Chaos, sex, death and a wonderful, wonderful children’s book

posted in: Ulf Stark | 11

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!

11 Responses

  1. Boy in the dress has been sitting on my bookshelf for the longest time now. Time to take it out, it seems.

    Loved the review, Zoe. Certainly a pleasant surprise to see a book for older kids here. It sounds very interesting, and I shall certainly look out for it.
    sandhya recently posted..In which we wish Harry and JKR a Happy Birthday

  2. Forgot to add- please continue sharing such wonderful books with us from time to time as you come across them. I value your recommendation a lot, and it would be great to actually get some for the tween child.:)
    sandhya recently posted..In which we wish Harry and JKR a Happy Birthday

  3. Sandhya, thanks for the encouragement re books for older kids – I am hoping to write more reviews for older kids, but it’s such a new thing for me, I feel quite out of my depth! Reviewing a (short) novel is quite different to reviewing a picture book. But as M gets older, I’m sure there will gradually be more and more such books, as I don’t want to give up blogging!!
    Zoe recently posted..Chaos, sex, death and a wonderful, wonderful children’s book

  4. That sounds fabulous. I will definitely look it out. I think that books which sensitively discuss the challenges and joys of growing up for pre-teens are definitely needed, considering that some children go through puberty so early these days.

  5. Good point, Ali – I hadn’t thought about that, but definitely true.
    Zoe recently posted..Chaos, sex, death and a wonderful, wonderful children’s book

  6. You did a beautiful job with your review Zoe. So often teens go through things people just don’t recognize or see. Unbelievable things. My mom grew up in a similar home as Simone (though minus the gender issues) and I can hardly believe the things she endured. It makes you really appreciate the value of stories like this and how they help not only teens but those around them.

    Wonderful review and I’m so glad you brought my attention to it. I’m not sure it would have been a top choice of mine right away because of the issues and also the cover (wish it was a little better!).
    Danielle recently posted..Book Review: Nanny Piggins and The Wicked Plan by R. A. Spratt

    • Danielle – that’s exactly why I wanted to review it – both in terms of content, and also the fact that a two line synopsis and the cover wouldn’t have sold the book to many people (it didn’t sell the book to me – when i first received it I read it because I had to, not because I thought I’d enjoy it – how wrong I was!)

  7. Thank you Zoe – I think you are a great reviewer and I hope you do continue reviewing novels. Ulf Stark is one of my all-time favorite writers. Julia Marshall, Gecko Press

  8. Thanks Julia – but more so for publishing the book in the first place! Really hoping I might get to meet you and Ulf in Manchester in October…

  9. It sounds interesting Zoe. Books about cross-dressing always make me think of Shakespearean comedies, though it sounds like something quite different is intended here. Does the author explore the light-hearted side of the issue of identity switching at all?

    • Hi Maeve, it’s certainly not all serious – she has lots of fun with her new identity and choosing new clothes.

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