October, October by Katya Balen

Illustrated by Angela Harding.

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2020.

October, October has fast become one of my favourite books of all time. It’s so raw and powerful and incredibly moving. It deals with grief and guilt, friendship, love and family. It’s also one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read! Katya Balen’s descriptions of the natural world are wonderfully lyrical.

October is the best month when you live in the woods […] It’s when the trees are starting to shake leaves on to a patchwork floor and the ground is bright as fire. The air is crisp with a whisper of frost and the sky smells like smoke. (page 17)

October, October is the story of a father and his 11-year-old daughter, October. They live wild lives alone in a wood, cut off from the modern world and connected instead to nature. They share a closely knit and precious bond. However, tragedy strikes when October’s dad falls out of the biggest tree in their wood. He is rushed to hospital and father and daughter are separated. October is uprooted from their home and moved to grey and noisy London to live with the woman who is her mother. October has not seen her mom since she left seven years ago. Her mother has visited and written letters but October has refused contact.

For me, this relationship between October and the woman she can’t bring herself to call mom is the most powerful one in the book. The raw hatred and pure rage that October directs towards her mother is brutal in its honesty. Yet her mother endures these angry outbursts with incredible patience and understanding. Her pain at being so disconnected from her only child is tangible and heartbreaking. As their story progresses, we witness the slow thawing of October’s heart and a wonderful reconciliation.

Another key relationship in the book is the one between October and the orphaned baby owl which she hand rears and names Stig. When October moves to London, Stig is taken from her and placed in an owl sanctuary. There’s a moving exploration of the pull of the wild versus the bond that’s formed between girl and animal.

I also enjoyed the scenes between October and Yusuf, a boy in her class. Their developing friendship is life-affirming and the descriptions of the two of them mudlarking on the shores of the Thames were a joy.

October herself is a wonderful character, quite unlike anyone I’ve met in a book before. Her narrative voice is fresh and honest and her words and thoughts tumble out onto the page. She has her own distinct and very endearing way of looking at the world. The world she understands and thrives in is the bubble that she lives in with her dad: the woods with its flora and fauna. The noises, smells and bright lights of the wider world are strange and unfamiliar to her. She is out of place in a town or city and out of step with her peers when she starts school.

Books and stories are important to October. In their home in the woods October and her dad have so many books that October’s dad builds new bookshelves every year from the trees around them. In one of my favourite descriptions, we are told how these bookshelves run across all the walls and stretch from the ceiling to the floor. October also creates her own stories. The vividly imagined stories which she invents are integral to her character. Her stories are inspired by the objects and treasures that she finds or the clouds she sees in the sky. Bones become those of a dragon, smooth blue-green pieces of glass turn into magic stones and I love how each special object she finds “rattle[s] with stories”.

Last but not least, I absolutely love the wraparound cover art; I don’t think there’s a more perfect book cover. It’s a lino print by Angela Harding in rich autumnal colours that depicts October in her woods with a distant London skyline. It’s framed by the outstretched wingspan of Stig. Interspersed throughout the book there are also more lovely black and white lino print illustrations of Stig. Just beautiful.

October, October is wonderfully fresh and original. The scenes in the wild had a calming, centring affect on me as I read, and made me more aware and in awe of my own natural surroundings. It’s a book which encourages you to stop, breathe and take note and also one which reminds us of the importance of connection, both to people and our world.

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 8+

Thank you to Bloomsbury Children’s Books for sending me this book to review.

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