A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

I was immediately drawn to this one because the back cover blurb promised a story about a child who was a book lover. Other than Matilda, these are a bit thin on the ground and that’s a shame as I am a firm believer in the power of fictional characters to influence real children in terms of what they might see as normal.

The story is told by Calypso, a ten and a half year old girl who lives alone with her widowed father. The house has its own large library downstairs and joy of joys, she has a smaller one of her own upstairs too. So far so good, wonderful in fact for showing that owning books and enjoying them is ordinary and desirable for both adults and children. At first her dad seems to be rather vague, eccentric and very pre occupied with writing his first book about the history of the lemon, a literary project that he has been obsessed with for some years. Calypso accepts all this even though it means that he is so busy that she often has to take responsibility for organising shopping, cooking and other household tasks. She knows that her family life is a little bit different to others in her class but takes a certain pride in being mature and self- sufficient, a quality that is greatly prized by her father:

‘Dad always says you should be your own best friend. When I was younger I didn’t understand what that meant, but now I do. It means that you should be happy being alone, with yourself; that you shouldn’t need other people to make you happy. He doesn’t need other people, he says’

At school play times she usually sits alone with her head in a book and isn’t really bothered by the other children, until the arrival of a new girl, Mae who she soon learns is also a book lover. At last she has found a kindred spirit and it is delightful to see her realise what she has been missing. They soon become firm friends, sharing secrets and spending all their spare time together at school and at home. Well, mostly at Mae’s home where Calypso is always made very welcome by her family. At last she has another family to measure her own against and from this point slowly begins to realise that her own home life is a more than a little bit odd. Eventually she persuades her dad to let Mae come to spend some time after school in their very different house. On her first visit, dad is nowhere in sight and Calypso wearily assumes that he has forgotten. Mae is entranced by the unorthodox set up but then in his absence, the two make the disturbing discovery that the downstairs library actually contains more than books.

At this point, the story shifts into one that focuses on how a child might cope with the revelation that their parent needs some help to cope with life. It had some echoes for me with another fictional ten year old, Dolphin in The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson. She too woke up to the troubling realisation that her mother wasn’t just unconventional but that she had some serious mental health issues that needed more than a kind, independent and helpful child could provide. I think that Cotterill presents this confusing dilemma very well because I daresay that there is always a mix of social embarrassment and fierce loyalty that is experienced by children in this situation. Fortunately, Calypso and her dad are supported by relevant professionals to help them through some very difficult times.

This book is about recognising the need to properly grieve when a close family member dies and is also a reminder that too many children are Young Carers who have to juggle family responsibilities with school and social life. Importantly, it is also a book about the joy of an intense friendship and how this can flourish despite other difficulties. As both girls are great book lovers, this includes how books can hep strengthen that relationship as well as provide solace and escape from harsh reality. Plenty of real books are mentioned and recommended throughout this story which is a plus. I particularly liked the way Calypso reflects on why they are so special and therapeutic when she finds an old copy of Jane Eyre that was first owned by her mother when the inscription on the fly leaf reveals that she was a ten and a half year old girl:

‘Through this book we are connected. And there she is again, in my mind’s eye, smiling in the sunshine. Books can give you more than stories. Books can give you back people you’ve lost’

I haven’t read anything by this author before, but this engaging and unusual story has definitely given me a taste for more.

Karen Argent

August 2016

(This review was first published on www.letterpressproject.co.uk in August 2016)

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