This is the first of my blog tour posts for July, which as I mentioned in my June Wrap Up will be the only times you’ll hear from me this month – so I’m pleased the exception is for such a fabulous book!
Book: The Extraordinary Voyage of Katy Willacott by Sharon Gosling
Publication date: 6th July 2022
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Little Tiger Press. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: big game hunting and animal death (roundly condemned by narrative; deaths not directly on page but dead animals are seen later; the pet is in peril several times but survives!); discussion of racism, colonialism, destruction of indigenous traditions and homes; misogyny especially in the context of STEAM subjects.
Living among the flowers and ferns of Kew Gardens, Katy has always dreamed of more – of the sky and the stars and the sea. Unfortunately for Katy, her father doesn’t understand. He says young girls should be content to stay at home, not go off gallivanting around the world.
So when news reaches London of a meteorite falling in the faraway land of Brazil and an expedition being put together to find it, Katy knows it’s her chance to follow her dreams and prove her father wrong. And winning a place on the trip is just the start of her extraordinary voyage on the trail of a fallen star…
This was a fantastic read! It’s a rip-roaring historical adventure that tackles some very serious issues without ever feeling too didactic. Readers would be enthralled by Katy’s daring adventures at sea and in Brazil even without the deft layer of social commentary that the story holds; the messages about deforestation, respect for indigenous people, and the power of women who won’t agree to give up their dreams.
There’s a very interesting author’s note at the end which discusses some of the historical context and choices made in this story, which I really recommend making time to read. A story where a white English person sets out to ‘discover’ another country is an inherently problematic concept, for all it’s been a staple of the adventure genre for centuries, and I really enjoyed how Sharon Gosling consciously unpicks that both in the story itself and in her note. Katy may start out like any budding colonial explorer, but she swiftly comes to understand why she can’t ‘discover’ a place people already live, and she is respectful and conscientious about not speaking over indigenous voices once she learns they exist. It may not be completely perfect – the other English explorers are moustache-twirlingly evil, and Katy is held up as a paragon compared to them – but it’s a much more respectful way of approaching the topic of the ethics of exploration.
Katy is a really likeable heroine, and one who I think will resonate with a lot of people who feel like their goals, skills, and worth aren’t being taken seriously. Her frustration at not being allowed to join her father’s archaeological expeditions like her brother, despite her obvious talent for the work, is really well-depicted, and her drive and determination make her really easy to root for. I loved how deftly the book showed the power of having a visible role model like you in your desired field; while Katy’s parents are both doing important work – and how great to see a female scientist in Katy’s mum – the real catalyst for the novel is when Katy meets Fran Brocklehurst, a female journalist who is more than a little swashbuckling, travelling across the world in search of fascinating stories. Fran epitomises the spirit of adventure for Katy, and having her be a visible female success in a male-dominated field, and more than that, having her validate Katy’s dreams as viable, really brings home how much this is still needed for marginalised kids today. How this particular story turns out is perhaps a little fantastical in its triumph, knowing the misogyny and racism that exists in the sciences today, but it’s a powerful message that no one should be excluded, and the payoff is incredibly rewarding!
I do think this is probably a book for the slightly older end of the middle grade readership, as firstly, it’s quite advanced writing and concepts, and secondly, there are a few distressing scenes that feature hunting, killing and shooting at animals, including a stray cat that has adopted Katy – as noted in my content warning, the cat makes it through but there are at least two different chapters where Katy thinks he’s been killed, which could be upsetting for sensitive readers. She also later finds crates full of the hunters’ trophies, which is a really sad scene. I thought it was well-depicted, intense without being graphic, but just go into this one carefully if that might be an issue.
I really recommend this book to those older readers, though! It’s a thrilling story in its own right, and I think it will be a great jumping-off point for important conversations. Five out of five (jungle) cats!