If you could turn back time, erase your mistakes, remember what you did with your car keys or even better, find those missing precious memories and loved ones, would you? These two middle grade novels explore the premise of losing someone inexplicably and the emotions produced through relentless searching for those missing loved ones.
The IBBY International Children’s Book Day logo, ‘The small is big in a book’ certainly chimes true for A Wrinkle in Time. That it has stood the test of time is testament to this tale (first published in 1963), which I had never read as a child. If I had, I might not have recognised it as a bewitching hybrid of sci-fi, adventure, fantasy, and dystopia. For those living in another dimension like me or have not seen the movie yet, A Wrinkle in Time is a story of discovery and tenacity. It also (re)defines the power of friendship and love.
With the dumpster fire of a year that 2017 has been (and that 2016 was before that), it seems fitting that the Boxing Day film releases will include something more measured and contemplative than the usual everything’s-fine-some-hero’s-implausibly-saving-the-world blockbusters.
The fictionalised tale of real-life events Breathe (not to be confused with Tim Winton’s similarly titled Breath) is one of those releases. (You can watch the Breathe trailer below.)
Recounting the unlikely life of Englishman Robin Cavendish, who was paralysed from the neck down by polio at age 28 while working as a tea trader in Kenya, it is both uplifting and tears-inducing. And I’d wholeheartedly recommend heading out on Boxing Day to watch it.
‘What follows is true’ appears on screen as the camera traverses English countryside in the film’s opening shots. It’s an arguably necessary statement because what follows does seem a little far-fetched at times. But the film does, we’re assured, recall the real-life events of film producer Jonathan Cavendish, partner to actor-turned-director Andy Serkis (best known for playing such characters as Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) in the Imaginarium Productions production company, which brought this film to screen life.
Marking Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe is both about how we understand and treat disability and about love. Specifically, the kind of pragmatic, deeply held love that refuses to give up.
In the film’s early stages we witness Diana (played by Claire Foy of Crown fame) and Robin (Andrew Garfield) meet and fall madly in love. Their adoration for each other is infectious, and I found myself smiling in the cinema’s dark.
In the film’s middle, we see a different Robin. One whose charisma and charm is replaced by a deep depression and desire for the medical team keeping him alive with 24-hour hospital care to switch off the respirator. It’s difficult to watch, but sets the ground for Diana to refuse to let depression and then-current medical approaches limit his—their—life. What follows is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, with Diana and Robin defying doctors’ orders and expectations to take Robin home.
I was tense much of the time watching this film. Robin’s death was a certainty without oxygen, so much so that doctors didn’t believe he could survive outside a sterile hospital setting. The risk of death is, unsurprisingly, a constant theme throughout the film. In fact, there are two scenes—one at home and one in the Spanish countryside, of all places—that had me physically rigid with worry and that have continued to haunt me. Which goes to show just how much this film succeeded in drawing me in.
Of course, Breathe does have some nagging flaws—most notably that Robin is played by someone able-bodied, which reminds me of the issues that surrounded cisgendered Eddie Redmayne playing Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in the film adaptation of The Danish Girl. The film is also relentlessly optimistic. It would have benefitted, for example, from showing a little more of the day-to-day difficulties profound disability presents both the person with the disability and the people who love and care for them. Foy’s Diana is British stoic, sure, but we catch but one mere glimpse of how difficult it must have been for her.
Still, Breathe is arguably true to Jonathan Cavendish’s childhood memories. The memories that provided the film’s foundations and that, at the very least, help show disability and our treatment of people with disability in new light. It also offers insight into the medical technologies available then and makes some inroads into altering how people think about—and how we can innovate for people with—disability.
I’ll not deny that Breathe made me ugly cry. I admit that only so you might not make the mistake I did and turn up without a handful of tissues. But it also made me laugh and contemplate and appreciate life and love and the ability to triumph over adversity. In short, it felt like the right kind of film for this year’s Boxing Day.
A Monster Calls (Walker Books) is a contemporary classic, a work of art. It has had a poignant, yet illustrious history. Written by Patrick Ness from an idea by Siobhan Dowd and illustrated by Jim Kay, it is now available in a beautiful ‘Special Collector’s Edition’ with additional interviews about the upcoming movie by actors Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones. The book has won both the CILIP Carnegie Medal and the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal.
As Patrick Ness states in his Author’s Note, Siobhan Dowd “had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.” He has refrained from copying her style and has made the story uniquely his own.
Thirteen-year-old Conor is suffering nightmares and always wakes at 12.07. A voice calls him, the voice of a monster yew tree in the nearby graveyard. The monster moves from its roots to fill the space outside Conor’s house and follow him. At first Conor thinks that the monster is a dream but it leaves poisonous yew berries on his floor. It says that Conor has called it.
The descriptions of the monster hint at its mighty power rather than reduce its mystery by portraying it literally. The tree tells three stories and Conor must tell the fourth, the story of not just any truth but his own truth; the thing of which he’s most afraid. Conor comes to realise that, “Stories are the wildest things of all … Stories chase and bite and hunt.”
The monster’s First Tale is about a king who remarries and whose new wife wants to keep the kingdom but is driven away by the prince. The Second Tale is about an Apothecary who punishes a parson for his lack of integrity and selfishness. The Third Tale is about invisibility.
Conor’s mother is suffering intensely during her current round of chemo treatment for cancer. He is hopeful of her recovery but the situation becomes so difficult that his grandmother comes to stay. Conor doesn’t get on with her, particularly when she suggests that he will be going to live with her. She’s not the kind, cuddly stereotypical grandma. Things are obviously becoming dire because his father returns temporarily from his new family in America.
At school Conor is a target for bully Harry and the destruction Conor thinks that he wreaks in his dreams also starts happening in reality.
Jim Kay’s black and white illustrations are sophisticated and allusive. Using spiky lines and textures, amorphous shapes and layers, they intimate and suggest fear, grief and nightmare.
Coming to cinemas in October is the much-anticipated film adaptation of The Girl on the Train: an elegantly written mystery that exposes the ugly truths of its characters, and through them, ourselves. On the one hand its a searing indictment of our propensity to make assumptions based on severely limited information – a mere glimpse, an overheard utterance, or in the case of Rachel, one of the novel’s three protagonists, a daily peek through her train window during her commute at a couple she doesn’t know, which results in her fantasizing about their lives. The novel provides a harsh look at the reality of alcoholism; the deliberating impact it can have on the various facets of our lives. And it also shines the spotlight on infidelity; how both the culprit and the victim live on through its resonances. Debut author Paula Hawkins entwines these components with the page-turning traits of a ‘whodunnit’, and in doing so, The Girl on the Train deserves its inevitable Gone Girl comparisons. Both deal with the simple question: how well do we truly know the ones we love? It’s a slow-burn mystery, but its inevitable explosion is well worth waiting for.
Are you looking forward to the release of the film?