble is afoot in this odd convent school. A mean new headmistress is imposing horrible rules and making everyone eat Brussels sprout cake, and the students are itching to revolt. As Calla makes new friends and gets drawn into their rebellious plot, she keeps waiting for her mum to call. She will, won’t she?
Exuberantly funny and brimming with heart, How to Be Brave is a riotous celebration of the power of resourceful girls, stories and the right biscuit at the right time.
I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Many, many, MANY years ago, I spent my teen years at a boarding school staffed by nuns. Luckily, I was a day student so got to go home every day. Even so, the majority of my days were spent in a combined state of fear and mystery regarding my habit-bedecked teachers. Unfortunately, my teachers only taught the basics such as science, English and maths. In How to be Brave, the Order of the Good Sisters is far more exciting, funny and endearing than the nuns I experienced. (None of them knew helicopter maintenance for one.) The Order, along with a group of girls full of grit and bravery are the stars of this debut middle-grade novel from author Daisy-May Johnson, in what looks to be the beginning of a fabulous series of stories.
Our story begins with Elizabeth as a child. She lives an idyllic life in the country with devoted parents and a massive dog called Aslan. She eats cake for breakfast, ice cream for dinner. Although bright and undemanding, Elizabeth is a forthright and erudite child who always stands for what she believes in. One devastating afternoon her life changes forever and she finds herself in the care of Good Sister June and the Order. Elizabeth slowly begins to fit in at her new home along with her new best friend Chrissie and annoyance Magda and when she happens upon an injured duck, her destiny and future become clear.
Flash forward to the present day and Elizabeth is now a mum to a daughter, much like herself. Calla is strong-willed, intelligent and incredibly empathic. Her empathy is not only inherited from her mum but also because of her. For Elizabeth is not in a good way. She is scatty, disorganised and unfocused, causing Calla to take on the role of a parent more than the child. They live in extreme poverty for the majority of their time, often going without the basics of heat and light. But then one day a letter arrives that could change everything. You see, despite Elizabeth’s manner, she’s still the most knowledgable expert on ducks – especially a rare species from the Amazon – and this letter offers her the chance of a lifetime. But while Elizabeths travels to track this duck, Calla needs a home. And that’s where the Order comes in.
How to be Brave is rammed with funny, believable characters that you will instantly fall in love with. Outside of Elizabeth and Calla (both of whom are equally great), the cast of girls and adults is substantial. Yes, on the outside the novel does resemble St Trinian’s in its themes of anarchy and resistance, but the characters are far more rounded and substantial. Calla’s dorm mates Eddie and Hannah are brilliant. Hannah: talkative, bookish, resourceful. Eddie: quite mad, rebellious, French. Along with Calla, they lead a rebellion against a new regime at the school that is ruining everything the Order set up. All that made the school different and fun (baking, books and bike maintenance) are removed and the nuns who encouraged them silenced or removed from duty. Little does the new head realise what she’s up against.
Not since I first read the great Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series have I come across an ensemble as great as The Order of the Good Sisters. Reminiscent of Wizards, Guards and Witches, The Order is a rag-tag collection of women with only the best interests of their wards at heart. Their varied roles within the school are many, but it’s their actions when up against it that really show them at their best. They’re the kind of teachers you always wish you had as a kid.
Johnson is a very clever writer utilising an interesting narrative choice. How to be Brave is told anecdotally from a certain character’s recollection. (I won’t spoil who it is). This is a brave aspect to use as it could go wrong when writing in the third person about this character, but Johnson keeps the narrative perspective clean and clear. As a writer, Johnson does owe a lot to the aforementioned Pratchett and that’s none clearer than in her use of footnotes. Used to add asides from the narrator, they are equally funny as the main text. Only on a few occasions did I find them invasive and that was usually because I’d missed the numbering in the main text (the numbers do resemble other punctuation so do be aware) and then had to read back after reading the footnote.
One of the themes of How to be Brave is the coping strategies that Calla develops to deal with her mum and the situations they find themselves in. At times these moments are truly heartbreaking, simply because they are so authentic. Whether it’s dreading the next red bill arriving, or huddling together on a cold Christmas Day with nothing but each other, these are situations that many children find themselves in. Equally effective is the disappointment and hurt felt by Calla when her mum doesn’t call as arranged. To have a writer portray these scenarios in what is a ‘humourous’ novel is brave in itself. Too often, middle-grade lit is focused on issue-led stories that put the message above all else. It’s so refreshing to read a novel where the main plot is not overshadowed by the issue but simply adds to the character’s arc and journey.
There are some great visual moments in How to be Brave and a lot of the humour comes from these scenes. From big set pieces to smaller more subtle happenings, Johnson has a deft touch with conveying the unsaid. There’s many a non-verbal conversation between the Sisters or the girls that say much more than pages of dialogue.
How to be Brave is a fantastic, funny and exciting debut novel. Filled to the brim with great characters, fast-paced dialogue and imaginative scenarios this is a series that shows huge potential. I can not wait for the next novel.
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