When the Sky Falls is a story not to be missed. It is a long time since I have properly sobbed whilst reading a children’s book but Phil Earle you completely broke me with this heart wrenching story set in World War II.
Inspired by the true story of the man who, unable to fight, joined the Homefront army and was tasked with standing in front of the lion cages at Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester (sadly no longer standing), with one job – should the bombs blow out the cage walls – shoot the lions to avoid them rampaging the city. This recount told to Phil by a family member planted the seed in his mind that blossomed into the beautiful story that is When the Sky Falls.
Joseph is an aggrieved and very angry young boy who has been abandoned his whole life and finds himself the only child coming into London (when all others are being evacuated out to the countryside). Joseph, already abandoned by his sick mother, and soldier father, finds himself pushed away by his grandmother to live with a gruff woman who is in charge of London Zoo.
The relationship between Joseph and Mrs F is not dissimilar to that of Willie Beech and Tom Oakley in Goodnight Mr Tom. There is no love lost on first appearance but as the story unfolds a bond develops that proves lifesaving for them both.
Joseph has several battles to fight throughout the book. First when he meets his match in Mrs F, dealing with Syd, a girl who attempts a friendship – an unfamiliar relationship for this frustrated child. Subsequently he has to face school – which has bullies young and old. An interesting element to Joseph’s character is that he is gifted at maths but also dyslexic. Of course not formally recognized in the 1940s, it is met with dismissal and abhorrence by the ‘demon’ utilitarian headmaster Mr Gryce. Fortunately Miss Doherty (the Miss Honey class teacher) has a more child-centred approach and Syd and Mrs F are also supportive in their own (very different) ways.
The real star of the story is Adonis, not a lion but as the stunning cover design by Levente Szabo reveals, a magnificent primate: a gorilla with deathly strength but also a strength of heart that far exceeds his physical presence. The relationship that builds between beast and boy is raw and real and makes the events of the story’s climax all the harder to bear. There is an inevitability that the ending is going to be heart-breaking but Phil keeps the reader guessing as to the exact outcome for his star characters.
Phil’s 20th title does not disappoint and I have no doubt it will be a huge success with children and teachers alike in both KS2 and KS3 classrooms. Like Emma Carroll’s Letters from the Lighthouse or Tom Palmer’s D-Day Dog, this book has a strong historical context but at its heart it is a personal story about ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. I am thoroughly looking forward to Phil’s next title about a child intent on saving domestic animals that have been ordered to controlled death by the government at the outbreak of the Second World War.
This title features in our Year 6 Reading Gladiators challenge.
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