One thing I find reassuring in my effort to become a children’s author is the knowledge that someone else in the family has already managed it. Simon Mayo, the popular radio broadcaster (who presents a weekly film review show with Mark Kermode that I listen to every week), is a distant relative of mine, second or third cousin once removed I think. We’ve never met apart from a brief conversation on Twitter but since his first and, so far, only book falls neatly into the type of storytelling I’ve built my life around, I definitely feel something of a connection with him.
Itch tells the story of the unenviably named Itchingham Lofte, a fourteen-year-old living in Cornwall. The boy known as Itch has an unusual hobby; he’s an element hunter with the goal of collecting examples of all 118 of the known elements and maybe conducting an experiment or two along the way. This habit leads him to occasionally blow up his room or inadvertently poison his classmates but it leads to something rather more serious when he acquires a rock of what he believes to be uranium. The rock exhibits some very irregular characteristics and before long attracts the unwelcome attentions of his odious chemistry teacher and a shady multinational oil corporation.
The story works because the subject matter isn’t obvious and Mayo does an excellent job of making science an exciting focus for a children’s story and his trump card is his hero. An outsider, an oddball and a seeker of the illicit, Itch is effortlessly likeable and his adventures play out like a modern update of classic stories about ordinary kids in extraordinary situations. You can tell also that the author has drawn on the experience of having kids to make his young characters very believable even if there is just the occasional line of dialogue you can’t ever imagine a fourteen-year-old saying.
The writing does show some of the signs of a first time author at work with lengthy periods of narrative exposition but he gets away with it thanks to a breezy writing style that rattles along at a quick pace and a clear passion for the material. There are also one or two early episodes that seem at first somewhat inconsequential and leave you wondering when the plot will get into gear but it’s never less than engaging. The only real complaint I have is with the sheer volume of vomiting in the story, something I hate, but given how the plot unfolds it should be acknowledged that this is not only necessary but unavoidable.
But if the story saunters at first, as soon as Itch gets hold of his special rock it grips and never lets go. As the reality of what Itch has discovered slowly becomes clear the implications of what might happen make for an exciting and often unpredictable thriller. You’ll certainly care about what happens to Itch and his partners in crime, sister Chloe and cousin Jack and the various twists of their endeavours evoke classic themes of plucky kids struggling against imposing adult antagonists, an often irresistible approach to adventure. Meanwhile the extent of research necessary to a story of this nature shows through and never leaves you in any doubt of its authenticity.
Itch is a really cracking debut that will keep you well entertained and wanting more and the good new is there will be; the sequel, Itch Rocks, is due out this year.