So many brilliant debut authors appearing in 2021 and Daisy May Johnson is another to add to the list.
Having to be brave is nothing new to mother and daughter, Elizabeth and Calla. Together, they have faced more than their fair share of difficulties and lows in life and have always put on a brave face to see them through. So when Elizabeth is invited to take part in a six-month research project involving ducks in the Amazon Rainforest she jumps at the chance.
With Elizabeth heading off, Calla finds herself on her own adventure as she attends the School of Good Sisters, a boarding school run by nuns that Elizabeth attended when she was a child. But trouble is afoot at the school and new headmistress, Magda DeWitt - who also happens to be a childhood acquaintance of Elizabeth’s, is up to no good. Soon, Calla finds herself at the centre of a kidnapping plot, with a mother lost deep in the Amazon jungle, and relying on her wits, baked delicacies, a blessing of nuns and her new best friends Edie and Hanna to uncover the truth…
How to be Brave is a delightful twist on the classic boarding school story and it makes for an enjoyable, lively and heart-warming read. It is a story of girl power, making friends, a very special duck, nuns and lots of biscuits. The story takes the good versus evil narrative approach and sees the students rebel against the new regime and rules with the support of their teachers. For readers familiar with the Harry Potter series, they will notice similarities with Harry and his mates trying to overthrow Dolores Umbridge after she took over at Hogwarts. It worked as a storyline then and it works well again here.
Rather than professors, there are nuns and they are very partial to naughtiness. Apprentice wizards are replaced by young girls all of whom are modern protagonists and make for excellent female role models. They are brave, resourceful and full of girl power. In their bid to overthrow headmistress Magda DeWitt, the students are up for pulling any prank and things get more outrageous as the story progresses. The mischief making is a great deal of fun and I took much delight in the antics of the not-so-good sisters behaving badly. It turns out that no challenge can not be overcome as long as you have friends, plenty of spirit and delicious baked treats.
Readers will find themselves keen to attend the School of the Good Sisters that is a far cry from my view of a traditional boarding school. There are no moody matrons, lessons in handwriting and algebra, or strict discipline. Instead, you’ll most likely find students out on the roof, enjoying lessons in astrology, baking, woodland camping and how to maintain a helicopter, and of course, eating lots of cakes and biscuits - sweet treats are dished out more readily than homework at the School of the Good Sisters.
What makes the story stand-out from the crowd is Daisy May Johnson’s authorial voice, it is really unique and I found the writing style highly engaging. The conversational tone makes it feel like you are sat with the author as she is retelling you the story that she herself has been told - it was easy to picture myself sat in the North Tower bedroom with Good Sister June, eating pink wafers, custard creams and lemon drizzle cake and listening to Johnson share her story. And then there are the footnotes. Now, it is highly unusual that I read a fiction book with footnotes but I thoroughly enjoyed Johnson’s use of them - they are clever, witty and genuinely add something extra to the story.
A very well-written and appealing debut.
Recommended for 8+.
With huge thanks to Daisy May Johnson and Pushkin Press for the advanced reader copy that I received via Netgalley.