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Bowler won the annual Carnegie Medal , recognising the year's best children's book by a British subject. Fifteen-year-old Jess, a dedicated swimmer, dotes on her grandfather, a fiercely independent and cantankerous artist.


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When he falls ill, he insists on returning to the isolated valley where he lived as a child to finish his last painting, a haunting landscape called 'River Boy'. Jess is desperately trying to cope with the knowledge that her grandfather is dying, and she does her best to help him finish the painting that is so important to him. While exploring the valley, Jess feels a strange presence and sees a mysterious boy in the river, now there, now gone. When she eventually meets the boy, he gives her some surprising advice that leads to the painting being finished against everyone's expectations.

In return, he challenges her to join him in swimming down the river from the source to the sea, over forty miles. Jess refuses, saying she must stay with her grandfather, and watches him dive from the waterfall into the river. Soon after, hearing about her grandfather as a boy, she has a sudden revelation, and she swims after the boy to the mouth of the river, where he is waiting for her before finally disappearing.

The Ghost River: a short story by Tony Birch | Books | The Guardian

Jess then learns that her grandfather has died peacefully, leaving her his painting of the 'River Boy', which she now realizes is both a landscape and a portrait of the boy she met — a self-portrait. Susan Cooper described the novel as "a poem, as well as a very moving novel", saying that "A river is a natural metaphor for life and death and Tim Bowler uses it to wonderful effect in this lovely simple story. In announcing the award of the Carnegie Medal , the judges said: River Boy has all the hallmarks of a classic - it deepens with re-reading, and takes the reader on a journey.

You are not the same person at the end of this book". Readers who do not, though, may tire of the repetitious family dithering over an old man who is tyrannical, emotionally remote, and self-absorbed. Sadly, his decline makes for reading more painful than engrossing.


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    I soon learned that other children behaved the same way as the adults. They didn't know any differently, they had never seen anything else.

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    They never imagined there might be a different way to live their lives. I couldn't explain my doubts to them and I did not want to hang around people who talked and treated people like dirt. So I stopped making friends. I used my imagination to create a world I would want to live in. I was always playing in the dirt behind the house, or in the woods or at the river.

    Boy of the River Bank

    My parents never checked on me, never showed much sign that they cared about my well-being. Occasional a group of other children would find me and pick on me. None of the adults who were around, when they were around, never cared enough to look over what all the commotion was about.

    Mother spent most of her time in the garden and kitchen. I chipped in and helped once in a while but she hardly wanted to talk. Once I decided to help her make soap and she warned me about the dangers of lye. It crossed my mind to wonder if dad would have even warned me. Occasionally I turned on the radio but there were usually only lectures on tolerance and egalitarianism and the newscasts were so generalized that listeners did not know what they were about.