How to Be Brave by Daisy May Johnson is a boarding school story with a difference. Johnson takes all the traditional ingredients; midnight feasts, secret passages, intrepid girls solving mysteries and putting right wrongs and presents them in an original and immensely appealing style. Full of fun with laugh out loud moments it also conveys how much friendship, family, love and loyalty matter. A delight from the first page to the last.
Calla and her mum, Elizabeth are used to learning to be brave. The two of them have experienced hardship, difficulty paying the bills and worries about where the next meal will come from. Yet they are happy and very much a partnership. Elizabeth’s abiding passion is ducks and her extensive knowledge of a particular rare duck sees her asked to go on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest. While she is away Calla is sent to Elizabeth’s old boarding school, The School of the Good Sisters, run by an order of eccentric but kindly nuns who teach everything from baking to helicopter maintenance. However a new Head Teacher has been installed and Calla and her new friends are faced with the horrors of a rigid curriculum and appalling food. They are determined to put things right!
Traditional school stories have been popular for generations and this version is expertly executed in a way that feels fresh. It is a mix of classic and contemporary with cultural references that today’s readers will recognise and identify with yet retains the familiar framework of successful school series such as Malory Towers and the Chalet School. It is, I think, the narrative voice that gives the book its truly original feel. I have struggled to think of another children’s novel where footnotes are used so extensively but cannot. It is through these that the reader ‘meets’ our likeable narrator and is encouraged to feel part of the story rather than an observer. Although at first I wondered if this would work I was quickly converted as it is so amusing and subtly alters the reading experience.
This is great fun and made this particular reader yearn for a pink wafer biscuit and a custard cream and the chance to join in the girls’ revolt. A story with a wide appeal as adults will love some of the references and the nostalgic appeal. I simply loved the “I’m Spartacus” moment! There are some fabulous characters, I particularly liked the unstoppable Edie, a rebel with French flair, and Good Sister June who I do wish had taught me.
How to Be Brave is a wonderful, funny, school story but running through it are themes of family, loss, hardship, loyalty and friendship. The love between Calla and Elizabeth is central to the story and this is a kind story as well as a very amusing one. It would probably appeal to lovers of the Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens.
I was delighted to be able to take part in this blog tour and should like to thank Poppy Stimpson and Pushkin Press for providing my review copy. How to Be Brave was published on 1st July and is available to purchase at all good independent bookshops or online. Full details of the blog tour are below so do please catch up with the other reviews if you have missed them.