Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Fil and Harry
By Jenny Blackford
Illustrated by Kristin Devine
May 2021, ISBN: 9780648815402, RRP: $15.99
Jenny Blackford’s writing spans multiple genres: sci fi, poetry, mystery, children and young adult. No matter what she writes, it’s always warm and engaging. Blackford’s latest junior novel is pitched at readers from age seven, an often awkward age from a reading point of view—too old for picture books and too young for YA. Fil and Harry is perfectly pitched, with a funny, clever, sophisticated story that is nevertheless easy to read with vocabulary that isn’t too advanced for young readers but not babyish either. The simple vocabulary and relatable situations that Fil finds herself in will engage readers while teaching them new words like “personified” and “gullible”.The text is reasonably large, with plenty of white space, so that the book reads very quickly.
Fil is the nickname of Filomena and Harry is her cat, who has suddenly begun to talk. A talking cat is not Fil’s only problem. She is also struggling with her fickle friend Kirsten who suddenly isn’t returning her calls. She is also missing her mother, who has moved to Perth. Her grandmother has overstayed her welcome and is painting every room in the house, her older brother Stephen is ignoring her, and her stepmother Elspeth has banned all unhealthy food, and gives Fil strange wholemeal sandwiches, making her even more of an outcast at school. Fil is at the point of overwhelm, when Harry begins talking and Fil doesn’t always like what he has to say. Blackford knows her cats and Harry is both as charming and laconic as you’d expect from a talking moggie:
‘I’m not stupid, you know,’ the cat said. ‘In cat years, I’m heaps older than you.’ He stuck his tail high in to the air. ‘And I’m much more sensible.’ (10)
Harry is right that he’s not stupid–his observations are sharp and accurate, but Fil has to learn her own lessons. Harry’s wry encouragement and cuddly body helps though as she comes to understand not only Kirsten’s limitations but her own strengths and the power of her familial support.
The highly detailed black and white illustrations by Kristin Devine add additional character and further engage young readers. There are just enough images to lighten and balance the text without making it feel like a picture book. As with all of Blackford’s work, Fil and Harry manages the perfect balance between fast moving suspense, engaging characterisation, and gentle accessible humour. The work is never too sweet nor too dark, and the tone works for all ages, including adults, who will find Fil and Harry a surprisingly pleasurable read, whether read alone or aloud to a willing young listener (something I highly recommend!).
The slightly teasing relationship between young Fil and her cat is one that works very well and Fil and Harry make such a good pair that I can imagine a whole series built around the two and their adventures. In the meantime, this book would make a terrific gift for any young reader looking for an engaging story and challenging but not too challenging step up in their reading. Fil and Harry is a delightful book, uplifting and warm without being cheesy.