I was immediately captivated by the unusual story world in Sophie Cameron’s contemporary middle grade novel Away With Words. While it is very much a modern day story in a modern day setting, spoken words have a physical aspect here. They fall from the speaker’s mouth in an array of colours and shapes and sizes, and the beautiful book cover does a great job of showing us what that looks like.
Describing people’s speech as sherbet-orange coloured or mahogany-brown etc, and the letters themselves as rounded or bold or sloping, deepens the characterisation of the protagonists. It’s like body language for words, and I can’t help thinking we would all understand each other a whole lot better if this happened in real life!
And understanding people through language and interpretation is a key theme in this story about using language to express yourself and your identity.
Spanish 11-yr-old Gala has moved from her sunny home town of Cadaqués to a small coastal town in Scotland where, in addition to starting a new school and settling into a new home, Gala has to do all this in a second language she isn’t yet fluent in. Again, the author helps us feel what this might be like by showing us the gaps in Gala’s understanding using wiggly lines for the English words Gala doesn’t understand.
Themes of language, communication and relationships are explored from different angles, lending multiple layers to Gala’s story. Her new friend, Natalie, has selective mutism and struggles to speak in certain situations. And central to the plot, we learn there are people who use words to hurt, and children like Gala and Natalie who use words to heal.
Coming from a bilingual family, and now with a bilingual family of my own, Gala’s story of fitting into a new culture and learning to communicate and find meaningful relationships in a second language really resonated with me. And I imagine this is something many young readers will relate to in our increasingly global world. I hope this book finds its way into their hands!