A number of classic children’s stories start with death or dislocation: Anne leaves her orphanage for Green Gables, Mary crosses the ocean to arrive at Misselthwaite Manor and discover the Secret Garden, Papa Alcott is absent at the Civil War front, leaving his Little Women to fend for themselves–and, in a more explicit early twentieth-century influence of Johnson’s, the orphan and impoverished Bettany sisters head to the Austrian Alps to start the Chalet School. The disruption of normal life, and a stable family unit, is (perhaps perversely), fertile ground for adventure and agency for children and teens (as critics of children’s literature have observed); as the world around them changes, they get to create their own world, and their own selves. How to Be Brave (2021) is a modern boarding-school adventure story that nevertheless draws solidly on this principle–though it begins with a tragedy, and a dislocation, it ends in hi-jinks and the finding of home ground and family.
The story opens with a young girl named Elizabeth, who loves her family and her dog, and loses both. She is sent to a boarding-school run by nuns, who take after Maria in the Sound of Music in their enjoyment of treats and games, and their unconventional lessons (helicopter maintenance rather than singing harmonies). Lost in grief, Elizabeth finds herself back on solid ground when she finds a duck, somehow migrated to England from the Amazon, with a broken wing and nurses it back to health and freedom–but in the process she makes an enemy. Some years later, Elizabeth heads to the Amazon on a scientific quest for this duck, and her young daughter Calla somewhat unwillingly but bravely retraces her mother’s steps to the School of the Good Sisters. Here she not only encounters her mother’s old enemy–a complex and chilling creation–but also finds friends Edie and Hanna and a burgeoning revolution among the students.
The action is a bit hard to follow at times, but it often displays the enjoyable madcap energy of the best Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton stories–indeed, Johnson suggests that the initiative shown by the girls is based on years of reading the best of children’s fiction (including more modern and contemporary authors like Eva Ibbotson and Robin Stevens). How to Be Brave (the sequel How to Be True is out later this year) deserves to be read on a window-sill with a glass of milk and a plate of biscuits–it’s a hoot (or rather a quack)–a chaotic adventure with a tang of melancholy.