Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: Smart by Kim Slater

There's been a murder, but the police don't care. It was only a homeless old man after all.

Kieran cares. He's made a promise, and when you say something out loud, that means you're going to do it, for real. He's going to find out what really happened. To Colin. And to his grandma, who just stopped coming round one day. It's a good job Kieran's a master of observation, and knows all the detective tricks of the trade.

But being a detective is difficult when you're Kieran Woods. When you're amazing at drawing but terrible at fitting in. And when there are dangerous secrets everywhere, not just outside, but under your own roof.

Kieran is different from most of the other children at his school. He struggles to fit in and the other children call him names because of his learning difficulties. However, his brain is capable of storing all kinds of facts (especially when they are related to CSI, his favourite TV programme) and he is an incredibly gifted artist. Kieran's father dies many years earlier, and his mother has now moved them both in with Tony, a violent and bigoted thug, and his son Ryan, who seems destined to take after his dad. Both of them treat Kieran as if he were little more than a piece of dirt and Kieran's only escape is the diary and his his artwork, that he keeps carefully hidden away in his bedroom.

One day, whilst walking along the riverside, Kieran comes across Jean, a homeless woman who he has occasionally spoken with. Jean is in floods of tears, and Kieran quickly discovers that the source of her grief is a body that is floating in the river. The corpse was Colin, one of Jean's few friends, and so Kieran decides he is going to solve the mystery of who murdered Colin, especially as the police do not appear at all interested in investigating. Colin's investigations will lead to the uncovering of all kinds of secrets, some of which could impact very close to home.

When a copy of Smart arrived out of the blue from the fab people at Macmillan and I read their publicity blurb my heart sank a little. Although it is never mentioned explicitly, it is obvious that the main character is autistic, and I couldn't help but wonder whether the world really needed another book with a story that features a young autistic boy trying to solve a crime? The answer to this question is simple: if such books are as well written and wonderful to read as Smart then yes, there is room in the world for many more of these.

Anyone who has read Mark Haddon's brilliant The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time will find it impossible not to compare the two books, because if their similarities, and this is something that must have played a little on the mind of author Kim Slater as she was writing the book, and publisher Macmillan when they decided to publish it. However, I personally think Smart manages to hold its own quite comfortably, and I think I actually enjoyed reading Smart more. This might be due to it being written for a younger audience - Macmillan suggest that it is aimed at 12+ readers and I would agree with this, although I know that some will disagree with me. The reason for this is that Smart is quite dark in places, as a result of some of the themes it explores: domestic violence, drug dealing, discrimination, homelessness, and of course, Kieran's autism. However, in my opinion Kim Slater covers every one of these themes with sensitivity and uses them to craft a heartwarming tale that could have readers laughing and crying in equal measure. 

Children should not be shielded from these aspects of our society. Most secondary school children will have shared a classroom with at least one autistic child, and I think may adults would be surprised at the tolerance and understanding that the vast majority of these young people show to their classmates who have Special Educational Needs. Similarly, although it is very sad to say so, many children will come across instances of neglect, domestic violence, etc. and if their awareness of these issues is raised through wonderful stories like this then it is only for the better. As such, Smart is one of those books that would make a great class reader for a Year 8 or Year 9 English group.

One should never judge a book by its cover, which is obviously the book's most important message, but this is one of those times when the cover is just as wonderful as the story within and I can't finish this review without mentioning it. Illustrated by Helen Crawford-White, the wrap-around cover of this ahrdback edition rather cleverly reflects the work of Kieran's favourite artist, L.S. Lowry, and is definitely one of my favourite of the year so far.


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