The Bravest Word, by Kate Foster
This is such a beautifully written and powerful read which shines a light on mental health in kids (particularly young boys).
As the story opens, eleven-year-old Matt is struggling - once the top football player in his team, he's now finding that even walking onto the football field is triggering panic attacks. Not only that, but he's lost interest in hanging with his friends, his grades at school are slipping, and he feels constantly aching and tired. His mum thinks it might just be growing pains, but Matt knows deep down that something inside him has changed...he just isn't sure what. And he's too afraid to reach out for help in case he's seen as weak or no one understands.
But when Matt and his dad find Cliff, a dog who's been hurt and neglected, Matt starts to understand that - just as Cliff desperately needs help and kindness - Matt himself might need saving too. But will he find the strength to reach out for help?
I guarantee you will shed some tears while you're reading this book - tears of heartbreak, but also tears of relief at the kindness that is shown in this story.
The story is just so beautifully told - the writing is authentic, emotive, and hooks the reader in. The strength of the story lies in the relationships portrayed in the book. Matt's developing relationship with Cliff the dog is heartbreakingly beautiful. Cliff's emerging trust in others around him beautifully reflects the way in which Matt is slowly able to acknowledge what's going on inside him and gather up the courage to trust his friends and family.
Matt is a wonderfully drawn protagonist - his voice is honest and insightful, and it's impossible not to feel wholly invested in his welfare. Supporting characters are also well drawn - including Matt's dad, who is gently supportive, and Matt's friends - who rally around and refuse to give up on him. And finally there is Matt's mum - whose fierce love for her son burns brightly like a candle in the dark.
I love the way Matt is able to find some comfort in the blog posts he creates about Cliff the Abandoned Dog - providing an outlet for his own confusion and pain. The support he receives from both the online community and his own friends, help him realise that he is not the only person to struggle with mental health issues.
While I loved all the characters, it's really Cliff the abandoned little dog who is the star of this book - he's so gentle and sweetly timid and in need of love and cuddles - I dare you to read this book and not fall in love with him straight away!
Themes of depression and anxiety, friendship and family, and animal cruelty and welfare are handled with an empathetic and sensitive touch. Mental health - particularly in young boys and men - is a topic not commonly addressed in literature for middlegrade readers - and yet it should be.
Beyond Blue reports that about 1 in 7 children and adolescents aged 4 to 17 have experienced a mental health disorder in Australia - including anxiety and depression.
The Health Direct website reports that the number of contacts to Kids Helpline have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the majority of these contacts being in relation to mental health issues.
Young readers can derive comfort and strength from reading about others going through the same things they might be struggling with. Readers may also develop feelings of empathy and understanding if their friends or a family member are experiencing mental health issues.
This book may encourage honest conversation about mental health issues, and help young people to reach out and seek help if they need to.
Highly recommend this book for every home and school library.
We thank Walker Books for our advanced reader copy of this book. The Bravest Word will be released in May 2022.
Published by Walker Books