The Boy Who Lost His Spark by Maggie O’Farrell, illus. Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

Review by Oishi Bhattacharya

Walker Books Ltd, October 2022

112 pages. Hardcover. $31.86 CAD. 9781406392012.

Ages 7+, Grades 2+

Fiction, Fantasy, Folklore

Not so long ago, Jem would have picked up a spade and joined her but lately he hadn’t felt like it; it was as if someone had put misted-up glasses on his face and he could no longer see the fun or the magic in Verity’s games. He missed their flat, he missed the city —  its yellow pools of streetlights, the trams that used to rattle past at night. He felt so low and listless, sitting there, as if his insides had been stuffed with damp rags. Instead of telling his mother and sister this, it seemed easier to stand up, fight his way through the woollen maze and shout: “I’m tired of hearing about the stupid nouka. There’s no such thing!”

Have you heard of the nouka? The nouka are little creatures from an old folk tale who live inside a hill and come out at night to cause mischief.

Jem, his younger sister, Verity, and their mum move from the city to a house on the side of a hill in the countryside. Jem doesn’t like his new home one bit. Nothing feels quite right, and peculiar things start to happen: Jem discovers his shoes filled up with conkers, a cheese grater ends up in the washing machine, and a ball of wool is used to create a woolen web across the stairs. Verity is convinced that it is the work of a nouka while Jem refuses to believe in their existence.

O’Farrell subtly weaves in details to make Jem a realistic character that will resonate with readers at all levels. He struggles at school, where his “hands and feet liked to keep moving” and “numbers and letters wouldn’t behave for him.” He struggles with his emotions, bottling up his sadness inside him. Indeed, one day as Jem stamps on the hill with anger, he wakes a nouka living inside. The nouka doesn’t like unhappiness, and seeks to bring contentment through its mischief, because, to the nouka, being “near a happy human was like sitting in a sunbeam.” Much like Jem, the nouka is also emotionally layered, providing Jem with a deeper understanding of the creature. Jem’s knowledge of the nouka’s existence allows him to forge a better relationship with his new home and his family, finally feeling satisfied being exactly where he is. 

O’Farrell’s prose is sprinkled with humour. For instance, the nouka’s humming encourages a man to eat ice cream for dinner, and suddenly incites a woman to cut off all her hair and dye it blue. Her prose is richly descriptive: “everyone was covered in crisp red and gold leaves — they were stuck to jumpers, they adhered to faces, they fell from cuffs and hems.” There is also a nice rhythm to her language which is sure to engage younger readers who are listening to the story.

O’Farrell’s descriptions complement Terrazzini’s stunning illustrations that bring the story to life. Her watercolour images are vibrant, textured, and evocative. Terrazzini’s full spread illustrations are especially breathtaking, immersing the reader in the world of the story. The words of the nouka’s song fades in and out of almost every page, reminding the reader that the nouka is always there.

The Boy Who Lost His Spark is a chapter book disguised as a picture book. Younger readers will enjoy the story when read aloud, and the illustrations are captivating for all ages. As the reader gets older, they will learn new ways to appreciate the beauty of the prose, allowing for the audience to grow into the book. It highlights the importance of speaking up about all kinds of feelings and encourages readers to embrace their curiosity and imagination. Sometimes, we just have to let loose to find the spark within ourselves—a little harmless mischief might be just what we need.

Oishi Bhattacharya graduated from UBC with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and is returning for a Master of Arts in English Literature in the fall. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, cooking, taking pictures, and watching sports and films.

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