For some reason (well, the Africa and animals connection is one obvious one, but there’s more) I tend to think of these two of Michael Morpurgo’s books together, so here they are, back-to-back.
This is a sweet tale, while still being a boy’s story. It’s one where hard things happen to the young and innocent, but where truth and reality aren’t always the same thing, nor easy to identify. Below the surface it seems to me today to be about friendship, caring and depending on others, but not parents. Both Bertie and Millie have parents who aren’t entirely there for them, through illness, emotional and/or physical distance (this last at least also applies to the narrator) or death (and this one also applies to the white lion. Each of them finds affection and support, from each other, but they go through some pretty harrowing events along the way. (These are not described in a harrowing way, and the story might be a good way into discussions of loss, mental illness, WWI and the trenches, and more.)
Like Bertie and Millie, Olly and her older brother Matt lose a parent early (in their case their father). Differently, however, they have a large extended family around to support their mother (or at least give her advice). They also don’t grow up surrounded by the vast acres of Bertie’s African ranch or Millie’s English country estate. They do, however, make good use of the (sub)urban garden they have, with Matt building a hide in the garden to watch the nesting swallows.
I like this short book a lot, particularly in the way it can use a swallow as a point-of-view character without anthropomorphising the swallow. Hero has feelings like fear and determination that make perfect sense in context.
I suppose it just shows how well-written the book is that my main frustration is with character response to a particular situation – having grown up in Ireland, if a close relative of mine had gone off in the night and the first news was a postcard saying he was working in an orphanage in Rwanda run by Irish nuns and headed by one Sister Christina, but without giving an address to be able to contact him by, my reaction would be to phone the nearest Catholic priest or convent, on the assumption they would be able to find out at very least the address of the orphanage, given those details. Olly and Matt’s mother doesn’t do that. Knowing her son, she lets him take the path he’s chosen, and waits for him to get in touch again.
- Media types (kaet.wordpress.com)
- Fiction for older children – reviews (guardian.co.uk)
- Official Plot Synopsis for Steven Spielberg’s WAR HORSE (geektyrant.com)
- Let children be the judge of a good book (telegraph.co.uk)
- Nick Hornby sets up Ministry of Stories to create ‘a nation of storytellers’ (telegraph.co.uk)