Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Fastest Boy in the World, by Elizabeth Laird

Eleven-year-old Solomon loves to run and dreams one day of being an olympic medal winner, a celebrated national hero like the world class athletes he and the rest of Ethiopia looks up to. Even though he lives in a remote area and is ragged and barefoot, he knows he is born to run.

Solomon lives in a hut with his family and their livestock- it's not bleak exactly, but it's hardly luxurious. Warm and safe. When his grandfather announces, to everyone's surprise, that he's going to take Solomon to Addis Ababa, Solomon can't wait to see the big city. Having lived in a small village all his life, the biggest town Solomon has ever seen is 5 miles away where he goes to school. The glass, pollution and people of a city seems to overwhelm him before he even gets there. As luck would have it, the Ethiopian national running team will be doing a victory parade through the city that day, so Solomon is overjoyed at the thought of a glimpse of his heroes. They set off on the 23 mile walk together.

The trip is a revelation to Solomon. Not only does he see his heroes, make a friend for life and discover the crowds and bustle of the capital, he learns too something that he cannot believe. Something about his stoic, wise and revered grandfather. When this new, heroic grandfather collapses, just as Solomon begins to see him with new, awe-struck eyes, the boy knows that getting help from his village is now his responsibility. It's a twenty-odd-mile run from the city to home, now the bus has broken down and his grandfather's life could be at stake. Solomon must prove his ability as a runner, barefoot or not.

This is a swift, tightly plotted story that is enjoyable and revealing. The author does a good job of sculpting and comparing the locations in this novel- the dusty plains of farmland Ethiopia are contrasted with the bustling anonymity of the capital city with great effect. It's easy to warm to Solomon, a little boy with a big dream embarking on a confusing new phase of his life. As a character, he's very likable, with rural good manners and a healthy respect for his elders.

The Fastest Boy in the World is a solid, family-centred Middle Grade fiction that sees a character beginning to understand and define his own relationship to the world. The prose is competently and fluidly written, with a very accessible vocabulary and gives a believable insight into a world and a way of life that might be very new and unfamiliar to younger readers, so that's definitely a good thing.

Whilst it is an enjoyable story with an appealing message about pursuing one's dreams, working hard to achieve and the importance of family and responsibility, I can't help but feel that it just doesn't pack the same punch of previous Carnegie winners, or some other titles on the shortlist. That's not to say it's an inferior book, I'm convinced many younger readers will love it-it would make a really good class read for year 7s or 8s, as it encourages the reader to think about how life is lived in other cultures and in other countries. I just can't see it winning this particular award, though I can see it being enjoyed by many.

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