Kiran Millwood Hargrave writes incredible stories and, I’ll whisper this quietly, I think that Julia and the Shark might be her best yet - and that’s coming from someone who ranks The Island at the End of Everything as one of his favourite ever children’s books.
Julia has been uprooted from her home in Hayle, Cornwall, and along with her mum, dad and cat Noodle is heading to the remote Scottish island of Unst, part of the Shetland archipelago. Dad is there to automate the lighthouse and marine biologist mum is on the hunt for the Greenland shark. Julia’s grandma suffered from dementia and mum believes that the shark could provide the answer to slowing down the ageing process and prevent others from suffering the pain that dementia brings. Mum and dad make for a rather odd couple, the complete opposites of one another; dad deals in numbers, facts and right and wrong whereas care-free and free-spirited mum loves possibles.
What should be a summer of new experiences, the thrill of living in a lighthouse and enjoying remote island life soon becomes fraught with tension and concern as Julia’s mum becomes increasingly obsessed with her hunt for the shark. As her desperation grows, her behaviour becomes ever more erratic and she is increasingly difficult to be around. Julia can visibly see her mother slipping away, a mother who can switch from angry to happy in a heartbeat.
When the fixation becomes all too much for mum and she is admitted to hospital, Julia does the only thing that she can think of to help her mum get better, she goes off on the most important adventure of her life to find the elusive shark…
Julia and the Shark is a beautifully written story that addresses mental health and the effect that is has on a close knit family. What is essentially an adventure story to find a shark has a wonderful emotional depth to it, deals with big issues that need to be talked about more and advocates for a society more conscious of environmental issues.
The ever present shark, both physically and metaphorically, is symbolic of mental health struggles that many of us face. Always there, circling just below the surface, waiting for its moment to strike with unstoppable force. There is a sense from the start that all is not well and it is only a matter of time before the waves come crashing in, the shark rises and everything will be engulfed. This does not make it any easier to read when it eventually does happen. When the exact nature of what is happening is revealed it is handled sensitively and delivers the important message that it is not Julia’s fault that her mum feels how she does and it is not her responsibility to fix her.
Whilst the story could be consumed by darkness and Julia’s despair at a mum that is visibly slipping away, hope comes in the form of Kin - a quirky island boy. Like Julia, Kin is facing his own shark - bullies - something that Julia also has experience of. They understand each other, ‘like two whales on their own wavelength’, bonding over stories of the seas and the skies.
This is not a book to be read quickly, it is one to savour, to ponder what is being written, to perhaps recognise yourself or those you love within the words. I found myself re-reading many of the passages, just taking it all in and letting myself be completely absorbed by Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical prose. Tom de Freston’s illustrations are exquisite, immersing you into Julia’s world and her nightmares that are pulling her ever closer to the shark.
Life, as Julia experiences, is anything but plain sailing. There will be rough seas, stormy skies and the sharks may circle from time to time but the feeling that I was left with after reading this story was hope. Captivating and magical from first word to last.
With special thanks to Meg Kennedy and Hachette for my copy of this beautiful book.
Recommended for 9+.