A Library of Lemons : Jo Cotterill

A Library of LemonsA Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is a beautiful day and I would like to talk to you about beautiful things. I would like to talk to you about quiet and gentle and sympathetic and kind books and A Library Of Lemons is all of that and so much more.

I have a lot of time for Jo Cotterill. I adored Looking At The Stars, a wise and sensitive and graceful book about living in the worst of times, and I loved A Library Of Lemons. Absolutely, furiously, painfully loved it.

Calypso and her dad live alone in their big, dusty house. Her mother died, and they don’t really talk about it. Instead, Calypso’s dad preaches the values of inner strength and self-reliance and then mainly just locks himself away to work on his book. There’s never any food in the fridge, and Calypso is forced to look after herself. A lot. She withdraws into her love of books and fiction and the gap between her and her dad seems to widen. The arrival of a new girl at school, Mae, changes that. Calypso and Mae become friends. And, upon seeing how life can be in a normal house, Calypso starts to realise that her and her Dad have some serious problems to address.

I talk a lot about kindness in middle grade fiction because I think it’s a very important element to consider. It’s not that I want everything to be hugs and roses because nothing is. It’s more that I want the awareness of people being people, and that not everything in the world is as cut and dry as people being good and people being bad. People are people. And I think to realise that; to portray adults as fallible, to portray children as participants within a world that isn’t black and white, and to do that kindly is an immense gift. Cotterill writes stories that don’t leave people behind. Everyone earns their space and fills it, and it’s all done in such a subtle, nuanced way that is remarkable.

One thing to note about A Library Of Lemons is that it deals with some very serious issues, including bereavement, grieving, depression and young carers. It does all of this in a very gentle, honest way that I suspect would be immensely helpful to those needing to articulate such issues and I would immensely recommend it to those working in such a context. But, as ever, please read it yourself beforehand. I always say this because it’s vital to know a book and the issues it touches upon before dealing with it in a sensitive context. Plus, it is a joy. A Library Of Lemons is one of those books that reaches out to those on the edge of society and pulls them back in. And I think that is something rather beautiful indeed.

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Looking at the Stars : Jo Cotterill

Looking at the StarsLooking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amina tells stories. She has an imagination, a powerful one, and it’s been her companion throughout the war that has ravaged her country. Her family have felt the impact of this differently, but they are together. That is enough. That is enough to survive. But then things start to change, and slide horribly out of control and Amina’s family life is shattered. Nothing will ever be the same again. Will Amina ever tell a story again? What’s going to happen to her family?

I am reading some good, good books lately. This, a tale of family and refugees and the terrible impact of war, is one of them and had me utterly in tears at the ending. Looking At The Stars is a book about imagination, voice and the power of story. It is also a book about the worst of humanity, and how people can so easily shift into horrific violence. It is, as you may imagine, hard to judge this sort of tone in a book for young readers and I think one of the strengths of this is that it is set in a fictional environment. This could be anywhere; there are echoes of Iraq, Afghanistan but also of Nazi Germany and the cumulative impact of this is to create a fictional ‘everyplace’ where, in a way, the story gains more immediacy precisely because it could be anywhere. It could be anywhere.

Cotterill pitches Looking At The Stars perfectly; she writes with a sympathetic warmth which doesn’t shy away from detailing some of the more graphic incidents that occur throughout the narrative. There are some which are difficult to read (as ever, read the book if you are working with it and know the context of the children you work with) but they are never gratuitous. They are painful, heartbreaking, emotional, but they are never poorly handled. It’s a great skill to have and one that gives this book its great strength. It is a story about stories and storytelling, and the delicious edge of that isn’t dulled. If anything, it’s sharpened through Cotterill’s restrained and quiet prose and her beautiful ability to see the wonder in a starlit sky. What a book this is.

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