Review: The Bravest Word
Have you ever left a book on the shelf for months and months, eager to read it but not quite in the right mood to do so? Other titles assume a kind of procrastinate preference over your erstwhile looked-forward-to folio until suddenly, it beckons, loud and unrelenting. Read me, read me now!
I love the synchronicity of reading the right book at the right time. This is how I experienced, Kate Foster’s latest novel, The Bravest Word, at time when life needed a little more explaining and the soul a little extra massaging. Without getting over personal or dwelling on the genesis of this story or Foster’s motivation for writing this book, The Bravest Word, is honest and raw and incredibly uncomplicated in its complexity.
Matt is an only child with the world at his eleven-year-old feet. He is on the cusp of football legendary-stardom and the start of secondary school. He has loving parents and buddies who always have his back yet for reasons unknown to him, mystifying and confusing, he is ‘losing it’ big time. His grasp on normality melts more and more with each passing day. He is distracted and unable to concentrate, feels useless and unworthy of affection or attention and experiences sickening panic attacks at the mere thought of playing his favourite sport. He’s crying rivers and is bone tired, all the time. Easy to anger yet reticent to let in help, Matt can barely function let alone comprehend what is happening to him.
His deeply caring yet seemingly perfunctory mother blames hormones and oncoming puberty. His gentle more reserved father provides comfort but not an exact cure. It is not until Matt and his father happen upon an abandoned dog in the woods one day that Matt slowly learns that being sick isn’t just about having a cold. Feeling unwell is not always a case of growing pains and true bravery can grow from the smallest of places.
Cliff is the name Matt bestows upon the mangy little Chihuahua-sized mutt, emaciated and terrified. With love and tasty treats, Cliff physically recovers yet remains fearful, withdrawn and anxious. Matt is determined to ‘save’ him, to restore his faith in humans but also resurrect his love of life. It’s a slow and arduous process, the highs and lows of which Matt shares with his new fur-buddy. And in doing so, Matt perceives his own situation with more and more clarity.
Bit by bit, Matt begins to share, his despair, his sickness, his hopes, through Cliff’s virtual viral social media presence. It’s the beginning of admitting he is not OK. It’s the outpouring of support for Cliff and by association, himself from virtual strangers that finally forces Matt to utter that all important word; that cry for … help.
Foster points out that recognising you need help and actually being able to request it are two vastly different things because of one overriding emotion: fear. The Bravest Word is a story about a boy with spiralling depression who rescues a dog with similar mental health issues. Yet, it’s the ability to look fear in the face, laugh at it and then turn your back on it forever that we’re really talking about here. The characters are schoolyard-true. Matt’s parents resound with familiarity. The text is unforced, possessing repeated references to depression and the various ways it can manifest in children which may deter some not directly affected by this mental illness however speaks in a loud and reassuring voice to those who are or are associated with someone who is suffering.
I recently read my own picture book, At The End of Holyrood Lane to an ailing (depressed) teen with a hope to help her understand her fear and the need to act in spite of it; that it was OK to reach out for help. Although the subject matter of these two stories is quite different, the message within them is the very same: that asking for help is bravery in its purest, most vulnerable form.
The Bravest Word is a book that young people can read quietly on their own, soaking up exactly what they need from it that also offers gentle opportunities to reach out and ask for help attaining whatever that may be. Subtle messages for well-meaning yet slightly misguided adults ripple through this story making it a ‘should read’ for adults (and best friends) as well as an uplifting epiphanic-type experience for youngsters experiencing mental anguish and illness.
Title: The Bravest Word
Author: Kate Foster
Publisher: Walker Books Australia, $17.99
Publication Date: 4 May 2022
For ages: 9 – 12
Type: Middle Grade Fiction