For ages 10+
First off, you have to know that this book is strong in its content, dealing with the harsh realities of grief, bullying and even racism. If your child/children could be severely triggered by any of these themes, please read it yourself first to check for suitability. Sometimes I read a 10+/tween book and I question the suitability of literature for children if there are any semblances of abuse behaviour, or graphic descriptions of stabbings or shootings. That’s why I’m a curator! When I worked for Tales on Moon Lane, on more than one occasion I refused to stock a title that publishers said were suitable for middle grade or for children under 10. In this case I agree with the publisher’s recommended reading age of 11+.
Secondly, you have to know that this book is INCREDIBLE!!!! I have to admit I hadn’t read any of author Darren Simpson’s previous titles. This was my first foray into his complex, vivid and fantastical imagination. Wow, what a ride!
‘Furthermoor’ is a story of two worlds, one where grief, bullying and neglect exist and another where beauty, someone loved (but lost) lives, and where there is peace, safety and control. Our living main characters are a group of boys aged around 12 years old, in secondary school. They’re in the north of England. It’s a harsh winter setting, often snowy, dark and very cold. A stark contrast to the alternate world of Furthermoor. This book takes the reader on a complex grieving journey of a family following the tragic death of one of the children in a car accident. The bullying and friendship dynamics are constants of school life in this story, but the infliction of bullying on the surviving sibling, 12 year old Bren, is in itself especially tragic and at times utterly unlawful. There are frequent passages in the book that make for challenging reading for me as a mother of (a) a daughter about to go into a large secondary state school and (b) a younger boy who is a voice for justice already and will one day be entering the world of pre-teen angst, confusion and strength. This has been an eye-opening exposé that I have now fully taken on board and have added to my toolbox for the future.
My 10 year old daughter Ava’s thoughts:
“I think this book is incredible because it teaches all of the people who read it a valuable life lesson = NOT to give in to the people who are so low that they have to beat someone up just to big themselves up!”
About the story
Less than a year ago, 12 yr old Bren’s older sister Evie was tragically hit by a car and killed not far from their home. Losing Evie has thrown the family into a deep grief; consequentially mum is throwing herself into work and dad has become withdrawn and a nervous wreck… all of them deeply traumatised, and yet although they all identify in a shared grief, they are entirely disconnected and facing their trauma alone, vulnerable and unsupported.
The story plays out over the course of 8 days from a Monday to a Monday with a chapter a day.
Bren treasures his dear sister Evie’s wristwatch. His cog-filled talisman is filled with magical powers, a port-key to the sanctity of Furthermoor where his sister Evie lives on. Whether it’s lunchtime at school or a moment alone at home in his room, Bren visits her at any given moment to escape and be back together again. Furthermoor is a bejewelled mechanical and beautiful place with colourful forests, meadows, rivers, woodland creatures and birds. With a turn of the cogs in Evie’s watch Bren can create and change anything in his world as he pleases.
Bren, in his own way, is coping (barely) at secondary school until new boy Cary arrives. On noticing bully Shaun threatening Bren, Carey intervenes. Cary certainly has the gift of the gab. He calls out Shaun’s behaviour on the spot. Shaun is taken aback, then the racist abuse starts to fly referring to Cary as someone who should be “cooking noodles with your mum and dad at a takeaway or something” Cary’s retort? “Great. Racism. Didn’t take long did it.” Actually, his mum’s an engineer and dad’s a photographer. What Cary doesn’t realise yet, is that Shaun is the ‘Jaws’ of bullies. Yes, that scary. It is worth noting at this point that Shaun’s nickname for Bren is ‘beakface’. I’m still wondering whether this is anti-Semitic in its intention as part of Shaun’s catalogue of prejudices, and look forward to talking to author, Darren Simpson about it in my upcoming IG Live.
As you can appreciate bullies don’t just thrive at school. We can all visualise scenarios with bullies whether from our own experiences, TV shows, films or books of school gates, school bus rides or the walk to and from home each day. As such, Bren’s experiences with Shaun aren’t exclusive to the school corridors. One day, walking home from school in the freezing cold, Bren’s path crosses Shaun. Whilst Shaun starts winding himself up with threats to Bren, Shaun’s father spies him. What we come to learn as adults is that a bully isn’t born a bully. Often a bully is themselves a survivor of abuse. It turns out that Shaun’s dad is a very nasty piece of work himself. Bren isn’t blind to this. Shaun’s dad says to Bren about Shaun, “He loves to act all hard and grown up, but he’s actually a whiny little turd.” Bren even says he’s “sort of” Shaun’s friend in fear of Shaun’s dad and perhaps with compassion. All the while, Bren is still in close quarters with a trembling slightly, fists clenched Shaun… where’s all that humiliation, hurt and anger going to be released? Bren. Cary. Other vulnerable kids.
What Shaun thinks he really needs, is for no-one to find out about how his dad treats him. He doesn’t seek help, just like Bren. Seems like both Bren and Shaun have their secrets. There is a strong theme of shame in this book, and shame is a byproduct of trauma. Shaun’s shame about his father and his home life; Bren’s shame about being weak and not brave enough to stand up for himself, perhaps even shame of his grief and discovery that he is holding onto his sister (and can’t let go and accept that she has passed on and he must move on). The duality of Shaun and Bren’s characters are played out very intelligently through them holding onto their closest relationships at school or Furthermoor through undisputed power and control. That is, until Shaun comes up against Cary, and Bren comes up against an unexpected adversary in Furthermoor…
The more Bren suffers at the hands of Shaun, his perfect world of Furthermoor with Evie starts to become affected. A mysterious creature suddenly appears, almost human, with black crow-like wings, and a beak-like hood. Evie and Bren name ‘him’ Featherly. Featherly taunts them and steals Evie’s watch with which he begins a destructive campaign starting with destroying the forest animals, taking parts here and there and leaving the creatures for ‘dead’. This is a hugely distressing development for Bren, creating immense fear of what this could mean for Furthermoor and his safe haven where his sister lives forever, where they can be together and he can feel protected and loved, nurtured.
The reader, at this point, links Featherly and his crow-like appearance to an earlier event in the story whereby Bren saves a baby crow from the side of the road, but gets repeatedly attacked by the crows who witnessed this rescue. Crows are intelligent and have a very good memory. This causes Bren to develop an increasing paranoia about crows. The symbolism of crows are that they have commonly been a symbol of death, and the transformational process from the physical to the spiritual world. However, in spiritual language, as I feel crows symbolise in this book, death does not mean the physical act of dying - rather death represents change, transition, transformation and new beginnings! This book is deep and I love that about it!
Back to Cary. Cary is targeted in an attack outside school by Shaun and his friends. Bren spies Cary being dragged down an alleyway into a disused housing estate, and pushes back his fear for his new-found friend. In an SAS style, extremely risky rescue, Bren manages to release Cary from his rat infested prison and they escape. More than ever, Cary is a kid on a one boy vigilante mission to put an end to Shaun’s bullying. One afternoon after school, Bren explains some of the backstory about Shaun. Shaun used to tease kids whose families needed to use the food bank, then Shaun’s mum left and he and his dad fell on hard times, and they had to use the food bank themselves. It somehow went round the school and Shaun’s life was hell. He assumed it was Bren who spilled the beans, when it wasn’t. Hence making Bren’s life hell. A lively discourse ensues between Bren and Cary around bullies and how they should be either endured or stopped.
Bullies. Do you let them keep going until they lose interest? What’d be the furthest the bully would go though? Prepared to be hospitalised or worse? Do you tell your parents, teachers, police? Hide your fear. Bark back?
Cary’s parents ended up reporting Shaun’s attack and Bren is questioned by the headmistress. He denies all knowledge. He can’t be a rat.
As the reader travels through the story the outside world and Furthermoor experience ever increasing similarities. Bren starts to fear and dread Featherly as much as he does Shaun. He’s trapped between two worlds. The difference is that he is so all consumed by grief and with all life sucked out of him, the only reality he feels is worth saving and he’s prepared to be brave in is in Furthermoor, because Evie is there and he’s not going to lose her again at any cost. There is such a sense of self-loathing and hopelessness.
What’s actually incredible, that I realise now, is that most evil moment in the story actually comes just only half way through the book. It felt much closer to the end of the book, just goes to show the pace of the plot! Bren had managed to walk home, he’d managed a day at school without any issues with Shaun. The reader gets to draw in a much needed breath. Shaun appears suddenly just as Bren’s about to put the key into the lock. He wants to apologise… the oldest trick in the book right? The reader wants to scream at Bren to get inside and lock the door! It’s all over now. The reader’s head, shaking from side to side, eyes closed, hangs low, breathes out. Shaun and his sidekicks Alex and Isiah muzzle, drag and… kidnap Bren and haul him back to their lair in the abandoned estate.
It’s actually very hard to re-read these passages for this review, so emotional. These passages are very descriptive, akin to vivid live action. (A reminder - this boy is only 12 years old.) It’s getting dark. Bren is dragged writhing and kicking upstairs in an abandoned old house to a bedroom (Shaun describes it as ‘the thinking room’) where he is locked in. There are bars on the window, a mouldy mattress on the floor and it’s freezing. The night approaches. Trapped. Hungry. Freezing to death. You actually get the feeling this could actually happen to you, your friend, your child, a child you care about. Bren can’t get out. The door is unbreakable. No-one can hear his cries for help. He goes for help to the only place left ‘Furthermoor’ tick tock…. Can Evie help? Together they try to work out what to do, how to keep Bren alive in the real world, working out how much time he might have before he succumbs to hypothermia… or worse… death
Once back in Furthermoor, he’s weakened by the freezing temperature on the outside. Featherly has the watch. If Bren can’t get out of Furthermoor he can’t do anything to get out of that room alive. Evie and Bren have to find Featherly and get the watch back. They need to overcome him. Somehow. Featherly reminds Bren this is his imagination… why is he doing this to himself!? The plot becomes highly complex and gripping as a ‘fake’ rescue unfolds. Unbeknownst to Bren, Featherly has created replica mechanical parents and hometown to lure Bren to stay in Furthermoor forever (which would mean he would die in the real world). His imagination is now so dangerous, it’s life-threatening. Thankfully, Evie saves Bren.
Once running back through Futhermoor to get to Featherly, Bren comes across one of his creations, a mechanical squirrel; however the cogs are starting to be replaced by bone… Featherly’s aim for creatures to have meat for him to eat. It’s at this point I wondered again about the anti-Semitic undertones. Is this Featherly’s ‘pound of flesh’? A Featherly that is determined to get what is his ‘by right’ no matter how it may affect anyone else and regardless of the consequences. The ‘pound of flesh’ saying was made famous due to featuring in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ written in the late 1500s and is spoken by Shylock, a moneylender, who is an outcast in Venice because he's a Jew. The phrase was first noted in the Italian novella ‘Il Pecorone’ by Giovanni Fiorentino in the late 1300s.
The final scenes of the ‘battle for Futhermoor’ are thrilling and dramatic. To survive Bren has to get his watch back. To do that he needs faith and bravery. He needs to save himself. His parents have already lost their daughter, they can’t lose him too. Once he tracks down and confronts Featherly … Featherly pulls back his hood revealing his true identity… surrounded by his army of crows. It’s a breathtaking scene for the reader. The reader gasps at enormity of a child’s self-punishment in grief and the enormous inner strength a child needs to survive such trauma.
Bren fights back. He finds his bravery, his voice, turning to the self-loathing and more represented by Featherly to say ‘how dare you’.
“How dare you make me feel so small! How dare you make me feel so worthless!”
The fake Williamsborough starts to crumble around him…
Does Bren escape alive? How?
Will Furthermoor continue to exist?
Will Bren lose Evie forever?
Will Bren be reunited with his parents?
Will Bren ever find joy in the real living world again?
I recommend you find out, and on that note, I leave you with an incredibly memorable line from Featherly:
‘the best prisons…are the ones in which you think you’re free. How do you escape a trap you don’t realise you’re in?’
About the creators
Darren Simpson (author)
Darren Simpson lives in Nottingham with his wife and two mischievous boys, and spends most of his time pretending he knows what he's doing. After not quite making it as a drummer in a rock band, Darren turned to writing and discovered that it's a fun way not only to escape reality, but also to explore and confront it in unusual ways. He can usually be found lost in his headphones or eating cake mix with a spoon.
In his own words: “I write vivid, unruly fiction for older children and teens…In particular, I love using otherworldly settings and unconventional characters to explore bravery, self-discovery, and the endless quirks that make up our lives”.
His debut novel, ’Scavengers’, was a Guardian Best book of the Year, and was selected for the Summer Reading Challenge and shortlisted for the Northern Ireland Book Award. The ‘Memory Thieves’ was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and was a World Book Day Summer Read. My latest book, ‘Furthermoor’, was Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Month and a Waterstones best book for teens and young adults.
Anna Kuptsova (illustrator)
Anna Kuptsova is an illustrator and creative designer based in Europe. She dedicated last 12 years of her career to illustration, design and art direction. During this time, she collaborated with various international agencies, magazines and individual clients. Anna’s main interest lies in developing and creating unique and eye-catching digital illustrations. As an artist she is known for her vivid, romantic, and thought-provoking art style. Anna often draws her inspiration from nature, classic and modern cinematography, science fiction and her favourite music.
Finding your voice
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Publication date: 3 March 2022
Previously published titles for ages 11+ by Darren Simpson:
'Scavengers' - published 2019 (Usborne)
'The Memory Thieves' - published 2021 (Usborne)
*Usborne Books provided me with a review copy of 'Furthermoor'.
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