Once upon a time I saw Keith Gray fairly often at book festivals and library events at both of which I often found myself interviewing him. In that way I kept up to date with his writing and enjoyed his books very much. And then he and his partner upped sticks for her native Austria, my circumstances changed and I lost touch with his books. But they’ve always stayed in my head so I was delighted to be sent a review copy of The Climbers, his brand new book.
By rights I shouldn’t really enjoy Keith’s writing as much as I do. He’s always said that he writes for the reluctant boy reader he once was. I’ve never been either! I devoured books from an early age. I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t read and, although not a pink and sparkly girl, I tended to read school and family stories with lots of character development. But from the time I read Malarkey, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in one of the years I was judging, I’ve been an admirer of his books.
The Climbers is about tree climbing and a group of teenagers in a small village. Except, of course, it isn’t. Oh, that’s the basic premise and there is plenty of arboreal action but actually it’s about people and their development and relationships. Tree climbing is as much a metaphor as a plotline.
Sully is the undisputed champion tree-climber in the village and that is what defines him. He needs this one certainty and security in a life that doesn’t have its troubles to seek. When Nottingham arrives in the village and demonstrates his tree-climbing prowess, Sully’s very raison d’etre is threatened. Suddenly, it seems, everything and everyone around him is changing. There is only one way to resolve things: by scaling the last unclimbed tree in the park.
The Climbers isn’t a long book and, although it’s for teenagers, it has a reading age of eight. But Keith’s understated writing packs a mean punch and the impact of the book is great. Without labouring his point, Keith pushes his readers to consider what is really happening in Sully’s life and what his rivalry with Nottingham is actually about.
Before I go, I must give a shout-out to Barrington Stoke, the publisher, and also to Tom Clohosy Cole for his beautiful cover illustration.