A unique narrative voice and cracking plot with powerful (yet age appropriate) messages, this book will make you laugh and cry.
Nine year old Cymbeline Igloo is the third-best footballer (joint) in Year 4 and the second-best at roller-skating but he can’t swim. He assumes he’d probably he alright at swimming but he doesn’t know for sure because he’s NEVER been swimming. Not ever. Not even once. When he discovers his class at school are due to start swimming lessons, Cymbeline tries hard to persuade his mum to take him to the local pool. When that fails, he Googles ‘front crawl’ and practices in the bath. Surely that should be enough? But it’s not. Cymbeline’s first lesson ends in total humiliation. At the time he’s convinced it’s the worst thing that could EVER happen to him. Then his accident at the pool causes his mum to start acting strangely. Soon she has to go away and Cymbeline finds himself alone, confused and desperate to find out why his mum reacted so badly and why she never took him swimming. Only then, maybe, can he get his mum back and get on with his life.
This is a story that grips you from the first line. Cymbeline Igloo addresses the reader, directly challenging the fact that they might not believe he’s never been swimming. (He knows the reader may not believe his name either but insists we have to accept that because it’s written on his school bag and in his jumpers and on lots of other things, like his passport.) It’s a wonderful and totally believable first person voice and the direct address to the reader works brilliantly (no mean feat in itself). Indeed, one of the book’s main strengths is the way all events are consistently seen from a nine-year old’s perspective. This makes the story particularly poignant while simultaneously creating numerous opportunities for humour. (I couldn’t help chuckling at Cymbeline’s observations of his Aunt’s love of ‘lemonade’, especially in stressful situations.)
There are lots of laugh out loud moments but the reader probably needs to be older than Cymbeline’s nine years to fully appreciate them. Indeed, while the age of the main character normally suggests it’s written for that age and younger, Boy Underwater is definitely aimed at upper middle grade readers (through, I would suggest, to adults.)
This is partly because the book introduces a range of complex issues from friendship to grief and mental health. It also invites the reader to question whether grown-ups are right to seek to protect children by painting a more pleasant picture of the world instead of giving them the tools to cope with reality.
While the book has powerful (yet age appropriate) messages and a unique narrative voice, it is much MUCH more than a character driven ‘issue’ book. There’s also a cracking plot as Cymbeline seeks to solve the mystery behind his mum’s illness. (If you can spare the time, I suspect many readers will want to devour the book in a single sitting). Altogether this is a clear 5 star story but, when I discovered the truly wonderful and unexpected twist at the end, I decided 5 stars is simply not enough. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean!
If you enjoyed this, you should definitely read the fabulous Wonder by R J Palacio. Or why not try Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster?
Publication date: June 2018
Publisher: Harper Collins Children’s Books