Max Kowalski Didn't Mean It by Susie Day

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Max Kowalski Didn't Mean It by Susie Day

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: Exciting, emotional, imaginative and funny, this story has a little bit of everything, and a lead character to love.
Buy? yes Borrow? yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2019
Publisher: Puffin
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780241351390

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When Max’s dad finds himself in a spot of hot water, he disappears for a few days, leaving Max in charge of his three younger sisters, Thelma, Louise and Ripley. Max has no problem with stepping up to fill his dad’s shoes and be the man in charge, but when his dad still doesn’t come home, he starts to panic that interfering grown ups will realise that the children are home-alone, and that they will step in and separate the family. So Max takes his sisters to Wales, to hide out in a friend’s cottage. It won’t be for long, surely? Because his dad wouldn’t miss Christmas, would he?

This book deals with everything, from parental depression, child abandonment, to ideas of toxic masculinity. I love how brave so many children’s books are, throwing in ideas like this, or difficult life situations, and helping children see what’s okay, and good and normal, and what really isn’t. Max is trying so hard to please his dad. He admires and respects his father, and feels that in his dad’s absence, he must step-up himself. He needs to be the big man. He needs to be in charge, and take care of his sisters. As an adult reader, you can see everything that’s wrong with the situation, but you still understand Max, and where these thoughts and ideas are coming from.

Max tries really hard, to make sure everyone is okay, but he’s just a child himself and so being the grown up is really hard, and things go wrong. Still, when they get to Wales they are welcomed by a local family - Bill, Michael and their adopted son Tal. Tal tells Max about the dragon who lives on top of the mountain, guarding a pile of gold, and suddenly Max thinks he can see a way to end all of their problems, if he can just defeat the dragon, and bring home the gold.

Seeing the children left alone to fend for themselves is difficult. It’s very well written, as things start out okay and they have money to have a little fun. But the balance tips quickly into difficulties and danger, and you wonder how the children will manage to be okay. I didn’t much like Max’s dad to be honest, and I’m not sure I was supposed to. It’s clearly an incredibly complicated familial situation. Max’s mum is dead, and through the book you start to learn a little more about her, and how she suffered very badly with depression. This perhaps explains Max’s dad’s behaviour a little more, in that he was left to take care of four young children when his wife died, and clearly he believes in manning up, not showing emotions, and so is probably suffering all kinds of levels of grief himself. Max has a best friend, Elis, whose mum has known Max since he was tiny. I found it incredibly emotional to read the moments where Elis’ mum is so very caring and gentle with Max, knowing how he likes his dinner served in a certain way, or cutting out the label of a jumper because she knows Max finds the labels itchy.

Despite all the darkness in this story, it is still a children’s book, and it’s full of gentle humour too. The relationship Max has with his sisters is funny, and it’s also heartwarming how very hard he tries to look after everyone and make sure they’re okay. The sisters were all quite individual characters, and I wish we could have gotten to know each of them a little more too. I also liked Bill and Michael, how they communicate with Max, each in a very different way, and the small impact they begin to have upon his life. There are imaginative, magical moments too, with stories about the mountain dragon, and Max’s desire to defeat him and claim all of the treasure. This is an excellent and emotional story, with a very appealing lead character.

Further reading suggestion: You might also like to read The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble. We also have a review of Girl Meets Cake by Susie Day.

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