Children’s book spot: How To Be Brave, by Daisy May Johnson

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In our weekly spot where we recommend books for younger readers, an upcoming treat with plenty between its covers.

One of the areas that’s been heavily cut back on as newspapers and magazines trim their budgets in current times is reviews of books for young readers. As such, it’s getting trickier and trickier for authors of books for children and younger readers to get their work noticed. This spot on the site is our attempt to do something about that. If you see a book you like here, please do spread the word. And who knows? We may see some of these stories on the big screen in the future.

There’s a saying about books, and covers, and judging which seems rather unfair to talented book cover designers. But there are also certain expectations set by certain styles of cover – and I admit, my first, brief glance at this one, with its blonde-girl-doing-Wonder-Woman stance, prompted a few snap judgements. I should have paid more attention to the jammy dodgers and the helicopter.

Let me tell you what How To Be Brave isn’t. It isn’t a retro (or entirely contemporary) boarding school romp. It isn’t a fish-out-of-water, nerdy new girl high school story either. And it’s not David Copperfield for duck fans. What it does is borrow from all these genres to create something fresh and lovable, packed with genuine heart and enough amusing footnotes to give the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett a run for his money. Let’s put it this way: much of it takes place in a school run by nuns where aeroplane maintenance and the art of making the perfect ganache take up a surprising amount of the curriculum.

Like an excellent sponge cake, How To Be Brave balances fluff with substance. The opening of the book delicately handles grief, as Elizabeth North’s idyllic childhood is abruptly ended by the death of her parents. She finds a new home at school and, gradually, both a purpose (the world’s foremost duck expert) and a nemesis. We’re then swiftly introduced to her daughter, Calla, whose father dies just before she’s born – but whose love of lilies gives her an unusual name. When Elizabeth is lured away on a mysterious duck preservation trip to the Amazon and Calla is installed at her old school, things are not as they used to be. And that’s where the accelerator really hits the floor.

If that feels like half a story, I think it is – in a good way. Though you could certainly just enjoy the book on its own, it doesn’t tie up everything in a neat bow, and there’s a sequel in the works (and a shadowy criminal network to investigate). Tonally, with its tea-and-biscuits British quirkiness on its sleeve, How To Be Brave would make great bookshelf buddies with Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. And if you haven’t read those, well, then here’s two recommendations in one.

And now, after reading about so many pink wafers and custard creams, I think I need a cup of tea…

Title: How to Be Brave

Author: Daisy May Johnson

Reading age: 8+

Publisher: Pushkin Press

Release date: 1 July 2021

Purchase / more info

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