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October, October

October and her dad live in the woods. They sleep in the house Dad built for them and eat the food they grow in the vegetable patches. They know the trees and the rocks and the lake and stars like best friends. They read the books they buy in town again and again until the pages are soft and yellow – until next year's town visit. They live in the woods and they are wild. And that's the way it is. Until the year October turns eleven. That's the year October rescues a baby owl. It's the year Dad falls out of the biggest tree in their woods. The year the woman who calls herself October's mother comes back. The year everything changes.

Katya Balen has written a special book here. October is an 11 year old girl who lives with her father in the woods, it is an idyllic lifestyle for the wild young girl-she and her father are perfectly in tune with nature and the woods that they live in. She even finds an orphaned baby owl and rescues it. There is one dark cloud that lingers in the background however and that is October’s relationship with her mother or ‘the woman who is my mother’ as she is referred to throughout the book. October’s mother left when she was 4, she stuck out living in the wild as long as she could because she loved October’s father and they had a child together, but she didn’t seem to have the same wildness in her as October and her father and she couldn’t survive in the woods. She tried to take October with her but the wild little girl refused to go so her mother left her where she was happy, in the woods. Since that day, October had refused to speak to her mother or even read any of the many letters she sent to her in a desperate attempt to keep contact with the little girl she left behind. That is until the fateful day of October’s eleventh birthday when she turned up to see her daughter-it was on that day that October’s father had a terrible accident and she was forced to go to stay with her mother. This is the beginning of a difficult journey for October-a child who has only lived in the wild, has never been to school, never watched a television, never had a friend other than her father. Through this journey we see October grow and discover a wider world and learn more about herself and relationships and her place in the world. Alongside this journey is the story of the baby owl, who like October is a wild thing. The owl’s journey is a metaphor for October’s own and is as heart-breaking as it is wonderful.

This story engaged me from the start. It is written from the point of view of October and it is oh so well written-we see the world through the eyes of a wild eleven year old girl. Katya Balen writes like a poet, some of the sentences where so well crafted that I gasped in astonishment at the beauty of them. I won’t put any examples in this review as too see them out of context would rob them of their power but her precise command of language and her use of metaphor and imagery are astounding and remind me of the feeling I get when reading Frances Hardinge or Kiran Millwood Hargrave. I loved this story of a wild girl thrust into the confining world of modern suburban life by the cruel twist of circumstances. It reminded me of the films ‘Leave no Trace’ and ‘Captain Fantastic’ which both show families existing in the wild spaces that can still be found on the edges of the modern world.

There is a strong story about relationships and coming to terms with your place in the world in this story. October is so filled with fear and guilt and anger at various points in the story and it comes through so vividly in how Katya Balen paints the words. The love of a life in balance with nature comes through loud and clear as well and although it is an emotional ride and heart breaking seeing the torment that October puts herself through whilst coping with being out of her natural environment it is also a very heart-warming story and it is a voyage of discovery for October as she grows and learn to accept her place in the world and finds a wider world to belong to. She is obsessed with ‘the perfect story’ but by the end learns a valuable lesson about life and how there often is no perfect ending to a story but that is ok.

Katya Balen is shaping up to be one of those special writers who shouldn’t be missed. Her first book ‘The Space We’re in’ was published in 2019 and was one of the best books I read last year. She seems to have a knack of taking relatively simple stories about people and writing them in a style that makes the reader become heavily invested in the characters and their journeys. Both books had me following the story of the main protagonists with my heart in my mouth at times, I became so invested in them. October, October is a wonderful story and it speaks strongly about balance and having space for the wild and the natural. I need to also mention the wonderful illustrations by Angela Harding which accompany the story and help give a connection to the wild world, October and her owl. The book is published on 17th September 2020 and I can thoroughly recommend it. It would be perfect for upper Key Stage 2 children (8 years old plus) but I think it's also a great book for adults to enjoy.

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