The Acrobats of Agra

Authored by Robin Scott-Elliot
Illustrated by Holly Ovenden
Published by Everything With Words

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One of the most common questions I’m asked by pupils about writing is how to go from that first flash of inspiration to a fully fleshed-out story idea. In some ways, it can be more daunting to go from idea to plan than from plan to actual page.

The method Robin Scott-Elliot used to create The Acrobats at Agra is a brilliant example of how professional writers solve this very dilemma. He uncovered one of those lovely stranger-than-fiction historical nuggets – that a French travelling circus found itself trapped in the real-life 1857 siege of Agra – and started posing questions about it until he found himself sitting in front of a story, waiting to be written.

This kind of writerly curiosity has long produced works of brilliance. Mary Shelley famously spun out the story of Frankenstein from a news article about a stitched together frog. While, in his recent Just Imagine talk, Chris Van Allsburg explained that his early works grew from single images that he then interrogated (a dog running between topiaries for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and rhinos charging through a living room for Jumanji). So, former sports journalist Scott-Elliot can certainly feel assured that both he and his tale sit snugly in this impressive imaginative tradition.

Acrobats charts the fortunes of three orphans during the political chaos that engulfed India during the country’s First War of Independence. Following as it does from the success of his first offering, The Tzar’s Curious Runaways, it establishes Scott-Elliot, himself a history graduate, as a real talent in the genre of children’s historical fiction. In many respects, this story of three gutsy young outsiders traversing a historic and exotic culture is reminiscent of Secrets of the Sun King by Emma Carroll, another titan of the same genre.

Acrobats is told through the eyes of Beatrice Spelling, a defiant Scottish lass who finds herself upended and thrown from her beloved lochs and her indulgent Grannie to the dust and dire decorum of English-occupied Agra and her stiff-necked aunt and uncle. Bea is an interesting narrator, lovable for sure, but also petulant, easily distracted and often thinking faster than even she can keep up with. This leads to her having an incredibly distinctive voice, one that Scott-Elliot only wrangles under control through the use of long sentences which dart in and out of hyphens and between parenthesis. Her jabbering, infectious excitement is perfectly balanced by her two companions, trapeze artist Jacques and Pin, a servant who has read and memorised every book in the governor’s mansion. They both represent a kind of serenity, albeit one through physicality and the other through intellect/spirituality, in a book that rarely stops for a breath once it gets going.

It is beyond the central trio though, that perhaps the most interesting characters lie. On the one hand, we have the fearsome and inspiring rani, warrior queen of the Jhansi, and on the other, Miss Goodenough, a prim and proper – though not to be trifled with – English schoolmistress. They are opposites in so many ways, except perhaps in their unshakability of spirit and that fact that readers finish the book wanting to hear more from both of them. As admirable as she is, the rani brings a real sense of danger with her, always seeming like she might turn on the central characters and yet always acting from a clear love and devotion to her beleaguered country. Then Miss Goodenough seems just the sort of starched conformist that Bea would despair of. However, it is memories of her lessons, advice and example that, time and time again, steels our heroine to overcome her most trying moments. This leads readers to think there must be more to the teacher than we first assumed. It alludes to the grit we glimpsed when she led her class through the chaos of the streets when the uprising first broke out. Without giving anything away, the epilogue then raises even more questions about Miss Goodenough, perhaps even more so than it does about Bea, whose story seems quite nearly wrapped up.

The setting is so important to the story and Scott-Elliot goes to great pains to evoke the sights, sounds and smells of India. The descriptions are vivid and detailed, lending such weight to the culture and the landscape, which ranges from bustling city to dusty tracks to dense jungle. These details are helped into life by the stark and engaging illustrations by Holly Ovenden peppered throughout.

Similar prominence is given to the history from which the tale grows, particularly the cruel actions of the occupying British. The politics is not deeply delved into but the strength of feeling in the heart of the Indians, as well as the racist indifference of many English at the time, come across clearly. I can see this book sparking interesting and important discussions about our country’s history and legacy, as well as further research and enquiry.

Acrobats greatly reminded me of books that have proved extremely popular in year 4, 5 and 6 classrooms. Not only the works of Emma Carroll, but also The Girl Who Stole an Elephant and, in tone and character rather than content, there are reflections of modern romping adventures such as the Cogheart series and even classics including The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

History always has the best stories and Scott-Elliot really has unearthed one of them. It is exciting and accessible but also teaches children more about our world as it was (and thus why it is as it is). A definite recommendation for any upper KS2 classroom.