Two years on and children’s novels about the pandemic are just starting to appear. As Frank Cottrell-Boyce points out in his guest editorial (BfK 255), no-one is yet addressing the impact it had on children but turning their experiences into stories is important.
Adam Baron perfectly evokes children’s experience of lockdown in his new novel, and does so with typical humour, compassion and insight. Cymbeline Igloo’s lockdown life will be immediately recognisable to many young people. At home with his mum he’s bored, missing his friends, missing other people in general, even missing school. He’s vaguely aware of why things have to be different, but mainly just wishing they’d go back to being normal, especially with tomato ketchup in short supply. But there are added difficulties for Cym too. His mum’s mental health has been precarious, and lockdown increases her anxiety resulting, amongst other things, in a frenzied clear out in which she accidentally gives away his precious signed Charlton FC shirt.
The lost shirt takes on added significance as the story continues. When the school’s much-loved cook and number one Charlton fan Mrs Stebbings is hospitalised with COVID it becomes even more important that Cym gets it back. Then Cym discovers that the bag of clothes his mum left out was picked up by a young girl living in a makeshift camp in nearby woods. Wansa, now owner of the shirt, and her sister Meyan are refugees, displaced by war, opening up an important new element to the story.
Baron brings all the plot strands together linking past (Cym’s World War II class project) and present, emphasising throughout the importance of community. While there’s a happy ending for Wansa and Meyan, and Mrs Stebbings returns to make her famous Sticky Toffee Pudding once more, Cym’s school does not escape COVID, the story including an honest and important acknowledgment of the loss and grief experienced by so many during those strange and not so distant years.