Tuesday, November 16, 2021

How to Be Brave, a modern school story by Daisy May Johnson

Title: How to Be Brave
Author: Daisy May Johnson
Publication: Henry Holt & Co., hardcover, 2021
Genre: Middle-grade fiction
Setting: 21st century England
Description: Elizabeth North survived the loss of her parents with the help of the Good Sisters at her boarding school and an obsessive interest in ducks. As an adult, this expertise barely pays the bills for herself and daughter Calla so when she is offered a research trip to the Amazon, she is thrilled and cannot turn it down. Calla heads off to her mother’s boarding school determined to make the best of it, but when she discovers her mother is missing and her new headmistress is involved, she needs help. Luckily, her new roommates Hanna and Edie are ready to help Calla take on authority and assist with a dramatic and difficult rescue of Elizabeth.

My Impression: This is a modern day boarding school story with an element of Eva Ibbotson. It’s a sort of homage to the books Johnson and I loved as children (and adults). Calla is the type of heroine who will appeal to young readers, and her friends Edie (the most interesting character) and Hanna also have a lot of personality:
“Nobody comes to boarding school without having read school stories. You have to have read some of them at least. Enid Blyton? The Chalet School? Or Angela Brazil? What about Robin Stevens? Kate Saunders?”

Calla shook her head.

“Okay,” Hanna said desperately, “do you believe in Morally Improving books? Is that the sort of thing you like to read? I have to know what you think about books. You might be like her.”

“Like who?” said Calla. “There’s a lot of people that could mean.”

Edie stood up and walked to the door. She opened it, peered down the stairs, and then closed it. “Coast is clear. Go ahead. Tell her everything she needs to know. And while you do, brush your hair so we’re not late for dinner.”
The School of the Good Sisters provided a wonderful home for Elizabeth when she lost her parents, with teachers who nurtured her individuality and helped her develop academic interests but (unbeknownst to Elizabeth) it has fallen on hard times by the time Calla arrives.  I certainly don't object to an evil headmistress (far 
from it) but I found the concept of the Good Sisters and their school a bit pointless and felt the author could have achieved the same results with traditional mistresses/teachers and it would have been less distracting (I mean, are they nuns? members of a cult? what purpose do they serve?). Overall, the book is appealing in an arch way, with many footnotes and all-knowing (perhaps intrusive) comments from the narrator. I applaud Pushkin Press in the UK and Henry Holt in the US for publishing a boarding school story and I hope it does well.

Source: Library.  This would be a great gift for the ten-year-old in your life.

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