The White Giraffe by Lauren St John

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The White Giraffe by Lauren St John

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Very strong in its descriptions of Africa and in its study of grief, The White Giraffe has a lot to offer. The mystery side of the story is a little weak and Bookbag is unsure how far this series can be sustained. This first instalment is recommended for young nature lovers.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: August 2006
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
ISBN: 1842555200

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When she is eleven years old, Martine's parents die in a tragic house fire. She is sent to live with her grandmother on a game reserve in South Africa. Martine has never met her grandmother, in fact, she didn't even know that her grandmother was still alive. Her parents had never mentioned her. And her grandmother doesn't seem at all happy to meet Martine. Still worse, there seem to be a lot of secrets at Sawubona, and nobody is prepared to tell Martine the truth. Struggling with loneliness and grief, Martine's only comfort is a white giraffe. This rarest of creatures seems to feel an affinity for the lonely little girl and she for it. The white giraffe is regarded on the reserve as nothing more than a fable, but Martine knows he is real. She has ridden him. But the reserve is threatened by poachers. The white giraffe is in danger and Martine is the only one who can keep him safe.

St John is strongest when she is describing the sights, sounds and smells of her beloved Africa. The scenes in the bush are tremendously evocative and Martine's feeling that she has found her spiritual home is very attractive. The White Giraffe weaves African folklore seamlessly into its story and its profound respect for the environment breathes life into every page. Strong also is the sense of Martine's grief and the difficult relationship with her grandmother. Children are masters at picking up undercurrents and at knowing when they're being deceived - if not why they're being deceived - and St John understands this. In The White Giraffe, the adults make more mistakes than the children, and this gives it a wonderfully conspiratorial air. Readers will feel that the author is on their side, and this always attracts them.

The mystery strand is less successful. Martine has a supernatural gift, tied to the ancient folklore of Africa. She is a healer. At the same time, she is also the heroine/detective figure in a mystery novel. I really didn't feel that the two tied together too well. Was I reading a magical story or a detective story? The detective story was compromised by the magic and the magic was compromised by the detecting. A simpler story, using one or the other device, would have worked better, I feel. I think St John should have stuck with the magic. Occasionally, the generally well-chosen vocabulary slips. At one point, when Martine is riding the white giraffe, the sensation is described as vertigo-inducing. What's wrong with vertiginous? And if vertiginous is too difficult a word for young readers, why not just say dizzying?

Unfortunately too, the last page sets us up for another book about Martine. My heart sank. I enjoyed The White Giraffe, despite my criticisms. I thought Martine was an attractive heroine, I thought St John's treatment of her grief was outstanding. I loved the evocative African setting and the strong moral tone. But I think Martine's story was fully told. I would like to see new stories about Africa from St John, not further episodes in the story of some kind of New Age Teenage Superhero with magical powers. But that's the literary world in which we live, I'm afraid. Everything's a brand, even an orphaned child such as Martine. Sigh.

Even though I have moaned, I recommend The White Giraffe. It's not perfect, but it's a sweet read with a very strong and consistent authorial tone. Children aged between 9 and 12, especially those with an interest in animals and the environment, will almost certainly love it.

Thanks to Orion for sending the book. You might also enjoy The Snow Angel by Lauren St John.

Another book that will appeal to young animal and nature lovers is The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

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Magda said:

It vaguely reminded me of 'The Forest of the Pygmies' by Isabelle Allende who, for some bizzare reason is considered to be a good writer; but I think the Giraffe might be perhaps better.

annie@3-c said:

I read The White Giraffe as a review book for Calderdale Library and completely fell in love with it. There is a very strong story line and incedible characters in this book. I would recommend this book to all ages as it is amazing. I read it in one day because I couldn't put it down!

mental.emma said:

I am 12 and i have reviewed the book for a school club and i completely fell in love with it and reccommended it to all my friends so we all went out and bought it IT IT EXCELLENT