A beautifully written book rich with themes encompassing teenage identity, sexuality, gender, possible mental health issues, ageing, intergenerational friendship and death Fruitloops & Dipsticks by Swedish writer Ulf Stark packs a punch.
It’s a breathtaking read full of humour, warmth, generosity and complexity that left me in tears, determined to spread the word about it, even thought it’s a huge departure from my usual picture book fare!
Simone is 12. Her family life is chaotic to say the least. Her mother, who exhibits behaviour reminiscent of “high” periods of manic depression, moves in with her latest boyfriend, uprooting Simone to a new neighbourhood. On her first day at her new school, Simone is mistaken for a boy, and with this chance occurrence, an opportunity opens up for Simone (now known as Simon) to be someone else for a little while, to escape the life she finds so unsettling, to distance herself from her mother and annoying boyfriend.
This double life is exciting and complicated. Simon(e) is pursued by a girl in his class, who is eager to be his (her) girlfriend. Simon(e) however is falling for Isaac, but can’t reveal her true identity to him. Like another of Ulf Stark’s books My friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes (which I’ll be reviewing next week) Fruitloops & Dipsticks explores how kids can get drawn into dangerous and unpleasant behaviour through a desire to fit in and a wish to win respect from peers.
How can this cycle be broken? It takes a game of chicken which almost results in one of Simone’s friends dying, and also the terribly poignant death of her beloved grandfather for Simone to accept who she is, to feel happy about that and give herself a chance to build friendships based on trust and honesty.
If your kids enjoyed David Walliam’s The Boy in the Dress, they may well also enjoy Fruitloops & Dipsticks, not just because of the “cross dressing” theme, but also because both books explore finding one’s identity in a realistic, unpatronising setting, the meatiness of the issues being sweetened by a good dose of humour. Stark’s writing (translated by Julia Marshall) is beautiful and elegant, at times lyrical.
Adults (indeed kids!) reading this review may wish to know that there is a very brief description of an erection in this book. It’s in a very sensitively written passage and is entirely appropriate in context. It’s hard to imagine a more thoughtful, better written book for pre/early teens exploring their emotions and understanding of the world around them than this down to earth, profoundly moving story. Please find yourself a copy, and then hand it on to your older kids.
Ulf Stark will be in the UK in the Autumn as part of The Children’s Bookshow. The Children’s Bookshow is an organisation that arranges an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators across the UK. The tour takes place in the autumn and coincides with Children’s Book Week. Its aim is to foster a lifelong love of literature in children by bringing them the best writers and illustrators to inspire and guide them. Anybody can book tickets for any of the events, and schools can also book free workshops with the authors and illustrators taking part in the tour.
Disclosure: I received my copy of Fruitloops & Dipsticks from the publisher. I did not expect to review it here, but it’s such a good book I just had to share it!