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A boy at war with himself

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle, Andersen Press

When the Sky Falls is a masterful and moving story about four individuals who find solace in one another against the odds. These characters have all experienced unparalleled tragedy, even though two are not adults yet, and one is not even human. World War II is a popular theme in books and literature, but When the Sky Falls offers a fresh and unique perspective. Rather than being exclusively about the impact of war on humans, it also explores how animals are affected and what happens to zoos and their inmates.

Instead of being evacuated to a place of greater safety like most children, Joseph is sent from the country to London city. This was when school was itself a battleground, thanks to corporal punishment, and children who struggled academically were penalised rather than helped. If, like Joseph, you had dyslexia, you were more likely to be caned than receive support.

Joseph has been discarded or disappointed by everyone he trusts and his behaviour reflects this. Mrs. F, the zookeeper who reluctantly takes Joseph in, has also been hardened by devastating events and uses a gruff exterior as a defence mechanism too. Syd helps Mrs. F at the zoo; caring for the animals and making herself useful distracts Syd from her grief. Adonis, the silver-backed gorilla is a commanding presence throughout the book and an incredibly compelling and affecting character. He has suffered enormously during his time in captivity. Although Adonis never says a word, his misery is clearly expressed by his body language and Phil Earle’s wonderfully evocative writing.

The anger that festers inside Joseph is comparable to a caged beast. His quick temper frequently gets him into trouble and alienates him from others. It becomes apparent that Joseph’s actions are due to his circumstances, what he has endured, and feeling inferior to others, rather than an inherent badness. Bombs drop from the sky and are a constant threat to everyone’s safety. But what will ultimately be the most destructive force in Joseph’s life - the war with Hitler or his war with himself?

This story is powerfully written with tremendous scope and emotional impact. The reader feels all the cold, hunger and fear to which the characters are subjected. The school is absolutely terrifying, and the awful headmaster and his cane filled me with just as much dread as the air raid sirens.

Author Phil Earle spoke at a recent “Children’s Book Salon” organised by Irish author Sarah Webb and Trish Hennessy of children’s bookshop, Halfway up the Stairs. Phil mentioned that he is currently working on more stories set during World War II. I can’t wait to read them, especially if they are as outstanding as this one.

I can’t recommend When the Sky Falls highly enough, but I do recommend stocking up on tissues before beginning it! I would avoid reading this book in public unless you are comfortable with strangers seeing you cry. I finished it at the beach and was grateful for the sunglasses which concealed my tear-stained eyes. With captivating characters and an arresting plot that’s as potent as a bomb, this is a memorable and majestic work of fiction.

Read an extract of When the Sky Falls

About the author: Phil Earle was born in Hull in 1974. He has had jobs as a care worker in a residential kids' home and a bookseller, and now works as sales and marketing director for children's publisher David Fickling books. Phil lives on a hill in South London with his wife and three children, and his favourite place to write is on the bus. When the Sky Falls is the twentieth novel that Phil has written for children in just ten years! I’m ashamed to admit that this is my first book by this author, but it certainly won’t be the last. If you’d like to see more of Phil’s work, you can find a bibliography on his website.

When the Sky Falls was published by Andersen Press on 3rd June 2021 - see this book on the publisher's website

A huge thank you to the publisher for the advance reader copy I received via NetGalley - all opinions expressed are my own.