YA "Swan Boy" Nikki Sheehan
This is a quirky, original and uplifting story about Johnny and how he learns to overcome bullying at school.
13 year old Johnny has to look after his little brother, Mojo, while his mum is at work and they adapt to life as a single parent family following the death of their father. They live in London and when he starts his new school, Johnny is troubled by Liam and the "Populars". In an attempt to get out of the punishment of litter duty following another altercation between himself and Liam, Johnny opts to attend a dance lesson instead and is introduced to the world of ballet. In his complicated, difficult life, dance suddenly offers Johnny some space, clarity and empowerment in a way he could never have imagined.
This is an unusual story. At first it reads like many other contemporary Young Adult novels and creates an authentic situation, with a likeable character who is trying to cope with all the usual teenage issues as well as dealing with the added pressure of his grieving family. Johnny does his best, but there are times when the responsibility of looking after Mojo, helping out around the house and trying to help Mojo negotiate his way through his grief, take their toll. Then on top of this, he is bullied at school by the unpleasant Liam and his crew.
On a school outing to Regents Park there is a rather strange incident with a swan, leading everyone to call Johnny "Swan Boy". Reflecting on what happened, Johnny picks up a lone swan feather and takes it home. Mojo then loses it out of the window as they talk about flying. Johnny races out on to the street to recover it but it has disappeared. Mojo then draws it for him (something he's talented at even if it is often on the table top) so "he doesn't need to go out and look for it again." Both suddenly seem aware of the importance of this feather.
This incident with the swan and his need to keep the feather, plants a seed in Johnny's mind - he is convinced that he has some kind of understanding with the swan, that somehow it was protecting him, that they are somehow connected. This is felt more deeply when he realises the dance class are practising "Swan Lake".
The story continues with an element of magic. As his dancing skills develop, Johnny embraces the desire to fly. He immerses himself in the idea of becoming a swan. He imagines his neck lengthening, wings from his back, the sensation of pushing off into the sky. He practises leaping and leaping and leaping. He discovers tiny tufts of downy feathers appearing on his chest........
Although not really comparable, I was reminded a little of Natalie Portman's portrayal of the obsessive dancer in "Black Swan" (rated 15) but this is obviously much more heartwarming and gentle - much more similar to "Billy Elliot". Indeed Mrs Cray could be played by Julie Walters. This novel reminded me of David Almond's "Skellig", maybe a slight nod to Roald Dahl (maybe also slight similarities with Matilda's ability to make things happen with her mind), with elements of Melvin Burgess - but without the need for any rating or warning - it's not controversial in the way some of Burgess' books are sometimes perceived to be. It is also similar to stories by writers like Sarah Crossan and Sally Nichols or authors that scatter their images with ethereal references and the blurring between reality and dream.
This book is about self empowerment, self esteem, learning to overcome situations and learning to fly. It is well written and fluent. The main character is very likeable and his relationship with his brother is very affecting. The family dynamics are very touching and very credible. Young adults will relate to the frustration Johnny sometimes feel as he yearns for some freedom and flexibility instead of watching Mojo every evening. It deals with grief and death with sympathy and sensitivity; it's hard not to shed a slight tear when Johnny takes Mojo to "visit" their father - truly a kind of "coming of age" moment for both boys.
Sheehan clearly understands her audience and clearly understands how to write for Young Adults. Her dialogue is authentic and at times very poignant. It is a very good read. The reader does need to suspend belief a little at times but it still feels a very natural narrative and although not entirely believable, it does not feel overly far fetched. The symbolism and imagery is pertinent and reinforces the ideas Sheehan is exploring. The ending is so effective -very moving and resonant.
A great book about bullying, families, friendship and dance!
My thanks to Nikki Sheehan and One World Publications for the free copy in return for a fair review. I was delighted to get a chance to read this book and am intrigued by what other tales Sheehan might choose to tell!
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