October October book review
Book Reviews

October, October | Book Review

By Katya Balen, with illustrations by Angela Harding (published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

She wanted me to go to school and spend my weekends with her far away, but then when would I ever be wild and free and climb trees and scavenge for treasure and tell stories by a fire?

I don’t want her.

She’s not wild like we are.

October and her dad live a mostly self-sustaining life in the woods. They grow their own food (some of which they trade with the local dairy farmer), they swim the lake and howl at the stars, and they take care of the trees, just the two of them. October is proud to say “we live in the woods and we are wild”.

That is until October’s eleventh birthday; until she finds the owl, and until her dad is rushed into hospital. October is pulled away from the woods, from her home, and into the care of “the woman who is her mother”. Confused and alone, trapped in a tiny house in busy London with a woman that she hasn’t seen in years (and has no interest in), October struggles to understand this new world. But maybe, if she and her mother are both willing to try, she might find that there are some good things outside of the woods after all…

I’ll admit that I was drawn to the front cover before I knew what the story was about. The beautiful lines and rich colours give a sense of what October’s world is like before it all goes wrong. The lines are almost cacophonous in places, but in a busy way rather than a messy way, which somewhat reflects October herself.

October, October full cover artwork by Angela Harding

(I had to include the full fold-out version of the cover by Angela Harding as I just feel it deserves to be seen in its full glory!)

With regards to the story, although it takes a while to pick up, I never felt like the time is wasted or drags. Rather, the time is spent setting up the world as October knows it, October herself (the book is written from her perspective), her relationship with her father and her non-relationship with her mother.

October has a wonderful gift for spinning stories, and the run-on sentences that make up the book really capture the essence of her character; always moving, always interested, always looking. I admire her dedication to the woods and the charm it holds for her, though I have to admit it’s not a lifestyle I would personally choose! Still, Katya Balen describes them so vividly that they feel alive, and you can definitely see some of the appeal.

I found some of October’s behaviour a bit difficult to connect with at first but, through Balen’s depiction of her thoughts and feelings, I came to understand that she is either neurodivergent, or that her secluded lifestyle has led her to develop some similar attributes to those who are.

October, October is a very insightful read. The story does an excellent job of portraying how October views some things differently and acts out in certain ways, even before she is subjected to a sudden and upsetting change in circumstances. But it also does a good job of making October’s mother a somewhat sympathetic character. She doesn’t realise at first why October behaves the way she does, and finds some of it hurtful or frustrating. But being able to see through October’s eyes helps us understand it from the outset. By the end, I found myself sympathising with both October and her mother – and her father of course, who has been trying to bridge the gap between them.

Balen perfectly shows how easy it can be for neurotypical people like October’s mother not to understand, and that it’s (normally) due to ignorance, not malice. And although October’s situation and relationships do improve, she doesn’t “get over it”, as I imagine some stories would be tempted to end with – that wouldn’t be right. Whether she is neurodivergent or not, the story shows that it is a part of her and always will be, and shouldn’t be treated as something to be “fixed”. Balen shows us that she just requires a little more patience and consideration, which October’s mother starts to realise as the story progresses.

Without spoiling any of the story beats, I can say it has moments of sadness; I found my heart breaking for October so many times, as she feels her world slipping away, and for her mother who wants to connect with her but simply doesn’t know how. It is also uplifting and hopeful however, showing true moments of love and friendship, and the joy that can be taken in simple things.

This is a beautiful book, and one that I would thoroughly recommend not just for children, but for adults too. Any teacher, librarian, or parent who cares for neurodivergent children could benefit from the level of insight and understanding that October, October provides, and any neurodivergent child will likely appreciate reading something that reflects them (although we are getting more diverse books, we still have a bit of way to go!).

Even without that perspective though, not only is it a moving story that touches upon themes of separation, isolation, change and family that anyone can appreciate and enjoy, but it’s also a great opportunity to read outside of our own experiences, to better understand and empathise with others who see or experience things differently to ourselves.

And, as if you needed any more reasons to read it, it’s October, so the perfect time!

Katya Balen is not only the author of October, October and The Space We’re In which came out last year, but is also co-director of Mainspring Arts, a charity dedicated to increasing neurodiversity in the arts and creative sectors. You can read more about what they do, and how you can support them at their website http://www.mainspringarts.org.uk/.