Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari – 5 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Netgalley
Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books
Released: 25th September 2014
Buy it from: Hive
In a nutshell: Red Leaves is…
A gently provocative story that examines the complicated relationships between self, family, culture and the wider world.
Red Leaves follows the stories of Aisha, a 13 year old Somali refugee in foster care; Zak, whose mother continues to work overseas as a war correspondent as his parents divorce; and Iona, a tough homeless girl who fends for herself on the streets with only a pet dog for company. Their paths intersect in a small corner of North London and it isn’t long before these disparate characters, with apparently little in common, find their lives interwoven in ways they never expected
Leaves flying everywhere, red leaves full of passion and anger and sadness. Time to light the fires. The year’s turning and the wood’s stirring. Hush now.
At the centre of the story is Elder, an old homeless woman who lives in the woods. But is that all she is? And can Aisha, Zak and Iona unravel her secrets before time runs out?
If I was a Year 6 or Year 7 teacher, I’d order a copy of this book for my classroom or school library right now. Why? Because it’s ambitious in its scope, but gets away with it spectacularly.
On the surface, the story involves a small gang of kids having an adventure and solving a mystery with a bit of magic thrown in. But look deeper and you’ll find issues like divorce, working parents, homelessness, domestic abuse, looked-after children, refugees, mental illness, multiculturalism and wars past and present packed into its pages. And Sita Brahmachari does it in a way that seems entirely natural and not in the least didactic.
Of the three lead characters, I like Aisha best. Her thoughtful, introspective personality seemed to fit her so well. Iona was a livewire all the way through. But I felt Zak was probably the least likeable of the three protagonists. He felt a little bit underdeveloped, like he was more of a foil to the two girls than a character in his own right. I found some of the reasoning behind his actions quite strange. In comparison to Aisha and Iona, who’ve fought to survive against the odds, he comes across as a bit spoilt and self pitying, this boy that has everything money can buy.
But I think this is intentional. Zak’s function in the story is to force the reader to ask that same question of themselves next time they feel cheated by a situation; is it really that bad, put into perspective? The message to think carefully before you act is a good one.
And I can’t write this review without mentioning Mr and Mrs Kalsi. These husband and wife shopkeepers are at once endearing and hilarious! They strike just the right balance of humour in what’s otherwise quite a serious story. I’d love them to get their own spin-off story one day; about how they got together and set up the shop, and all the funny customers they’ve had over the years.
Older child/middle grade readers who are ready to tackle more challenging and complex storylines but don’t want anything too dark and frightening.