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The Young Quills Award by Elizabeth Hawksley

June 21, 2013

Swindells  In 1906, The Historical Association was set up ‘to support the study and enjoyment of history.’ And in 2010, it inaugurated the Young Quills Award for children’s historical fiction. There are two sections: Primary and Secondary. The award is unusual in that the young people themselves nominate, review and short-list the historical novels they have enjoyed and only then do the adult judges get involved with the final decisions.

The Historical Novel Society has reviewed all the short-listed books for 2012. I myself reviewed two books in the Secondary section. The first was A Skull in Shadow’s Lane by Robert Swindells.

1946, England. Jinty, age eleven, and her ten-year-old brother, Josh, live in the sleepy village of Coney Cley where nothing ever happens. Or so they think – until they decide to explore Shadows Lane and the abandoned Cornflower Cottage, which is rumoured to be haunted. But it isn’t until they see a living skull in an upstairs window that they realize the rumours are true.

Paul Bluet, a traumatized man returned from the death camps is camping out in the cottage. He is right to be scared; an ex-camp guard on the run has just recognized him ….  

I read this book at a sitting and couldn’t put it down. The period detail is convincing without being intrusive. And the post-war mindset is just right, too. For example, the more formal relationships between pupils and teachers are nicely caught; not to mention the greater freedom for children – no health and safety concerns in evidence! Historically, it showed both the austerities of post-war Britain, as well as the darker side of war.

M GleitzmanMy second book was Morris Gleitzman’s After.

It opens in 1945, in Poland. The Germans are in retreat but Nazi death squads are still hunting down Jews. Thirteen-year-old Felix is in hiding, protected by Gabriek, a Pole who occasionally works with the partisans. When Gabriek disappears, Felix goes in search of the partisans hiding in the forest. Will they take him in, or will they kill him?

Felix’s parents have been taken to a death camp; he has seen people beaten, brutalized and murdered; he is in great danger himself, yet, somehow, he manages to retain his basic human decency and hold onto hope.

He learns that in a situation where humanity is stripped down to the bone, when all that’s left is your name, you must choose whether you will be a kind and decent human being, even in such horrific circumstances, or someone who can only feel hatred – a destroyer. Felix chooses to be a ‘mending person’.

I was gripped by this book; it was inspiring and it also moved me to tears.

In theMitchelhill Primary section, I reviewed The Road to London, by Barbara Mitchelhill.

It opens in 1598. Thirteen-year-old Thomas Munmore, a cobbler’s son living in Stratford-upon-Avon, longs to be an actor.

When he’s forced to flee after being caught poaching, he makes for London with his friend, Alice. But things do not work out as planned. Far from being a city whose streets are paved with gold, as Thomas believes, Elizabethan London is dirty and dangerous. Thomas manages to get work with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company but then he and Alice find themselves caught up in a treasonous plot to kill the queen….

Road to London is a terrific read, and doesn’t pull its punches about Elizabethan London. It’s a filthy, smelly, and dangerous place, there are few provisions to help those in need; justice is skewed in favour of the rich, and starvation is an everyday reality. Nobody cares whether Thomas or Alice live or die.


Finally, I reviewed The Great Escape by Megan Rix, set in the summer of 1939. Robert Edwards, aged twelve, and his nine-year-old sister, Lucy, live in London. They have three pets: a collie, Rose, once a sheepdog on a farm in Devon; Buster, a lively Jack Russell terrier; and a ginger and white cat called Tiger.

M Rix

When war breaks out, Robert and Lucy are evacuated to their grandmother in Devon, and the three pets go to some neighbours, the Harrises, to be looked after. But Mr Harris resents their arrival and drags them to the local animal shelter to be put down – along with three-quarters of a million other pets. Tiger smells danger and escapes and, in the ensuing fracas, Buster and Rose escape as well. But where will they be safe?

I thoroughly enjoyed this heart-warming book. I learnt a lot about how animals were treated during WW2, and about what they themselves contributed towards the war effort. Everyone is tested. Robert and Lucy must cope with new and difficult circumstances. Their granny is suffering from mild dementia and can’t look after them; Robert’s teacher is sadistic; and there’s a spiteful girl at Lucy’s new school.

The animals, too, have much to learn as Rose takes them on the long and dangerous journey to the farm in Devon, the only other home she remembers.

So, four very different books, all of them very readable, without dumbing down the history in any way.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Megg Nicol permalink
    June 25, 2013 7:52 pm

    It is wonderful to read some of the imaginative writing that Burdett-Coutts 3rd Year have come up with….’Song of Siger’ had me guessing….and then I realised in the last line what kind of big cat Sami was talking about. Very clever!

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