Katya Balen’s debut novel for young readers The Space We’re In (Bloomsbury) is an exquisite rendition of a family who, while buffeted by life’s trials, look to each other and the beauty and intricacy of the universe for comfort.
Frank lost much of his loving parents’ time and attention when he was five and his younger brother Max was born. His mother then had no time to paint and his father had no time for bedtime stories. Frank loves Max but since his birth he has “swooping tummy anxiety and knotty worry and burning shame”.
Max has autism. He fears that certain colours will burn him, will eat only a few foods and regularly “melts” into uncontrollable tantrums.
Frank is now ten and starting Year 6. He loves codes, particularly the number-letter-spiral cipher, the golden ratio, football, being a wildboy hunter ninja in the woods and being a spaceboy who loves the stars and spiral galaxies. He is ashamed that he doesn’t defend Max when bullies belittle him and sometimes rages when life with Max becomes too much. Nevertheless, they share a lovely bond.
Max seems to finally be making some progress and starts at a school where the teachers “can talk with their hands and there’s a room of lights that change colour when you press a button. It’s like a spaceship!”
But then something unforeseen decimates the family.
The title, The Space We’re In has several meanings, particularly about living in the situation and space you are in, but it also points to the universe, stars and the stardust that Frank’s kind neighbour tells him everyone is made of.
The Space We’re In is a thoughtful story for families and children who are living with a family member or friend who has autism or suffering grief, as well as others. The writing is wrought with pain but suffused with love and ultimate hope. It has child appeal and is illustrated in emotive black and white by award-winning artist, Laura Carlin. It is a quality book.