Sunday, 4 July 2010
Review: Street Heroes by Joe Layburn
Georgie's dad, George Smith is a highly controversial politician whose message is to get rid of non-white people from London's East End. Everyone assumes Georgie shares his father's views, even his father. But while he loves his dad, he's really not sure what he thinks. And then he begins to hear a voice in his head, the voice of a Muslim girl called Fatima ... Meanwhile Fatima is also contacting other children in difficult situations. When an attempt is made to kill George Smith he responds by planning a repeat of the historical Battle of Cable Street when Fascists demonstrating against Jewish immigrants confronted local people. How can the mysterious Fatima and her gang stop Smith, and which side will Georgie be on?
If you believe the media then young people today are either hoodie-wearing thugs who hang around on street corners causing mischief and accumulating ASBOs, or they are computer game obsessives who rarely interact with others except at school or via MSN. If you believe the media then young people today have little interest in current affairs or politics. However, as any primary or secondary school teacher and they will tell you that children who fit these labels are very much in the minority and instead, they are very much concerned about the issues affecting modern Britain. Issues such as knife crime, racism and religious fundamentalism are very much on their minds as they try to make sense of their world and that is why books like Joe Layburn's Street Heroes are so important.
The publishers bill this book as "a Heroes for children". I'm not sure this is an accurate comparison as there is no team of characters with super-powers tasked with saving the world. Instead we have the mysterious Fatima, a young muslim girl who is able to link telepathically with any number of other children, and it is a handful of these children who narrate the story for us. The first chapter introduces us to Georgie, son of George Smith, the leader of the British Fascists. Georgie is still trying to find his own identity in the world, but his is not an easy lot, with a fiercely nationalist father as his primary male influence, and the taunts he receives from his peers at school as a result of this. Of course, the last thing he expects is to hear the voice of a young muslim girl in his head.
Next up we meet Omar, a young Muslim boy who just happens to be Fatima's brother. Fatima's telepathic communication is nothing new to Omar as she has always been able to get inside his head. However, his principle worry is his brother Sadiq, an angry young teenager who Omah feels is on the verge of Fundamentalism and when he finds a scrapbook about George Smith and his family under Sadiq's mattress Omah's concerns multiply exponentially.
Finally we are introduced to Melissa, and ten-year old girl with behavioural issues. She is also signiifcantly larger than most of the other chidlren in her class at school, and as a result of this combination she has no friends and delights in being nasty to others. Along come the voice of Fatima, and we very soon see a marked change in Melissa's self-estemm and her attitude towards the people around her.
In a mere 132 pages Joe Layburn delivers a group of characters that children of 9+ will find find easy to associate with. He also manages to deliver a very important message about racial and religious tolerance without coming across as 'preachy'. One of the tools he uses to achieve this is by bringing factuak anecdote into the plot - in this case the very real Battle of Cable Street, when Oswald Mosley attempted to lead his Blackshirts through this predominantly Jewish area back in 1936. The shameful event in the history of Britain is used well to highlight the dangers of fascism both then and today, and how normal people can successfully group together to fight these exremist attitiudes.
This is definitely a book for younger readers, and I feel that teenagers will find it below them despite its important message. The 9+ age group will find some of the vocabulary challenging, but this is a good thing as this is how young people develop their own confidence in the use of language. The story is certainly set at the right level for children of this age. Street Heroes is published by Frances Lincoln, who kindly sent me a copy of this book, and is available to buy right now.