My Name is River - Emma Rea
Oh, I do love a book about the Amazon...Katherine Rundell's 'The Explorer' being one of my favourite class texts to use in Y6 each year! It comes out of the cupboard in one of those giant plastic storage boxes, filled to the brim with a stash of other, linked texts, ranging from Victorian tales of adventure with Col. Percy Fawcett ('The Quest for Z' by Gregg Pizzoli), to Maya myths ('Rain Player' by David Wisniewski) and real-life survivor stories ('Survivors' by David Long). And now I have another book to add to the collection! And this one rightly deserves its place...
Told through the eyes of Dylan, a Year 7 pupil in Wales whose farm has just been bought by a huge multinational pharmaceutical company, this is a tale of bravery, underdogs and the environment, with an action-packed and adventurous plot chock-full of colourful characters.
What I really liked about this story was that, to me, it sort of turned the traditional 'save the Amazon' theme of many similar novels on its head. Dylan's main aim is that he actually wants to save his family's farm in Wales, and the frequent memories recalled as he pursues his quest relating to history, friends, family and cherished places he has played with his dad and brother are a nice twist that gives this novel a really original spin on things. His travels to the Amazon to try to meet the person responsible and persuade him not to buy the farm then connect him to the environmental (and other) issues there and thus the two stories intertwine.
The plot races along, and although there are several places where you may need to suspend your disbelief at the achievements and endeavours of the children, pupils will love the action and drama of evil baddies, chases, threats and danger from animal and human alike.
I've already mentioned the colourful cast, but for me, they're one of the standout features of Emma Rea's tale. From Dylan's scheming and anti-establishment grandfather (reminiscent for me of the grandad in Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang!) to the evil, Cruella DeVille-esque Miss Crassy, the characters will delight readers with their antics. The main character, Dylan, offers lots of opportunity for discussion - his self-belief, his reasons for doing what he does, and his self-discovery as the story develops all add to the journey the reader makes themselves as we progress through this text. My absolute favourite character, however, is Lucia...
A thesaurus-loving street-child from a gang of thieves in the slums of the city, she is one of my favourite character creations of recent times. Cleverly introducing other themes of child poverty, maltreatment and life in the slums in Brazil, she is a feisty, brave and ultimately selfless female foil for Dylan, and their relationship and discussions about language are the highlight of the book for me, with examples of her language-orientated lectures to Dylan such as these:
'Not stupid phrasebook. Excellent clever dictionary and thesaurus. I have best words.....Best, best words. I speak English superior to you.'
'High register words are strong, important words powerful people use. Gelid. Your words are low register. Parky. I have much interest in both. I recommend wide interest.'
I can't wait to use her as a role-model for vocabulary with my class! The language-links in the book are a continuing theme, as the etymology of Dylan's name is revealed towards the end...
Another theme appearing throughout the book, and what I thought was a really nice and original way of portraying characters, was with Dylan's descriptions of what their blood was like...
The CEO of the global company: 'something with the powerful natural sweetness of pineapple juice flowed in Mustafa Shadid's veins. He was a good man.' Lucia has 'rich molasses in her veins', whilst the evil Miss Crassy has 'That innocent, watery-looking purple liquid that dad used to clean paint off paintbrushes. So poisonous, dad had said, that it destroys everything it touches.' A great feature and image-inducing metaphor, and great discussion and writing opportunities could come from them...what flows in your veins??
I really enjoyed this book - the strong characters and exciting plot had me gripped to read to the end and see what would come of Dylan's mission, and I'm sure readers Ks2 will feel similarly.
As I said right at the start, I DO love the Amazon, so I'll leave you with one of the wonderful descriptions that also fill the novel, adding to the sense of wonder that develops within us as it does the characters on their journey upon the mighty river...
'...beyond the path was the river itself, the broad, bronze-brown, breathless Amazon river, a massive magical murmuring body of water, a river so wide and so slow you could spend the rest of your life looking at it and still not have enough time. Smells of life and death, of fresh greenery, of rotting brownery, of the upwardness of birds and the secrecy of fish, of possibility and excitement invaded Dylan's senses.'
My Name Is River was written by Emma Rea (@emmarea8 on Twitter), and published by the wonderful Firefly Press (@fireflypress)
Review by Rich Simpson (@richreadalot) August 2020