This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!
If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:
- Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
- Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
- Write three words to describe the book
- Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
One of the many reasons that I love this meme created by Mary Rees is that it presents the opportunity to revisit great books published in previous years, which can so easily be overlooked as blogs generally focus on new releases. This week I am looking at a book first published in 2019, which presents a perfect combination of historical fiction and present day refugee story, The Closest Thing to Flying.
Author: Gill Lewis
Illustrator: Paola Escobar
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Favourite sentence from Page 11:
“ The ink had bled into the cloth, but Semira could read the words, The Feather Diaries.”
This book in three words: Courage – Kindness – Empowerment
This beautifully written novel combines the story of Henrietta the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy feather merchant in Victorian London with the modern day experience of Semira, a twelve year-old refugee from Eritrea as she tries to find a better life for herself and her mother in London. Such is the skill of Gill Lewis, that she has crafted a powerful and deeply moving story which has remained with me long after first reading it.
The tale opens with Semira impulsively buying an old-fashioned hat, along with its accompanying hatbox, from a London street market when the bird ornamenting the hat elicits a deep-seated memory. Closer inspection of her purchase back “home” in the single room she shares with her mother in a house run by Robel, a people-trafficker, reveals the bird to be a real stuffed specimen and the discovery of the diary written by Henrietta Waterman in the 1890s, referred to in the quote from page 11 above.
Hen’s diary unfurls a story of escape from the confines of Victorian society’s expectations of female behaviour as Hen is taken under the wing of her rebellious Aunt Katherine (Kitty) and becomes involved in the women’s suffrage movement and the foundation of the RSPB. Her realisation of the horrors inflicted by her father as he exploits wildlife for profit reveal the provenance of the Abyssinian lovebird on the hat, and her courage in breaking with etiquette in order to ride a bicycle both help to embolden Semira.
Meanwhile, Semira has to face another new school and the continued agony of seeing her noble mother isolated and controlled by Robel. This aspect of the story is written very sensitively so that children of 10+ can understand what it must feel like to go without food, not be allowed access to the internet and have your life completely controlled by someone, without the details ever becoming too overwhelming for this age group. Older readers will be able to infer much more, such is the perfection of the writing.
The school setting provides some lovely additional characters. Holly and Chloe, on the surface the sort of “cool” girls that Semira would usually avoid, are the two buddies who show her the ropes and develop into kind friends, and Patrick who is bullied for being different and is a fellow lunchtime “library refugee”. As the friendship with Patrick develops and the recognition that he and his mother had to flee from the imprisonment of domestic abuse (again handled very sensitively), an escape route beckons for Semira and her mother.
I love the structure of the story with chapters alternating between Semira’s struggles in modern day London and extracts from Henrietta’s diary, which emboldens Semira to take action against her predicament. Throughout, the motif of the caged bird, plucked from its homeland and exploited by greedy capitalists is used to great effect, as is cycling as a metaphor for flying free from the shackles in which some people are trapped.
I think this is one of the finest examples of a story which is both an incredibly satisfying and enjoyable read as well as providing so many lessons in empathy without ever seeming sanctimonious. It places you in the shoes of others for a short time and helps you understand the hardships they suffer and also demonstrates how the recognition of the suffering of others followed by kindness and mentoring, can make such a huge difference to individual lives. This is certainly a book which should be available in every school or upper KS2 classroom library.