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BOOK REVIEW: How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

| 29 June 2017 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: How to Bee by Bren MacDibble

Allen & Unwin
May 2017
Paperback, $16.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Middle Grade / Climate Fiction


A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too-possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live.

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony’s mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony’s grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

Since the bees died out, people have taken over their role, with kids climbing up among the branches to pollinate the flowers. Because without bees, everything else starts to fall apart. Without bees, there would be no fresh fruits and vegetables, and the whole circle of life would be in trouble.
The farm’s full of circles. Bees, flowers, fruit. Pests, chooks, eggs. People, bees, flowers, fruit, pests, chooks, eggs, people…all overlapping circles. I don’t understand how it went before the famine. Poison? That’s like cutting the circles right through the middle. The circle can’t go nowhere but a dead end. No wonder the little bees stopped working and left us to starve.
Peony is a pest (one who picks insects from the fruit and gives them to her chooks, which in turn give the family eggs), who longs so terribly much to “bee”.
Chooks is born being chooks and that’s all they’ll ever be. Not like a dog, which could be a sheep dog, or a cow dog, or a guard dog, or a dog that pulls a blind person around. Not like a girl that’s born in a shed and crawls around in the dirt till she learns to be a pest, and then could be a bee or a bagger or picker, or even a foreman one day.
She loves her farm, and the circle of life she sees there. She loves her grandfather, her sister Mags (Magnolia), and her best friend Applejoy.
The work lets up as the summer goes on, and Foreman puts a pig on a roasting spit to celebrate. I dunno what’s higher than a king, but holding a hunk of fine oat bun with a pile of white baked meat, soft and falling apart in my mouth, juice running down my chin, I’m eating like that. Higher than a king.
She doesn’t care about money, or fancy clothes, or posh lessons, or shoes. 
Lessons start on the speakers. Urbs don’t like that we farm kids are too busy to get educated, so lessons get played over the speakers while we work.
Today’s lesson’s just for us. It’s about the history of the bees. Not us. The real ones they used to have thirty years ago before the famines.
Until the day her mother snatches her away to the city to work for a rich family, cleaning up after people who have more rooms than she can count, and far too much at their fingertips to see the waste they produce. 
Here, she meets Esmerelda, a girl who has been so coddled she fears even setting foot in her own yard because of all the dangerous people who live outside, and an unlikely friendship begins.
‘How come you call me Ez?’ she says.
‘Oh soz,’ I say. I’m s’posed to treat her like a cherry blossom, and I keep forgetting.
‘No,’ she says and opens both eyes. ‘I like it. I don’t feel like scared little Esmeralda when you call me Ez. I feel brave, as if I could run along tree branches like a bee.’
I laugh coz there’s no way she could be a bee. She’d get to the first tree and tell me to do it for her.
From the last two sentences of the first chapter of Bren MacDibble’s new middle grade cli-fi novel, I was hooked.
Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

By the time I was twenty percent in, I had forgotten I was reading a book, so engaged was I by this gorgeous, cheerful, caring, headstrong girl. The relationships are gorgeous; the slang is easy to grasp and adopt; and, despite dealing with some pretty serious struggles, both personal and environmental, this is ultimately a story of love and hope for a better future.

I will be keeping an eager eye out for more of MacDibble’s books, and suggest you do likewise.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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