Emily Gale is one of my favourite authors and I shared my review here about the fabulous historical fiction time-slip, Elsewhere Girls, co-written with Emily’s good friend and one of my other favourites, Nova Weetman. Emily’s latest novel for ages 10+ is the first book I have read that includes the Covid-19 experience, and Emily does it very well. She doesn’t make the lockdowns and events we all know all too well, the focus of the book. Instead, she gently weaves it into the background of this story about a girl called Harper, who is finding her place in the world as she transitions from primary school to high school, at the start of 2020.
Harper is filled with anticipation about being in the final year of Riverlark Primary. She wants a leadership role, the comfort of her friendship group, and to fly under the radar of Riverlark’s mean-boy.
But one by one things go wrong. When Harper’s best friends are made school captains they are consumed by their roles, while her own role — library captain — is considered second-rate. Then something major throws life off course: her parents take overseas jobs as nurses in a war zone. Harper moves in with Lolly, a grandmother she barely knows — and her five pets, vast collection of old trinkets and very different expectations.
Just as Harper is getting used to Lolly, the pandemic arrives, and her goodbye year is nothing like she’d hoped it would be. Strange things are happening: she wakes in the night in odd places, fixates on an old army badge that seems to have a mind of its own, and on a visit to the school library during lockdown she’s convinced she’s seen a ghost.
Who is haunting her?
Can she get through the anxiety of the pandemic without her mum and dad? And will Harper find a way to be happy with her goodbye year?
The Goodbye Year explores all the trickiness and confusion of the end of primary school and a new stage of life that looms with all its uncertainties and possibilities.
There is a warmth in the storytelling and in Harper’s voice, that helps to raise you away from your own struggles with the impacts of Covid-19, so this doesn’t get in the way of connecting with Harper as you go with her on a journey of self-discovery. The unfolding relationship between Harper and her grandmother is beautiful and creates a solid ground for Harper to manage her emotions in relation to her place in school, missing her parents, and dealing with all of the strange happenings around her. The menagerie of animals bring comfort to Harper.
The historical elements are cleverly brought into the story and are never forced. They gather momentum as the plot progresses, and lead Harper, and the reader, to surprising and powerful discoveries that will change Harper’s life. Young readers will enjoy learning about aspects of the past that connect with the present and this will encourage children to share their own stories about living through the pandemic. There is some gorgeous imagery and in particular, the recurrent symbol of a gently wafting yellow leaf, which acts as a guide for Harper, creates a sense of connectedness and ties the story together.
There are just enough spooky moments and unusual events and situations that Harper finds herself in, without being overly terrifying for younger readers. Book lovers will engage strongly with the celebration of libraries and the importance of these to everyone, but in particular, in schools. I connected immediately with Harper and her uncertainties about herself and her life, as she discovers her own power to make changes. The action moves along at a perfect pace, keeping you turning the pages, and as usual with an Emily Gale book, I laughed and I cried. I also felt relief; in the acknowledgement of the ways in which Covid-19 has affected our lives and how it continues to do so, but also, in the ways in which we have all continued to move forwards, to seek joy, and to be kind and hopeful.
Highly recommended, get it wrapped for Christmas!