Makena’s head is full of myth, legend and mountains. There’s not much snow in Kenya, so her father brings her some home from the mountains. It’s melted, but it is the most precious thing Makena owns. She dreams of being a mountaineer, and is thrilled when her mountain-guide father takes her on her first expedition. That is the first time she sees the fox, it’s whiskers white and glittery like snow.
Soon after, Makena’s parents go to the aid of Aunt Mary in Sierra Leone. They set off believing she has Malaria. It’s worse. Aunt Mary has ‘the Doomsday Germ’, the one scientists call Ebola. Frantic, Makena rings her parents’ mobile to find it has been sold. All the mobile phones on the stall came from people who have died of Ebola.
Makena’s search for a place to belong begins. Being homeless makes you invisible, but someone’s keeping an eye out for Makena. Her name is Diana, but people call her Snow because of her albino skin. Snow teaches Makena to see the wonders in every day. The two promise to be friends forever. Sometimes the slums have other ideas.
Lauren St John has clearly done her research. Whether we were in Kenya or Scotland, all the detail made me feel as if I was right there. I loved the comparison between the two countries, and how precious snow is to Makena. As well as being a lovely metaphor for her precious friendship, the idea of snow being almost mythological made it possible to imagine life in a warm climate.
Makena and Snow are great characters. Makena is quite rational, but wants to believe in miracles and fairytales. She’s a perfect friend for Snow, who searches every day for the beautiful things in live. Living in the slums only makes Snow more determined to appreciate small wonders. Snow wants to be a professional ballet dancer, and she refuses to give up on her dreams. There are some powerful messages in here, and it will make you reevaluate your own life.
There are some difficult themes, and you will reach for the tissues. I am glad Ebola has been recorded in a story – it is important for children to know these things happen in the world. What’s lovely is how none of the characters are drawn as victims: although the horrors of the slums aren’t shied away from, you don’t realise how much Makena has suffered until an aid worker comes in, and we see Makena through her eyes. None of the horrors Makena faces – from gang warfare, to famine, to the ‘reaper’ who snatches children from the slums – are shown gratuitously, or in a way which would upset young readers, but the fact these things happen is not shied away from or sugar-coated. Lauren St John has handled difficult themes in her writing before, and she always shows just enough to help her readers understand the situation.
The parts of the story which take place in Scotland are beautiful, and I love how the fox links the two sections together. Lauren St John’s novels are brilliant for animal lovers, and this is no exception. When Makena loses all other hope, she turns to animals, and to her beloved mountains.
Short but sweet. Look no further if you want a book with a real heart this Christmas.
Huge thanks to Head of Zeus – Zephyr for access to an ARC via Netgalley.