Close Up on Family: After Iris Review

after iris

One of my favourite aspects of British middle grade fiction is the tendency to feature large, kooky families. The Queen of Kooky Families being Hilary McKay, with her wonderful Casson family being the gold standard of fabulous fictional families. The Gadsby’s reminded me of a more scholarly, ever so slightly more subtle Casson family. Flora is a perfectly moody but infectious teenager, Jasmine and Twig are adorable without being twee, and then there is lovely, lovely Blue, the narrator of this wonderful book.

Blue’s twin sister Iris died three years ago, something that each of the Gadsby family members have processed quite differently. Mr. and Mrs. Gadsby grow increasingly busy with work and therefore absent from the family, enlisting Zoran, a PhD student of Mr. Gadsby’s, to step in as au pair. Zoran is unprepared for the drama of the Gadsby house (including rat breeding, a trouble-making boy next door, and Blue’s constant filming), but he turns out to be exactly what this fractured, grieving but fiercely alive family needs.

Blue is a typical middle grade protagonist in many ways: smart, observant, suffering from her first crush, and very relatable. But she is also an aspiring filmmaker, and many of the scenes are written as screenplays of actual events. In another author’s hands this could be fatally gimmicky, but Natasha Farrant cleverly uses the screenplays as a way for Blue to disengage with more emotional subject matter and also to provide interesting subtext for the book. I could write a whole post on how effectively this works, but instead you should read it for yourself and see what I mean.

It is tricky to pick a favourite among such a vivid group of characters, but Zoran, the Bosnian piano-prodigy turned au pair takes the cake.  I love that the primary care-giver in this case is male and that not only is he good at his job, but he loves it. We need more male babysitters in children’s fiction. In a perfect fictional world he would end up with Rosalind Penderwick, gentle and caring eldest sister in The Penderwicks books, and the two of them would solve world hunger.

Now THAT is fan fiction I would read.

Fans of contemporary middle grade with a classic feel, such as Walk Two Moons, Olive’s OceanThe Penderwicks, Hilary McKay’s Casson Family books and Wendy Mass’ books will love Blue and her unruly family.

After Iris will be available in hard cover from Penguin Canada in July.

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