At first glance, Sarah Holding’s debut children’s novel SeaBEAN doesn’t look like a children’s book at all. The cover is a plain dark blue with some vague outlines in the background. Yet this is just an interesting trick – because on closer inspection, when you hold your hand against the cover, the special ink gives way to a striking view of the ocean. This funny little deception links directly to the novel’s content and the adventures that lay in store for the main character.
It’s 2018, and 11-year-old Alice lives on the remote Scottish island of St. Kilda. It has only recently been re-inhabited by a group of scientists and their families. Alice finds herself in school with only five other children. One day, their school is anonymously offered a mysterious new classroom called the C-bean. It’s a black cube with no obvious entrance, but Alice gets a chance to try it out before anybody else on the island. This intuitive device seems to recognise her as its ‘administrator’ by the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand.
During an average school day, Alice and her friends step into the C-bean and discover that it can transport them to anywhere they want. They travel to several world cities, to the Brazilian rainforest and back. This is all very exciting to them, but in the midst of their adventures they discover criminal activities that can seriously harm the planet’s environment. In the meantime, their own beautiful island is threatened to be destroyed by oil drillings. It’s up to them to save their home.
This story is very entertaining for children and pleasant to read for adults as well. I really liked reading a book where – as in the ‘old days’ – playing in the wild outdoors without parents is still adventurous without being really dangerous. The isle of St. Kilda provides an ideal place for good old adventures and exploration for Alice and her friends – it reminds me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. This does not mean the story is old-fashioned. In contrast to the ‘back to nature’ theme, there is the C-bean with its futuristic technology. This mix works really well and supports the ongoing attention for nature preservation in our modern world.
The author has done well in describing a vivid image of each of the situations that the friends run in to. She makes the story come to life, letting you actually feel the rain and wind, the rustle of leaves and the heat that the children encounter on their travels. Every now and then, the third person’s perspective is alternated by Alice’s personal blog. This provides some narrative variety, but the real purpose remains somewhat vague. Particularly because – although the passages are so fashionably called a blog – nobody seems to read or respond to them. This seems rather unlikely, as one would assume that the closely-knit inhabitants would read the only blog on their island! Then again, having them read the blog would probably influence Alice’s adventures. Therefore I feel that this ‘blog’ is in fact an old-fashioned personal diary in disguise. All in all, Holding succeeds remarkably in describing the story’s settings – although some things are left unexplained and not all characters are fully developed.
Sometimes the author might press a little too hard on advocating the topic of nature conservation. A subtler approach might encourage some young readers more to have their own thoughts about the subject. However, combining nature and animals with adventure and friendship is sure to engage young readers. This novel being part of a trilogy, the second part called SeaWAR will be out in March and deserves looking out for!