Secrets, lies, promises. Sometimes keeping things inside is dangerous…
I think we can all recall times when friendships became strained at school and the awkwardness and pain of trying to get back on track with our besties. As a teacher I have witnessed children grappling many a time with the nuances of friendship groups and Cath Howe explores this in her latest thrilling and edgy read, The Insiders.
Callie, Ted, Zara and Nico are best friends. In fact more than friends, they’re like family to each other. As Callie’s mum is a child-minder, she cares for the children after school each night and the four-some spend long evenings hanging out together in the summer house at the bottom of Callie’s garden. Callie’s summer house is total childhood goals! It has a comfy sofa, beanbags and blankets and even a heater, great as the chilly autumn nights are drawing in.
But Ted is about to become an outsider to the group. When money worries hit home, he tries to help and suggests to his mum that he’s old enough to stay home by himself, saving money on after school care. Even though he only lives next door, this means spending evenings alone – no more sumer house or dinners round Callie’s big kitchen table.
Ted has always been the quietest member of the group. He’s a fantastic listener but finds speaking out in school difficult. Being the smallest kid in the class doesn’t help either and he’s often singled out by teacher Mr Dunlop who is possibly the most joyless, meanest man the world has ever known. When the class are rehearsing their class assembly, Mr Dunlop ridicules Ted in front of his peers for not speaking loudly enough, making it impossible for him to get his words out at all.
Just before the actual assembly performance, bully Billy Fenton squirts orange juice right down the front of Ted’s trousers. No-one, including Ted notices until it’s too late and when he stands centre stage, his unfortunate ‘accident’ is there for all to see. It’s the most excruciating humiliation ever and he’s the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Ted becomes more and more withdrawn. He sits up in the Big tree in his garden, spying on the others. So he sees the others find the hole under Callie’s fence that leads to their school grounds. Curiosity gets the better of the children and one night, they decide to explore. Sneaking in through an open classroom window, they discover movement inside the building and a light on in the library – could someone be sleeping in their school at night..?
Meanwhile Billy Fenton’s mum has gone on holiday to Lanzarote and he’s been forced to stay with his dad and his new family. The newborn baby never stops screaming and his teenage step sister, Kingsley, has it in for him. When dad suddenly goes away for a few days with work, Kingsley unleashes her fury on Billy and makes his life a misery. With mum away until the weekend, Billy knows he can’t take anymore so he tells his exhausted step mum he’s off to stay with a friend to work on a school project. Problem is, Billy doesn’t have that many friends. Going back home to the flat would arouse suspicion from the nosy neighbours so where can Billy go…?
Concrened about Ted, Callie tries to chat to him at school. But when he surprises her by asking if she entered the school building at night, she panics and says no. Unbeknown to her, Nico has already bragged about the group’s night-time antics. Hurt that she’s lied to him, Ted slinks off and blanks her from then on. From his vantage point in the tree, Ted sees everything his ex-best friend gets up to, including her helping a stricken Billy Fenton. Consumed by jealously and hatred, he plans his revenge on Billy with disastrous consequences and the story comes to a dramatic climax on Bonfire Night – keeping it all inside is dangerous.
The narration seamlessly switches between Callie, Ted and Billy, each giving their unique perspective as the tension is triangulated. Cath Howe is completely on-point with her portrayal of the complexities of friendships. The ease at which misunderstandings arise and the danger of filling in the gaps without knowing the full story. You never know what someone is going through behind closed doors and appearances can be deceiving.
I think every child will identify with one of the characters within the group of friends in the story due to their unique personality traits. I also think the secrecy and the slightly dark element of the story, with its ever-present sense of danger and threat of being found-out will enthrall upper primary pupils – I know I was and devoured it in a matter of hours!
The Insiders publishes on the 5th May. With thanks to Sîan at Nosy Crow for the proof copy of the book.