I read Darwin’s Dragons earlier this year, and loved it so much that I read it as a class read aloud to my Year 6 class who were spellbound by it. My Friend the Octopus was, therefore, an eagerly anticipated read, and I can confirm that it is just as enthralling a story: an utterly gripping Victorian mystery with the most heart-warming bond between a young girl and her octopus friend at its core.
Twelve-year-old Vinnie Fyfe is the daughter of a high-society milliner who is woken in the middle of the night by her mother to take a trip under mysterious circumstances. Soon, she finds herself separated from her mother for the first time – left in Brighton with her Aunt Bets who runs a popular tea-shop at Brighton aquarium – whilst her mother takes a business trip to Paris.
When her aunt sends her on an errand, Vinnie finds herself in another world, the awe-inspiring world of the aquarium, where she longs to draw the incredible creatures, and where she witnesses the arrival of something that will change her life in the most wonderful and unimaginable way …
Vinnie is introduced to the newest, crowd-drawing arrival at the aquarium: a giant octopod. Even though this devil fish frightens Vinnie at first, she is also fascinated by her. I adored the heartachingly beautiful bond that forms between Vinnie and the octopus she names Ghost, who is playful, intelligent and a master of disguise who communicates with Vinnie through colour. I loved learning so many fascinating facts about this awe-inspiring creature and thought it was wonderful that the story is divided into three sections, named after the three hearts of an octopus.
Vinnie’s two worlds collide when her London life is brought unexpectedly into focus when she is visited by a former employee of her mother, Mr Jedders, who becomes a blight on her new life. What unfinished business does he have with her mother? Why hasn’t Vinnie had any correspondence from Paris? Could there be something more sinister to her mother’s disappearance?
Soon, Vinnie and her friends, Charlie and Temitayo, find themselves thrown into a mystery that leads them into terrible danger and unexpected discoveries as they work together to uncover the truth behind her mother’s sudden disappearance.
I wished I had three hearts like an octopus.
Then maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much if one got broken.
Vinnie is the most wonderful young girl who has been brought up by a mother who shows her affection, but who is also controlling, expecting Vinnie to follow her choices. She has led a very sheltered life, focussed on supporting her mother in her millinery enterprise and obeying her wishes. When she moves to Brighton, she is given much more freedom and, whilst wary of this at first, I love the joy she takes from new experiences such as cycling, sea-bathing and drawing creatures which makes her feel more alive. Vinnie shows incredible strength and tremendous courage to make her own choices, standing up for herself and what she believes in, despite the pain this causes. I adored Vinnie’s relationship with Aunt Bets who is warm-hearted, honest and gregarious, encouraging Vinnie to ‘get doing’, to not be scared to make mistakes to help her learn and to enjoy new experiences.
This story gives both a fascinating and horrifying insight into Victorian Society with the popularity of seaside resorts and aquariums; interest in natural history; the entrenched racism; colonisation; class and gender divisions; the influence of mass media; and, the terrible working and living conditions suffered by many in slums and backstreet workshops. These insights would open so many opportunities for discussion in a classroom as, of course, would finding out more about octopuses. As a teacher, this is a story I would be very excited to use as a class text for English as it has such rich opportunities for enhancing the curriculum. I’m already coming up with so many ideas!
I just have to mention how gorgeous this book looks! The inside covers have fantastic images related to Brighton Aquarium and octopuses; the chapter headings have beautiful drawings of sea creatures; there are newspaper articles; and, factual information related to the Victorians, Brighton Aquarium and octopuses – and even a recipe!
My Friend the Octopus is an unmissable, heartfelt story of friendship, courage and being true to yourself that is perfect for readers of 9+ who are guaranteed to be endlessly entranced by this exceptional story.
Thank you so much to Laura Smythe and Chicken House Books for inviting me to be part of the Blog Tour, and for providing me with a finished copy in exchange for my honest opinion.