Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

9781781090329New Boy is Tracy Chevalier’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series which aims to re-interpret some of Shakespeare’s more popular works. So far the series has included retellings from bestselling authors Jeanette Winterson, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan. I have been thoroughly enjoying this series and I have been particularly looking forward to Tracy’s reinterpretation of Othello.

It is Washington DC during the 1970’s. Tracy transports us back into Primary school – year 6 to be exact. That awkward time when you are on the cusp of growing out of the friendships and alliances that have sustained you through your younger years. Fumbling attempts at relationships cause extra tensions and alliances are forged and broken with ease.

Osei Kokote is the new kid in school. It is not the first time he has been in this position. As a Diplomat’s son he has changed school regularly and feels like experience has given him a good grasp of how to survive the first day at a new school. He is also quite adept at dealing with being the only black kid in a predominantly white environment.

Dee Benedetti is the teacher’s pet. A good girl and rule-follower who is generally liked by her classmates and the school as a whole. Drawn to the new boy, she makes the brave and startling decision to befriend him unknowingly upsetting the chain of power in the playground and setting off a series of events that will end in disaster. As the children manipulate, use and betray each other over the course of the school day the tension grows drawing the adults, who should be immune, into the web as well.

Tracy Chevalier’s decision to place the drama of Othello ín a schoolyard is pure genius. The compounding of racing hormones, changing power dynamics and racism is a potent mix. I was completely drawn into the drama and taken straight back to the playground. To take a story so well known and make it so new, horrifying and powerful is an accomplishment. Even though I was prepared for things to not end well, New Boy left me shocked and gasping. This is going to be one of my top 5 books this year and I think New Boy easily outshines the other titles in the Hogarth Series.

Buy the book here…

Struggling Book Children

BirrungSome thought-provoking Australian novels for children have appeared recently. Standouts include New Boy by Nick Earls (Puffin), Run, Pip, Run by J.C. Jones (Allen & Unwin), Dropping In by Geoff Havel (Fremantle Press), Birrung the Secret Friend by Children’s Laureate, Jackie French (Angus & Robertson) and Plenty by Ananda Braxton-Smith (Black Dog Books, Walker Books).

Nick Earls uses some of his own experiences as an Irish boy moving to Australia in one of his best works for children so far, New Boy.

New Boy

Earls’ character, Herschelle moves to Australia and has to deal with bullying and racism as a white South African who speaks English. His teacher looks Chinese but speaks with an Australian accent. Herschelle was popular and sporty but is now paired with Max, who looks like a nerd. Humour, and embarrassment, is derived from misunderstanding of Australian slang and idioms, such as ‘bring a plate’. This book is a very clever twist on the usual refugee story. Displacement comes in many forms.

Run Pip RunRun, Pip, Run by newcomer J.C. Jones is quite a hard-hitting story about a 10-year-old girl who lives with an old man and tries to manage alone when he is taken to hospital. Her teacher, Mr Blair, is intuitive and tries to help her, endangering his own position. Pip is an engaging, resourceful character. This novel makes important points about child welfare and children at risk.

 

I loved the humour in Geoff Havel’s The Real Facts of Life when I read it years ago. He has created more appealing characters in his latest novel for children, Dropping In.Dropping In

Stick and Ranga are adventurous and include new boy, James, who has cerebral palsy, in their stunts. A girl, Jess, also joins their group, and Stick isn’t quite sure how he should act around her.

Jackie French has begun a new series for younger readers with Birrung the Secret Friend.

Sydney’s early European colony is brought to life through the eyes of Barney who is welcomed into the home of clergyman, Richard Johnson and his wife when he is starving. Aboriginal girl, Birrung, also lives there. Johnson’s love and care, even at the risk of his own health, for the people around him is told through the likable lens of Barney’s eyes and voice.

 

PlentyAnd Ananda Braxton-Smith’s story, Plenty about 10-year-old Maddy who has to move to the country is a stunner. Maddy loved her home and friends but gradually falls under the spell of her Nana’s indigenous orchids and learns what home and sanctuary really are from Sudanese refugee girl, Grace. The writing and imagery is first-rate.