Silverwing by Kenneth Steven
A short and beautifully illustrated novel for children that explores grief with gentleness and emotional sincerity
By Kenneth Steven, illustrated by Ishy Walters
Neem Tree Press
Reviewed by Terry Young
A delicate melancholy dances over this short novel for children. It starts one grey autumn, the favourite season of our young hero, Douglas Johnson, who rather likes the subdued shades of the landscape before winter sets in, especially the hints of silver that that haunt the season.
A year earlier, Douglas’ mother had died of cancer and the narrative is overshadowed by grief as he and his father, John, battle with their loss. At one level, this is a tough subject for a children’s book, but the author’s gentleness and emotional sincerity deliver the story from being either schmaltzy or unbearable.
A wounded goose comes onto this scene when it is rescued by Douglas and it catalyses a series of events around which the plot slowly turns: conversations between Douglas and John, difficult days at school, and a quest to find out more about his mother. A Christmas spent in an old cottage, complete with candlelit meals, a mystery key and a chest full of documents are nicely stirred into the plot and although there are no trite answers, there is a satisfying conclusion.
Any review would be incomplete without mention of the delightful illustrations: acorns, a dove, an eagle, geese, an otter, a snail and a squirrel creep onto the page, forcing the words to spill around them, and reminding us that this is also a story about the joys of watching creatures and their environments. As well as fulfilling the usual need for images – Christmas cake, a garden shed – that support the narrative, these monochrome drawings add a tender sense of the beauty of nature. At the end, there are illustrated pages with lots of blank space for the reader to add or draw their own notes.
I try to average a couple of books a week but because I’m not a super-fast reader, I have to stir shorter books into the mix: a play here, a slim volume of poetry there. So, when the editor offered a reading list, I made sure I included a children’s book in my review requests – and then I realised it was decades since I would have read anything like this in wide-eyed wonderment. My grandchildren are a little too young, so I haven’t been able to try it out on them. However, and depending on your bedtime routine, this should provide a few nights’ reading, while it is also short enough for a curious reader to soldier through on their own – perhaps with help from a patient parent. And as a present at Christmas, this nostalgic little number might stretch the season out a tad longer for one or two little people.
Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia