In what feels like a new golden age for kids’ literature, the scope and ambition on display is often dazzling, none more so than in The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell, a truly exceptional read. Set in Papua New Guinea, it tells the story of a young orphan named Blue Wing. Privy to the magical secrets of the ocean, Blue Wing is intent on learning to call the sharks to her side, and in particular, Xok, the notorious shark that haunts her days. Vengeance is her goal and we accompany Blue Wing on her dramatic journey to wish fulfilment.
Blue Wing lives under the care of Siringen, a village elder and the last of the traditional shark callers. Known as the ‘son of the maker of paddles and the calmer of seas,’ Siringen embodies the old ways, in a community that is striving to modernise. As Western commercialism creeps into the village, Blue Wing believes that it is ‘digging a piece of the island’s heart away,’ and when they are asked to host a visiting American professor and his daughter, Maple, her hostility is palpable.
Blue Wing however, has more in common with her visitors than she imagines. All three are burdened with grief and the desire to redeem themselves. For all three, salvation is to be found in this beautiful Papuan world of oceanic magic and sharks.
The Shark Caller is a wonderful achievement, a unique and imaginative children’s adventure that somehow manages to encompass all of life’s big stuff. A portrait of bereavement and its grim sidekicks, guilt and grief, it’s also about the nature and passage of time and memory, and the wisdom of letting go. Keep tissues at hand.
A mention too for the gorgeous book cover by Saara Katariina Söderlund.
Stunning all round.
The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell is published by Usborne, 400 pages.