The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell – Review and link to teaching resources

The Shark Caller is a children’s book so wise, tender and comforting that I want to press it in to the hands of everyone I know. A beautiful and lyrical story of family, loss, friendship and forgiveness it completely captured me.

Sometimes a book becomes a bit of a word of mouth ‘must read’ via social media and tempting though it may be to become involved I try to resist as that can inevitably raise expectations unrealistically and the subsequent read can be a little disappointing. This time temptation grew too strong so having avoided reading reviews I picked the book up, “just to have a look.” First there was a map, by Saara Katariina Soderland, and I love maps in books. This map depicted Blue Wing’s Village and instantly my curiosity was aroused and I wondered about Blue Wing, the name conjured up images in my head. Within two pages Blue Wing, the story’s narrator had captured me completely, and steadily through the lyrical and descriptive writing I became immersed in her world. This is a gorgeous story and one I enjoyed reading immensely.

Cover by Saara Katariina Soderland

Blue Wing lives with Siringen, an elderly man who has cared for her since the death of her parents. Siringen is a shark caller, a tradition passed down to him from his ancestors and Blue Wing is desperate to follow in his footsteps. However she is not allowed to because she is a girl and instead she is told that she must befriend Maple, the daughter of a newcomer who has recently arrived on their island. Maple infuriates Blue Wing and the two girls are unable to disguise their mutual antipathy and anger. However they share a loss that once brought out into the open bonds them in a friendship that deepens. Together the two girls uncover secrets and despite events that test their new friendship they unite in an unforgettable adventure.

Zillah Bethel was born and raised in Papua New Guinea which gives an authenticity to the descriptions of the landscape and life of Blue Wing’s island. The sights and sounds are vividly brought to life and the heat, the mountains, ocean, palms, orchids, the distinctive birds, and the creatures feel real and visible to the reader. The story is peppered with words in Tok Pisin, sometimes known as Pidgin English, adding to the sensation of visiting another culture. The relationship between the characters, and Blue Wing and Maple in particular, highlights the lack of understanding there can be between people of different cultures and we witness a growing dawning of appreciation of each other’s traditions and lifestyles.

This is a story of many layers and gradually Zillah Bethel peels away each layer until we reach the heart of the story, the overwhelming sense of grief felt by both girls. It is shared loss that bonds them in some ways but we also witness the power of forgiveness. The initial hostility between the girls is overcome by apology and forgiveness but both girls are unable to forgive themselves for what they view as past failings. Any reader brings their own experience to a book and finds an aspect that they recognise or can empathise with. For me the manner in which the author writes about grief is overwhelming in its accuracy. She captures beautifully that ache for one more conversation, one more chance to explain or ask a question or simply to talk. Both Blue Wing and Maple feel they need the opportunity to apologise to their mothers and they are also finding it difficult to forgive others but perhaps hardest of all to forgive themselves. As a study of grief and learning to live with it this book is both comforting and wise. There were many occasions when I was tempted to copy down sentences and sometimes whole passages. The idea of time and how our lives and the way in which we live them are linked to the passage of time and how we perceive it is sensitively explored.

This is not a sad book however as its message is a powerful and hopeful one. A wonderful and enthralling adventure that can be enjoyed for its own sake this is also a sensitive life lesson in learning to forgive and to live each day fully. The author has woven these themes into an adventure story that ensures the reader is completely transported to her world and fully engaged with the characters she has created. Occasionally a wonderful story can be slightly let down by an abrupt or slightly disappointing ending. Not this one. As I read the final chapters time stood still, the world around me disappeared and I was carried along to the most moving and perfect ending.

I would like to thank Fritha Lindqvist and Usborne Books for providing my review copy. The Shark Caller is available now to purchase online or via your nearest independent bookshop which can be found on this map

This stunning book could easily be a starting point for discussion and learning. Siringen is a lovely character, kind and wise and his life would make another wonderful story. I was so intrigued by this character that I decided to find out more about the lives of these traditional people, the shark callers, and discovered that Usborne had already done the work for me. They have put together their popular Quick Links on their website and also a comprehensive set of teaching resources created by Shapes for Schools. One aspect of the book that is striking is the attitude to sharks themselves and a important and central theme of the story. Whereas many people view them with fear and even hatred this story highlights a different aspect and information about these creatures is also included within these links. If the glossary of Pidgin English provided in the book and its use in the story has encouraged readers to find out more about this then that is also included. The links collated are a great source of background information and add to the enjoyment and understanding of this lovely book which I would recommend to both upper KS2 and KS3.

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1 Response to The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell – Review and link to teaching resources

  1. Calmgrove says:

    This certainly comes across as worth reading and a read of worth, thanks for giving a detailed critique.

    Liked by 1 person

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