The One Memory of Flora Banks; Emily Barr

Three reviews of a wonderful book for the TES published last week.

the one memory of flora banks, emily barr, penguin, book review

Teacher review

This is a great coming-of-age book: first love, first kiss, adventure, exploration and those memories you revisit over and over again when you’re falling in love for the first time. The only difference is this is the only recent memory that Flora has – her first kiss – and it is revisited over and over again because Flora suffers from anterograde amnesia. Normally she can remember very little from her real life as a 17-year-old girl (her memories end at 10 years old) but this kiss has jogged something, unlocked something, and surely that means it is worth something? Surely that means this kiss must be the Romeo and Juliet of first kisses: it is magical, it is meant to be, it must equal true love.

This is a love story written to the teenager you remember being, and it is beautifully written. It is compelling and keeps your interest to the end. The fact that Flora has only this one memory doesn’t distance her from other teenagers or from her teenage readers: we all become a little fixated under the spell of first love: real life is put on hold, and we indulge ourselves in another secretive world that has been created between just two people. In this case, a very secretive world, as the boy whom Flora remembers kissing is Drake, the boyfriend of her best friend.

Even though Flora is a teenager with an unusual condition, Emily Barr perfectly evokes universal themes. The reader shares the same sense of vulnerability as Flora: the danger that comes at every turn from a life where you do not have the confidence of knowing what has just happened – Flora has to prompt herself with messages on her hands and arms – and the same sense of hope: that she will get to kiss Drake again.

‘Chipping away at the stone’

Barr’s simple writing style – the story is told in short, often naive and startling honest sentences – is beautifully effective. Flora has to order the things around her – in her head, in her life – in simple ways, and filter straight through to the important things. She has no time to indulge: she has to state the truth as she sees it. Other characters are reflected through her eyes as they move in and out of her life and her short memories in an almost dream-like way. Somehow this narrative makes for the most wonderfully atmospheric, quiet and calm descriptions of nature – rather like a stark black-and-white photograph of sea or snow, or an Alfred Wallis painting. I loved being inside Flora’s head when she was standing by the sea in Cornwall or in the arctic tundra – I felt the expanse let me breathe in cold, clean air after being stuck in that one memory inside Flora’s claustrophobic family home.

Michelangelo described stone sculpture as the slow release of a form as it emerged out of the marble block excavated from deep in the mountains of Cararra. He said that it was his job as an artist to liberate the human form trapped inside the block by gradually chipping away at the stone – that the statue was already inside, and he was just releasing it. I love that notion dearly, and I get the same feeling from this book: that there are wonderful things written in the stars for Flora, but she has to chip away to release them from this memory-limited prescription-drug-induced fug she is trapped n. She needs to be allowed – by adults – to fail, to explore, to experiment, and to put herself in harm’s way, because she deserves a life of her own creation: just as all teenagers do. One is often filled with a sense of sorrow at just what a wonderful life a girl like Flora could have if she did not suffer from her condition, but it is comforting that her memory has seized on one wonderful moment of being.

I think teenage girls will adore this book – will make friends with Flora, and hold tightly to her graffitied hand for every step of her journey.

Emma Cox, ageless

Pupil reviews

‘Into the valley of death’

I read the majority of this book sitting at my desk at school. It was raining and thundering as though the storm had a purpose to fight for, the exam timetable sat in front of me proclaiming the week’s torture and the whole scene felt very Tennysonesque. “Cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right.”

Except, of course, when I rode “into the valley of Death”, I was not one of the six hundred, but alone.

I was not looking forward to it – the blurb screams “issue book” (which I have ranted about before), and the cover is downright depressing if you think about it. However, I am learning. I have even begun to say “literary appraisal” instead of “criticism”, and I pledge to be balanced and rational. Honest.

I tried very hard to find the set-up plausible, because after all, this is another young-adult novel with much the same story and message as the others. It tells the story of a 17-year-old trapped inside her own head. The only original thing about it is the reason why: anterograde amnesia.

I suppose we should start at the very beginning, which we all know is a very good place to start, particularly when unpicking stitching.

‘Her confusion is confusing’

Conventionally, the story starts with a heroine, (or hero, but the girls go first in my book). The problem I found with Flora Banks is that her confusion is confusing. She doesn’t really know who she is. Neither do we. If a heroine is not self-assured then how is she inspiring? That’s like Jane Eyre without her parting speech (“equal — as we are!”) or Elizabeth Bennet saying “Maybe” when Darcy proposes. Perhaps the inspiration in Flora is supposed to be how she copes with her illness, except she doesn’t cope. As the days go by, she defines herself more and more by other people. She has no character to speak of, outside her all-encompassing amnesia.

Quite frankly, the whole thing is very anti-feminist. The main female characters are incompetent, shallow, and teary. Flora defines herself by a boy, and it tears her one friendship apart, because her friend defines herself by the same boy. By the time we get to page 157, the boy is causing Flora to self-harm: “I scratch “DRAKE” so deeply into my flesh that it starts to bleed. That is good and I work harder… I like the pain of it.”

I wonder, is it only me who feels young-adult novels present love as an evil, or at least stronger in the presence of it?

There is something double-edged about a kiss starting the restoration process of Flora’s memory. Of course it’s a beautiful idea and the basis for a wonderful love story, but this isn’t a wonderful love story. It’s an issue book about love, which are not the same thing.

‘A bad book’

I am not going to say that this book is badly written, because I don’t think it is, but I do think it’s a bad book.

I’ll admit that Flora’s brother Jacob was moving, and almost made me cry. He was one of the only half-decent and inspiring people. I say people because that’s what issues books are about – people and problems. This, though, is what they so often get wrong, and why I don’t like many of them. They mistake “people with problems” for “problematic people”.

In case all the alliteration is clouding my point, I just couldn’t enjoy a book which dampens down all its own characters and ideas.

The plot was largely implausible and I frequently found Flora remembering or not remembering things that were wrong in line with her original diagnosis.

All of this said, Emily Barr had set herself a hard task. To write a heroine who doesn’t know her own mind has never been done before. At least not quite like this.

I wonder why.

Flora’s repetition of “I am seventeen”, “I kissed a boy,” “I’m Flora Banks” is, I suppose, trying to show her memory loss, but the fatal flaw is that we are told that inside her head she is 10. And she was normal at the age of 10. Emily Barr clearly doesn’t know any 10 year olds. I do. They don’t talk, act, or think like that.

The plot itself was depressing but more so was the feeling when I finished the book: tired, drained, and still sitting listening to the rain, but now in bed.

“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”

And into the valley of death rode I.

Eleanor Clark, 13

‘An isolated island’

Flora Banks is one extraordinary girl! Whether she is walking around her own home discovering her own things for the first time (again), or pursuing her one true love in a passionate flurry of emotion, she never fails to entertain or evoke sympathy – her innocent and naive approach to life makes sure of that.

Yet, beyond the comforts and restrictions of her own home, this girl has a strong impulsive nature that is unleashed when confronted with exciting new experiences and people to share them with.

We see this contrast of character as she abandons her pills (which deliberately send her into a drugged up and foggy mental state). She has escaped from a life wrapped in cotton wool, where exhilaration or thrills were completely inaccessible. Having a first kiss, and remembering it also, offered a new lease of life for Flora, which she grasped with both hands, realising how liberating it is to feel such sensations or, more precisely, to feel ALIVE.

This book addresses a condition that is common to many people and affects their lives dramatically. Amnesia is not only difficult for those who suffer from it, but for those who are a part of the sufferer’s life but have become estranged – unintentionally – from their world. It is an isolated island at times, that is hard to reach and painful to discover.

‘A brain unique’

In this book, a particular variation of amnesia is explored. Instead of being constantly confused, Flora is given memories, and they are taken away again within a matter of hours. The only ones that have stayed with her were prior to the accident.

To attempt to touch on such a topic – sensitive to many people – is tricky, especially as it requires unstitching the complicated thought processes of a brain unique compared to others.

To achieve this, the writer repeats the regular recollections of Miss Banks every time she wakes up to read her life story, or her messily tattooed arms. This became an annoyance to me, as I found she was kissing Drake again – this time in chunky boots and a blue dress. One memory became an obsession! This was when I was inclined to skip a page; still, I was faithful and hung on.

Another thing that puzzled me in the latter chapters was the flitting to and from a sort of dreamland, which became merged with reality; I felt it was disruptive and found I was to question whether she was asleep and what time it was. Similarly, the passages where she would drift off to the ceiling or the clouds and watch herself felt a bit off-piste.

At the end when she meets Drake and Nadia, the emails are unfolded and Drake insists that Flora wrote them of her own accord, then throws Flora into a state of further disconcertment by saying he kissed Lily not her. This works well, as it shocks the reader.

‘Indefinite conclusion’

When the summit of the book is reached, as Paige tells Flora that she’s coming off her pills, she explains for the first time (the second time is in her letter) what really happened the night of the farewell party: Lily photographed the kiss between Drake and a certain blonde 17-year-old girl, in a white dress and yellow shoes which she doesn’t like. So Drake lied about the kiss, but the legitimacy of the correspondence was left unexplained. Perhaps Barr intended for it to be left, or maybe it was self-explanatory. I can’t decide.

Finally, the ending draws the indefinite conclusion that Flora (the now officially ADULT version) agrees to escape from her padded cell of a home, to be studied by neurologist, Dr Joe Epstein. To me, the ending doesn’t satisfy, but that may be the sign of a good book. I cannot deny that it is a well-written and insightful interpretation of life with this disease.

I feel it needs a sequel – or perhaps this will be the first of a trilogy, so that the many questions that are posed at the end of this book may be answered. For example: will there only ever be one memory of Flora Banks?

Ciara Morris, 13

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The 10 best children’s books of 2016 − as chosen by children

The TES published its top ten children’s books of 2016, as voted by children. You may read the full list here, reproduced below;

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This year, TES started a series of weekly pupil-written reviews of books for children. Here are the 10 that most impressed our classroom critics.

Children’s books do not get much attention from newspapers and magazines. So, in February, a group of children’s authors, led by SF Said, set up a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #CoverKidsBooks. The aim was to encourage newspapers to increase and improve their review coverage of children’s books.

TES responded almost immediately. We’d been talking about setting up a children’s book-review page on our website for a long time, and this was the incentive that we needed.

We asked teachers to review books, but we didn’t simply want adults to give their opinions; this seemed to miss the point. Surely it would be far more effective to ask children to review books that were intended for their eyes. So that’s what we did.

Here are 10 books that our reviewers − both teachers and students − loved this year.

1. The Accidental Secret Agent 

by Tom McLaughlin
(OUP Children’s) 

A book about…a clumsy 13-year-old boy called Kevin, who is mistaken for a secret agent and ends up getting armed with an arsenal of James Bond-style gadgets to tackle a supervillain.

“When I read this book, it lured me in like magic. I could not wait for the next page, and when my mum told me to go to sleep I was really annoyed, as I was extremely wrapped up in the story.”

Aidan, 9,  from Whitchurch Church of England Primary, Hampshire

2. Max

by Sarah Cohen-Scali
(Walker Books)

A book about…a young German boy living in Nazi Germany between 1936 and 1945, and how a Polish boy challenges his dedication to the Hitler Youth.

“Heart-wrenching, devastating and groundbreaking – it’s impossible not to fall in love with this book.”

Edith Reavley, Year 9 pupil at Fortismere School, North London

3. Anna and the Swallow Man

by Gavriel Savit
(Bodley Head)

A book about…a young Polish girl who is led away from the danger of the Second World War by a mysterious man, who is known as “The Swallow Man”.

“This is a perfect novel from the undoubtedly talented Gavriel Savit. It makes you want to read more and more. It is very well structured and beautifully and carefully written. I would have rated it 15 stars if it was possible, but really I would rate it five stars.”

Fuhaira Chaudhary, Year 10 pupil at Central Lancaster High School

4. Malkin Moonlight

by Emma Cox, with illustrations by Rohan Eason
(Bloomsbury Children’s)

A book about…a small black cat who falls in love and then battles to bring peace to a recycling centre full of other cats.

“I really enjoyed this book and it was very ‘popping’. My favourite part was when Malkin and Roux travelled to the recycling centre. I would recommend this to a confident reader.”

Shreyas, 9,  from Chalk Ridge Primary School, Hampshire

5. Steven Seagull, Action Hero

by Elys Dolan
(OUP Children’s)

A book about…a bird, closely modelled on the actor of a similar name, who saves Beach City from all sorts of miscreants.

“When I asked the children if they enjoyed the story, Leon called out: ‘Ding! It’s a tick!’

“Across the board, the children scored this 10/10 on their hands.

“Well done, Steven Seagull. You have made it onto the Butterfly Class’ favourites shelf. And you made this teacher laugh a lot, too.”

Alice Edgington, deputy headteacher at St Stephen’s Infant School, Canterbury, Kent

6. Ada Twist, Scientist

by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
(Abrams Books)

A book about…the power of curiosity and a child who opts to use science to understand the world around her.

“I enjoyed this book, because it made me appreciate all of the scientists’ hard work.

“It also shows you how even young children can love and nurture their interest in science and the world around them. This is why you should check this book out – it will inspire you to do something you love.”

Abbi, 13, from Linton Village College, Cambridge

7. Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice

by Natasha Farrant
(Chicken House)

A book about…Lydia, a girl who falls for a soldier and follows him to Brighton where she tries to find out what she really wants from life.

“In a fresh take on the fabulous Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Lydia finds herself in a whirlwind of social drama. Natasha Farrant conjures up a romantic atmosphere that might melt your heart. It is a must for all major bookworms out there.”

Teagan McClymont-Dodd, Year 6 pupil at The District CE Primary School, Merseyside

8. Alison Hubble

by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
(Puffin)

A book about…a girl who suddenly starts creating doubles of herself, and the ensuing chaos that it brings.

“I think that it was double the double the double the fun! It was funny and silly.”

Abigail, a Primary 3 pupil at Auchtermuchty Primary School, Fife

9. The Christmasaurus

by Tom Fletcher, with illustrations by Shane Devries
(Puffin)

A book about…a boy and a baby dinosaur and their adventures at Christmas.

“My favourite part in the book is when the Hunter and his dog, Growler, get involved. I love action parts. When I was reading, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll read one more page’, but I ended up reading six more chapters.”

Romy, Year 5 pupil at Crondall Primary School, Hampshire

10. Knights of the Borrowed Dark

by Dave Rudden
(Puffin)

A book about…an orphan who is drawn into a world of monsters and knights, one in which the true story of where he comes from is buried under half-truths.

“The book glows with flair and humour – clever and different, with no hint of stating the obvious. This is what makes me breathe a sigh of relief. Not at the end of the book – the ‘I’m glad that’s over’ sigh. No. The ‘Yes! Finally a real writer who isn’t dead’ sigh.”

Eleanor, 13, from Exeter Cathedral School

If you or your class would like to write a review for TES, please contact Adi Bloom at adi.bloom@tesglobal.com

This is an edited version of an article in the 2 December edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click hereTES magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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Competition winner

Jess from Deri View Primary School is the delighted winner of Bloomsbury’s writing competition. Congratulations and well done!Cw1GNdKWQAA7CTE.jpg

From the school website;

Congratulations

A big well done to Jessica Withey in Year 6 who won the Bloomsbury’s Malkin Moonlight creative writing competition with her brilliant entry about a fox! Jessica wins a Kindle Fire and a bundle of books as well as £100 of books for our school!

‘Reading is the most powerful gift we can give a child: it puts stardust in their imaginations’

2nd November 2016 at 08:01
reading, children's book week, emma cox, literacy, malkin moonlight
Child readers bring more magic to the party. They can imagine the things they will never do. They can make mistakes, experience untold terrors and even die. Children’s Book Week is cause to celebrate, says this English teacher and children’s author

The clocks have gone back, it’s dark as soon as school finishes and, as fireworks flash outside, I am reminded that the things that happen at night are the most magical. It is Children’s Book Weekand I think that one of the most happy, warm, delicious and magical childhood pursuits is reading. Particularly after dark.

A certain sort of book is better read in bed. Breaking the lights-out rule is one of the happy comforts of childhood. Nighttime reading gives a child the license to be safely afraid, warm and comfy in their bed. It lets magic permeate their dreams; it wakes them up with ideas. There are many different kinds of reading for children: sharing a book with a parent, reading in class with a teacher, finding a book in a library – but perhaps night-time reading is the best reading of all.

Imagining a childhood without books gives me a horrid sense of deprivation. I cannot imagine my childhood without the characters I met along the way. The age you are when you first read a book is vital. As a child reader I certainly brought more magic to the party. I believed in absolutely everything, and reading permitted me to do the things that I was not allowed to do, not yet, and let me imagine the things that I would never do – although I believed that I might.

‘Stardust in their imaginations’

Reading is the most powerful gift we can give a child: it puts stardust in their imaginations, the tingle of possibility in their minds, the knowledge of facts in their brains, the crackle of magic in burnt fingertips that have cast wondrous spells. Books give you a best friend who understands when you really need them to. An animal with warm fur who loves you. The belief you are someone special and that you can overcome difficulties, that the world belongs to you and you can make something wonderful of it. You can also make mistakes, you can walk into danger, you can experience untold terrors, and – with fiction for older children – you can even die.

Then you can put the book down and live.

Books are an anchor that show children how people cope in difficult situations and how situations can develop outside our control. They are full of knowledge – and a springboard to developing that knowledge. They offer facts and figures (theGuinness Book of Records is absolutely fought over by boys in our school library who can tell you specific page numbers, facts, data…) as well as opinions about things where knowledge runs out. Books are aspirational – and inspirational, providing an insight into human frailty and human strength. Books are a guide to the galaxy. Books are clever – they show us what nature has achieved. Books are funny – they can be really funny – and some of our most loved children’s authors are the funniest of all.

A bookcase of one’s own

And then there is the power of choosing a book. I remember how it felt when a £5 note fell out of a birthday or Christmas card when I was small. I was never quite so keen on a gift voucher. I liked having real money. I liked spending it on Lego (the first and best instructions that we read) and on books.

I think it is lovely to give a child that responsibility. To walk into a book shop with their own money and spend £6 or £7 wisely. It’s a pick ’n’ mix for the imagination, and they get to keep the book for ever. To fill up a bookcase of their own.

We all remember, either clearly or vaguely, the books that imprinted on our imaginations as children. We often have difficulty describing exactly what happened, but we remember the feeling it gave us. ‘There was this book I read as a child…’

It may be a disappointment to find this book now and read it with an adult brain because the colour might have faded, the sparkle dissipated like the words written by a sparkler. But perhaps it may ignite all over again. The alchemy achieved by the little black shapes on a page – not even proper shapes – that build worlds in the mind and make you someone else for the duration is a glorious, high magic.

Walking around I see teenage boys (in particular) wearing t-shirts to show they’ve not quite come back from the brink of unreality. They prefer the worlds of comic books and graphic novels, and they want this world to know that. They believe in what is right and wrong, in super-powers, special mutations.

Need to read

We need food and water, we need to be warm, we need to have hope, and we need to make sense of this world. We need to dare to dazzle and create, and to step outside of ourselves. We need to take risks. We need to be. We need to read.

We need more children’s book reviews, more people like Adi Bloom and Nicolette Jones, who champion children’s literature. We need more libraries in schools and communities, because if a £5 note doesn’t drop out of your Christmas card, a library means you can still go and choose a book. Learning to love a library means learning to be comfortable in one and being confident in using one, so that when childhood is no more, and you say goodbye to those who love you and head off to university or wherever the world is leading you, you can always find a library. You may think, ‘I’m a little lonely, and this is all a little new,’ but you will gather a stack of books and open a computer and think, ‘But I’m in a library, I recognise this. I know about reading, so a part of me is home.’

In time, reading might turn to writing: in all its different forms, from something as small as a tweet to a doctoral thesis. And it is through writing that wonderful new books will be born that will light the touchpaper of inspiration that ignites the brains of our children.

Between here and Christmas is the time of year when the most books are sold. It is dark, it is cold, it’s time to hunker down and light up the fire of imagination. So ignore the lights out rule and give a child you love a book. It is a magical gift, and a unique one, because once those words are mixed with the power of a child’s imagination…well. No other gift could possibly contain as much.

Emma Cox is the author of Malkin Moonlight, published by Bloomsbury. She is head of English at Exeter Cathedral School.

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