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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Child's-eye view of London life after Ghana

This is a wonderful read, offering Harri's 11-year-old perspective on the world he's moved into. The strongest feature here is the voice: Harri's version of Multi-Ethnic Youth Dialect combined with his natural innocence provides us with an endearing, optimistic take on what is often grim reality. There are many features of Harri's narrative which flavour the story. My favourites include 'hutious', 'asweh' and 'advise yourself', alongside more familiar features of kids' language like the prolific use of 'even'.

But I'm pretty sure that this is a great read even if you don't happen to teach English Language :).

Harri is sweet and charming. He knows that the gang on the estate could be a force for good, if someone just explained to them about how to help others. And some of the uglier facts in his life are clear to us, but seemingly less so to him. Stephen Kelman's use of the naive child narrator is executed with precision and charm, providing an upbeat, often funny, and enjoyable read even as deeply unsavoury truths about life in the UK are explored. Harri's guardian pigeon is also a nice touch, showing Harri's natural sympathy for other creatures, and providing an occasional broader view of events (although this was a bit strange a first, the brief pigeon's-eye sections are illuminating in their own way).

The plot revolves around 'the dead boy', whose identity we never fully know. He was stabbed ('chooked') shortly before the novel opens, and the football boots on the cover are part of the community's display of grief for him. Harri and a friend decide to turn detective and investigate the murder. After all, Harri's friend watches all the CSI programmes, so they're clearly experts. Their enthusiasm for this task is another sweet touch, as well as an effective mechanism to have the boys run around the neighbourhood, blissfully unaware of the chaos in their wake.

As well as Harri, the book is peopled with fabulous supporting characters: Harri's sister Lydia, other kids - both bad and good, but all seen as potentially good by Harri, and various adults just trying to survive.

Overall, I can see why this was nominated for the Booker, and why it's now being promoted to a YA audience. I'd love to see lots of teens reading it, as it raises so many questions. I'll certainly be recommending it to many of my students.

From the Back Cover:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a London housing estate. The (second) best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers - the Adidas stripes drawn on in marker pen - unaware of the danger growing around him.

But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly breaks the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe.

Harri will come face to face with the very real dangers surrounding him. A powerful, unforgettable tale, importantly relevant for young adult readers of today.

Includes a Q&A with the author, Stephen Kelman, and a piece about what inspired him to write Pigeon English.

This edition published in Oct 2012 by Bloomsbury Childrens
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy
For more information (including an extract to sample), visit the Bloomsbury website

1 comment:

  1. I've advised myself and I agree with your review so much. Asweh, I will also be recommending this to teen readers.This novel will be a firm favourtie with me for a long, long time.


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