Book Review: Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave with illustrations by Tom de Freston
There are more secrets in the ocean than in the sky…
Ten-year-old Julia loves the mysteries of the ocean and marine biology, just like her scientist mother. Her family is spending the summer on a remote island where her mom is searching for the elusive Greenland shark, a creature that might be older than the trees, and so rare that it’s only been seen a few times.
But the ocean is reluctant to give up its secrets, and Julia tries not to worry as her mother returns disappointed at the end of each day.
Determined to prove that the shark is real, Julia sets off on a quest to find it herself, armed with a set of coordinates, a compass, and her trusty rain jacket.
She soon realizes that there are some journeys you shouldn’t go on alone. As Julia comes face to face with the dark and wondrous truths of the sea, she finds the strength to leave the shark in the depths and kick up towards the light.
Through a unique blend of poetic prose and stunning illustrations, Julia and the Shark tells an unforgettable story full of dark depths and starry skies, courage and hope.
This lyrical, deeply moving middle grade novel about one family’s fierce love and resilience is perfect for starting conversations about mental health and how it’s okay to not be okay.
I want to climb inside this book and hug Julia. And hug her mom. And her dad. And while I’m at it, I’ll just go ahead and hug this book, maybe tuck it inside my sweatshirt to keep it safe, keep it close. I usually read whenever I have a chance—for ten minutes at work while the students are reading, while waiting at an appointment, while I’m keeping an eye on dinner stuff. I tried to do that here, read it in little pieces, but had to just wait until I could sit down and devour it. It’s not a book to pick up and set back down—it’s a book to plow straight through, holding your breath at the beauty and raw emotion of it all.
Can you tell I loved this book?
I am always here for books that address mental illness. I also always love books that play with form and format. I feel like those books can reach readers who may otherwise turn away from traditional narrative with its unending blocks of text. And here we have both. Julia and her parents are staying in the Shetland Islands for a few months. Her marine biologist mother is desperately hoping to track down a certain shark to study it and apply what she can learn to helping humans. Her mother is not just excited about this project, she’s consumed by it. She has one goal and is fixated on how to achieve it. Julia starts to feel uneasy about her mother’s manic behavior, but also, this is just how her mom sometimes gets. She’s passionate about her work and on a limited schedule, so of course she’s going to devote all her time to this. Her dad keeps reassuring her that it’s okay, even as they watch her mom impulsively buy a boat and become more and more obsessed with finding this shark. Then, one night, Julia is woken up by her father. He tells her she needs to go stay with a friend for the night, that her mom is somewhere safe, but he needs to go be with her. Julia is scared, confused, and in the dark about what’s happening. When she finds out a bit of the truth, she decides the only way to make her mother better, to save her, is to set out on her own to find this shark.
My heart breaks for Julia. She’s learning some hard truths right now—about her mother’s mental health (and the family history of mental illness), about how fragile people can be, about the fact that it’s not her job to try to fix her mother, that the “fix” that she needs is bigger than a child can provide, and that indeed people can’t actually fix or save other people.
This book, the literal object, is beautiful. The illustrations show the expanse of the sea and the sky, the overwhelming size of the shark, the many emotions Julia feels as she spends this summer metaphorically and eventually literally adrift. The book, the words of it, is beautiful. This stunning and empathetic look at mental illness is not be missed. Perfect from start to finish.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Union Square Kids
Publication date: 03/28/2023
Age Range: 10 – 18 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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