David Fickling Books
| One of the best children’s novels of 2014 was Close To The Wind by Jon Walter. The fact that it was overlooked by all the major children’s book awards (including the Branford Boase Award for a first novel, where it was not included in even the longlist, let alone the shortlist) left me open-jawed and, ever so temporarily, nervously questioning my own judgement.|
Was Close To The Wind as good a book as I thought it was? Did it contain some flaw that made it ineligible for praise in the eyes of award judge panels? I looked at the book again and was reminded how unique, how special was the slow, unhurried but totally gripping narrative tone. I remained convinced. This was, it is, a very special book indeed.
And now we have the author’s second novel to stand alongside that exceptional debut.
My nervousness as a reader and reviewer returned. Would the new book excite me as much? Or would it help explain why none of those award panels had shared my enthusiasm for the earlier book.
That nervousness didn’t last beyond the first page of My Name’s Not Friday. In the short opening chapter we appear to be starting a story that is going to be told in the same unspecific, emblematic style of Close To The Wind. A boy is bound up and has a bag over his head. We experience things only through the boy’s sense of hearing. He calls himself Samuel, and starts off believing his captor to be God, since he feels he must have died and gone to heaven.
The tone and narrative style quickly shifts in the very next chapter. The boy is being taken to market to be sold as a slave. The book tells the story of how this has come to pass and what happens to Samuel once he is working as a slave.
Set near the end of the American Civil War, My Name’s Not Friday is more soundly set in a specific time, place and period than Close To The Wind. But Walter is still more keen on establishing convincing, emotion-engaging verisimilitude than on creating a precise historical exactitude.
There is an illuminating Author’s Note to read at the end of the novel in which Walter writes: “I had to use detail to portray a narrative that was believable and then make choices about how best to illuminate the truths contained within the story.”
As an illustration he refers to his use of the word “nigger”.
At a little over 350 pages Walter has written a classic children’s adventure story in which the reader sides with the main character throughout, but is helped to see how the rights and wrongs of any particular situation are always shaded.
To those classic stories such as Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian and The Kingdom By The Sea by Robert Westall can now be added My Name’s Not Friday. It really is a fantastic novel. The characters all live as vividly as if they were in a Dickens novel. Reading the book I became aware of echoes with Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and, of course, the movie 12 Years A Slave.
If Jon Walter is once again ignored by award panels after writing a book as good as this – with its enormously satisfying narrative arc and a main character whose belief in an interventionist God remains undimmed throughout – I shall be aghast.
The book is published in hardback by David Fickling next month (July 2015). Order a copy today. And if you haven’t yet read Close To The Wind, the paperback is available straight away.