How to be Brave
by Daisy May Johnson.
Pushkin Children’s Books 2021.
Good Sister Christine nodded. “People who tell you what not to read are generally not good people,” she said.‘The Secrets of Good Sister Christine’
When a book begins ‘This is a story about three things’ and lists them as being brave, an Amazonian duck, and footnotes, you know this is no common or garden novel. Yes, if you’re a fan of Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and have expectations that How to be Brave will be in the mould of classic girls boarding school fiction, you won’t be disappointed — but it’s so much more than that.
It’s a satisfying tale of how adversity of all kinds is overcome, but in place of the magic associated with fantasy we have a kind of heightened reality — because The School of the Good Sisters at Little Hampden has no ordinary curriculum and no ordinary teaching staff: here the subjects on the timetable include not just cooking but also welding, survival skills, helicopter maintenance and sundry surprising topics, and the teachers here happen to be what’s called a Blessing of Nuns.
In addition the school has two extra advantages in its favour: it has a library stocked with the most appropriate literature — books by Eva Ibbotson, Noël Streatfeild and Elizabeth Goudge for example, even The Lord of the Rings — and shelves, cupboards and drawers storing cakes of every kind, exquisite pâtisseries and biscuits including pink wafers. And of course architecturally it has all the best bits of Malory Towers, Hogwarts, and The Turrets.
How to be Brave is principally the story of orphan Elizabeth North and, a few years later, her daughter Calla who is half an orphan. Elizabeth is scatterbrained but develops one area of expertise, a very special little brown bird with the unlikely name of Mallardus Amazonica. (Latin purists will know how unlikely.) At boarding school she makes one lifelong friend, Chrissie Poplin, and one lifelong enemy, Magda DeWitt. In time her fatherless daughter Calla also finds herself there when Elizabeth, now an expert anatidologist, is offered a job to study the Amazonian duck in the wild. But who is the new headteacher who has replaced the approachable nun who had taken Calla’s mother under her wing, and how come the newcomer is such a bad apple?
The scene is thus set for an almighty showdown which the author orchestrates so well; to say much more would be unforgivable but suffice to say expectations will largely be met, and a bit more besides. How to be Brave is such a satisfying read, switching from heartfelt emotions to humour and from jeopardy to relief with a lightness of touch that’s both sensitive and witty. There’s a big focus on the friendship that’s always a crucial ingredient in this genre, and here it takes the form of Hannah Kowalczyk and Edie Berger, plus the particular persons of Good Sisters June and Christine.
If the story is satisfying on even the most superficial of levels it receives added richness from the distinctive voice and interests of the author. As a blogger and book reviewer she reveals a not uncritical enthusiasm for the titles she discusses, and as an academic she is well versed in how her chosen genre ticks. So not only do we have a preponderance of funny but informative footnotes but also a wealth of literary references, mostly pointers to classic genre titles and authors, all designed to encourage the new reader to read beyond more recent boarding school stories (such as the Harry Potter books) to the originals that inspired them.
And here is the message (if message there is) that I think Daisy May Johnson has embedded in this novel. This genre may be regarded by some as mere escapist literature, castigated or even banned by self-appointed guardians of childhood morality as inappropriate, but — as Good Sister Christine says — if such people are telling you what not to read they may not be as nice as they think they are.
Which is a roundabout way of saying this is an absolute joy to read, and that you should read it!
No 23 in my 15 Books of Summer