Inspiring Young Readers
The Song from Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold
This is a dark little tale about an ordinary ten year old, Francesca ( known as 'Frank') who discovers something pretty extraordinary in her neighbourhood during the long summer holidays. The mood is given further emphasis by the distinctively sombre and intricate black and white illustrations throughout the book by Levi Pinfold.
We first meet Frank in the playing fields where she is being tormented yet again by a gang of boys. I think that this sends the reader an important message about her lack of fear right from the outset because although she dreads the bullying she does not let this stop her from venturing out alone. Her nearby family home is a safe haven with a busy working mum who is sometimes away from the family, a dad who irritates her with his tedious jokes and a five year old brother, Hector. In this sense it can be seen as another coming of age story where she is beginning to want to leave behind the familiar world of young childhood and to become more independent.
She is rescued by the intervention of Nicholas Underbridge, the unprepossessing and huge boned smelly boy with ' a funny flat face like it was painted on the front of a stone' who has always been the butt of jokes and bullying at her school. To her horror, they escape to his house on the other side of the playing fields and she realises that he wants to be her friend. She meets his rather ordinary dad, who turns out to be an artist and learns that his mother does not live there. Whilst in the house she becomes aware of a strange tantalising music coming from another room.
'She was suddenly filled with shoals of fish, darting and moving like one great whole, darting and flowing this way and that, darting and flashing, hundreds and hundreds of silver fish all moving as if they shared one brain. This was what she saw as she heard this faint distant music'
Although she has a kind heart she can't quite bring herself to like Nick and is mortified to imagine the reactions of her friends if they ever find out. This is a tension that I can remember having myself at a similar age when I was inadvertently nice to an ostracised classmate who then latched herself on to me ever after. I imagine that making such relationships is not uncommon as children start to develop a conscience that pulls against the need to be popular with peers.
But she is haunted by the memory of the music and so despite her initial misgivings, she returns to visit his house the following day. This time she has the opportunity to explore further and discovers what appears to be a strange troll like figure living in the basement who is responsible for the mysterious music. Not an easy vision to process, she mulls it all over and eventually decides to ask Nick about it. What happens next is extraordinary and magical and so I am not going to spoil the story. It involves a strengthening of the friendship between the two children along with Frank realising the importance of family and loyalty. There is also a malevolent stick-woman character who does her best to ruin everything and needs to be thwarted in an episode that even made me feel frightened.
The overall atmosphere chimes with that of the author's other splendidly spooky book The Imaginary, reviewed elsewhere on this site. Harrold has a real talent for manageable menace which will entice and thrill young readers. Although it has plenty of scary moments throughout, it has a pleasing cosiness as well and an overall theme of good overcoming evil which is always reassuring. His writing is pleasingly poetic with elements of myth and fairy tale woven into the everyday world that reminds me of David Almond's style. I also very much like the messages about standing up to bullies and challenging negative stereotypes about people who appear to be different. Apart from all that it has a crackingly engaging plot along with a very pleasing aesthetic design - read and enjoy.