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Review: Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illustrated by Tom de Freston.

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

An illustrated tale of family, friendship and the impact of mental illness for ages 9+.

When I heard that Kiran Millwood Hargrave's next children's book would be illustrated by her husband, artist Tom de Freston, I just knew that the outcome of their collaboration would be something very special. This is a talented husband and wife team and their first project together is a beautiful book, both narratively and aesthetically. It is a story which compassionately explores important topics, such as anxiety and bipolar disorder, as well as friendship and love. De Freston's black and white illustrations vary from small, delightful details to full-page images which immerse you in Millwood Hargrave's poetic and haunting prose.

Julia is heading to the Shetlands with her parents to stay at a lighthouse where her father has been employed to programme the automated light. Her mother, a marine biologist, is going to take this opportunity to research the elusive Greenland shark, which, she believes, holds the key to living longer in its cells. As we learn from Julia, no-one quite knows how long Greenland sharks live for, but the oldest one found on record was about four hundred years old. Julia's mum believes that these slow-moving, slow-aging creatures may hold the key to slowing down human deterioration and is determined to find one.

While mum and dad are both focused on their respective projects, Julia makes friends with a boy called Kin, whose family runs the local launderette and library on the tiny island. The two of them bond over their insatiable curiosity about the world: Kin's enthusiasm for astronomy and Julia's love of the natural world draw them together and Kin confides in Julia about the local bully, Adrian. Their friendship is almost immediate, but not without its challenges. However, it is through the kindness of Kin and other characters that Julia finds comfort and support when things get tough.

As the weeks go by without any sightings of the shark, Julia senses that her mother's enthusiasm has tipped over into something more intense and begins to watch her more closely. Then the shark begins to haunt Julia's dreams, circling ever closer. These dreams are powerfully written, with the imagery of encroaching storms and disaster accompanied by Tom de Freston's monochrome, textured and layered illustrations capturing the intense anxiety Julia feels as her mum begins a downward spiral. Through Julia, Kiran Millwood Hargrave has managed to convey how acutely attuned children are to changes in a parents' emotional state and how they can often feel protective and responsible towards them. In one poignant scene, Julia's father tells her she doesn't have to worry about anything:

But he was wrong. I had to worry about everything.

The love between Julia and her parents is portrayed beautifully, through small snippets of their lives and shared jokes and intimacies. Julia's narration is a mix of fascinating facts, family anecdotes and observations about her surroundings and the people she meets, making this a very readable and enjoyable story. We are transported to the wild beauty of the Shetlands, with the landscape and the weather reflecting the shifting moods and enveloping us further into the story.

Ultimately this is a story about how love, family and friendship can help to pull us through the darkest of times. We will all encounter darkness, but there is always hope and a way back to the light. And Julia finally realises that it isn't up to her to fix her mum, which I felt was the most important lesson of all.

Julia and the Shark is published on the 2nd of September 2021. Thank you Hachette Children's Books for sending me an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

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