A review of Where in the World by Simon French

This is an engrossing and sensitive story. The subtlety of the narrative structure is one which French handles in a way that makes it clear and easy for young readers to handle, while still complex enough to keep the interest.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Where in the World
HarperCollins: Little Hare Books
May 2002, rrp A$14.95, 191p pbk, ISBN: 1-877003-03-4
It’s a difficult balance. Books for young adults have to be as well written and engaging as books for adults, but they also need to be appropriate in subject matter – edifying, as well as moving at a fairly rapid pace for the youthful attention span. Simon French’s Where in the World manages the balance perfectly. His novel is as intriguing as the latest Harry Potter, without relying on magic or cliché to convey meaning. His characters are believable, and experience the kind of pain which will be familiar to any teenager, while the theme is timeless and the writing is lovely and well informed. Ari is a young fatherless violinist. His young dredlocked musician mother takes him travelling with her where, after discovering the joy, and lucrative nature of busking, they meet a man named Jamie, fall in love, and eventually emmigrate to Australia. Together Jamie and Ari’s mum open a café with music, and the three begin to develop a new life together.
The main focus of the novel is Ari’s emotional journey as he begins to come to terms with who he is, and develop a sense of his life, his past, and his future. Ari is the novel’s narrator, and we travel with him, in a series of flashbacks as he remembers his travels, or e-mails composed to his grandfather/Opa back in Germany. The story builds tension, understanding and suspense delicately as the reader learns about Ari’s history, his desires, and get a glimpse of who he is to become.

This is an engrossing and sensitive story. The subtlety of the narrative structure is one which French handles in a way that makes it clear and easy for young readers to handle, while still complex enough to keep the interest. We meet with Ari at various pivotal points in his life, ages 6, ages 8, age 11, and join in with him as he discovers the joy of self-expression:

All of this I’d thought about – in my classroom at school, in the afternoon shade of the café garden or the night-still of my bedroom It had all become the black dots, circles and lines on my music score paper. I remembered everything.
And I brought the violin bow slowly to a stop, let the final high E note dangle in the space somewhere in front of me. It was a moment long enough for me to know that I hadn’t closed my eyes and smiled to play, the way I had wanted That I’d watched every mvement of my fingers and the bow, that my foot had tapped all the way along like a metronome.
It was only tiny, that moment of silence. (189)

The book is simple, and the vocabulary not too difficult for good readers from age 7 or 8 to roughly 14 or so, but despite the book’s simplicity, it covers a lot of ground and handles the very complex feelings of Ari well. There is death, love, pain, immigration, fitting in, music, art, self-expression, and the importance of family. There is also, of course, the main theme, which is Ari’s coming of age and his acceptance of his own unique talents. This is a book which I would recommend unreservedly to any youngster, and it is also a fast, pleasurable and moving read for adults. Where in the World has been short and long listed for a number of prizes, including the 2002 CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers, 2003, and the annual Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. It also won the Patricia Wrightson Award for children’s literature at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Simon French is no stranger to Speaking as both a reader and parent, the book deserves the accolades it is receiving. French’s ability to write books which speak to children on a very deep level is part of why his books have won so many awards in his lengthy writing career (which began with publication of his first book,Hey Phantom Singlet, while he was at High School. Where in the World is the kind of book that you can happily hand to your child knowing that you are going to simultaneously entertain, educate, and provide a deeply pleasurable and meaningful experience. Parents who like to pre-read their children’s books will also enjoy it.

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