Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham

May 9, 2010

sharkgirlPublished by Candlewick Press; ISBN 978 0 7636 4627 1

Who is it for? Teenagers (12 years and up)

What’s it about? Jane Arrowood is fifteen years old when she loses her arm to a shark attack. The incident receives nationwide media attention thanks to video of the attack shot by a by-stander. The public is swept up in the dramatic events and, while recovering in hospital, Jane begins to receive (unwanted) mail from strangers offering their sympathy, support and prayers. Overhwhelmed and grieving the loss of her arm, a promising artistic talent and her previous life, Jane eventually returns home and begins school again, continuing the journey towards recovery; frustratingly, she has to relearn even simple tasks such as doing up shoe laces and buttering toast. Even more, with her dreams of artistic success seemingly shattered, she must search deep inside herself to discover who “Shark Girl” really is.

Is it any good? This is a novel that deals in the psychology of loss and, in one sense, there is not a lot of ‘action’. However, the novels moves briskly, helped in part by the choice of Bingham to write in prose poetry. I’m not a big fan of the genre, but it works very effectively here, focussing as the story does on the innerworld of Jane. Moreover, Jane’s first person reflections are interpolated with news articles and letters from concerned strangers, giving the reader public and private perspectives on Jane’s brush with death. In fact, one of the strengths of the novel is to encourage the reader  to see the way that intense public interest in private tragedies can affect victims – for better and worse. Finally, while the novel moves towards a hopeful ending, it is, all the same, an uncertain future that Jane faces when the story finishes; Bingham avoids a happy-ever-after ending and opts, instead, for nuance and an air of authenticity. This was, apparently, an Oprah’s Book Club Kids Reading List Selection – and who would argue with Oprah?

How could it be used? This is an easy to read, but well-written novel likely to appeal to many teens. The horrible events of the shark attack are never described explicitly, but that starting point is a great hook. As well as being used as a text that explores grief of a particular kind, the novel can also be used to demonstrate the use of prose poetry for narrative and the use of multiple genres to provide different perspectives. Overall, this is a good book with positive, realistic messages  – recommended.

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