Peapod’s Picks – The Suitcase and Out of Nowhere

Peapod’s Picks is a round up of the books Peapod’s been reading, often at bedtime, each week.

This week is slightly different (although both of these have become the top bedtime book choices too!) as I’m going to take the chance to enthuse on behalf of both of us about two books we’ve been reading from one of my favourite picture book authors.

Normally Peapod chooses his bedtime stories after bath as he goes to bed, but last night insisted on putting these up on the bed ready before he even got in the bath!

Apologies, it’s quite a long one so for a quick TLDR summary:

Out of Nowhere is a heartwarming tale of friendship with the most fantastic illustrations, starring a beetle whose legs I love!

The Suitcase is a moving story about how we treat others and the power of kindness, with a brilliant use of dialogue, quirky and stylish illustrations and the power to get even the youngest readers thinking.


I was really excited when I heard Chris Naylor-Ballesteros had a new book out this year and I’ve had it ordered for ages so I was made up when it arrived this week and Peapod wanted to read it straight away!

Out of Nowhere is the story of a beetle and a caterpillar, best friends who spend every day together. Until one day, caterpillar isn’t there. Beetle sets off to find his friend, because even though it’s scary, friends come first. He can’t find Caterpillar anywhere, then out of nowhere comes….

This is such a lovely story of friendship. With echoes of one of my very favourite books, Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis, this steers away from the funny but macabre to focus instead on the joy, comfort and pleasure a good friend can bring to your life. And how true friendship finds it way through absence, change or difficulty.

Those of you who know me will know I have little time for books that are “too nice” or overly sentimental, and that’s why I love this so much. It takes a topic that usually ends up being a bit schmultzy and ensures it’s heart-warming but has a lightness of touch and an understated, simplicity of phrasing that saves it from being layered on too thick or over-explained.

Indeed, so much of the story (as is the case with all the best picture books) is told through the illustrations and what gorgeous, expressive illustrations they are.

With a strikingly beautiful black, white and red palette, wonderful textures and use of shading and line, I absolutely loved these; I think my favourite thing about the whole book is the artwork.

Peapod loved the book too, and when we’d read it (several times) he was looking at the pictures of other books in the back as he likes to do (these pages at the end of books have me buying so many more books!!) pointing to each asking “got that one?” I said we had The Suitcase and went to get it…

I’ve reviewed The Suitcase before here, but when I did Peapod was only 9 months old. At nearly two and a half now, the thing that struck me most reading it this week is his response to it.

*There are story spoilers below!*

A stranger arrives with a suitcase. The animals he meets are by turn open, curious and a bit suspicious. While he sleeps, they break open his case but then see the error of their ways and, in an attempt to make amends and welcome him, not only fix his case and his cherished teacup with memories of home but build him a new cabin.

Peapod’s favourite part is the ending, and I think my favourite part of reading it with him is when we get to the end and our newcomer responds to the animals’ gift with “There’s just one tiny problem… we’re going to need more…”
Before he can continue with “teacups”, Peapod jumps in with “need more chairs!” which makes me smile and which I think is quite a good observation all of its own!

Peapod is still too little to understand the references this book makes to refugees, but what he is able to understand is the way the animals behaviours affect the newcomer’s feelings, and he’s been exploring this and testing it out (with the repetition that only a toddler can manage) so that a hundred times a day we go through:

Peapod “I broken your suitcase. I broken your teacup.”

Watches for my reaction.

Me (with accompanying facial expressions and body language of course) “Oh, that makes me so sad. They’re so special, I’m upset they’re broken etc etc”

Peapod (looking utterly delighted with himself) “I fix your suitcase. Fix your teacup. Made you new cabin!”

Watches for my reaction.

Me (with accompanying facial expressions and body language of course) “Oh, that’s so kind. Thank you. You’ve made me so happy and welcome. What good friends etc etc”

I can’t tell you how many times a day we go through this. What I can tell you is how amazing it is to see books doing this – helping him work out the world, work out feelings and how our behaviour affects the feelings of others.

This book is often cited as a great book to read to encourage empathy and understanding, and has quite rightly been selected as one of Empathy Lab’s #ReadForEmpathy books too, and it’s a book that’s perfect for reading across all ages with so much opportunity for discussion.

Peapod’s reaction to it only goes to illustrate how effective it is in conveying its message to even the youngest of readers. It’s one I know we’ll continue to read, both every day for the foreseeable future, and for months and years to come. Maybe next time we revisit it, he’ll be ready to dig a bit deeper again…

Believathon 3 – Orion Lost

I was lucky enough to receive a free copy of this in exchange for my thoughts on it. All views and opinions are my own.

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm, artwork by, published by Nosy Crow

This was my choice for Believathon prompt The Shadow – Read a book first published in 2020.

Spaceship Orion is taking a crew from Earth to settle and start a new colony in space. However, when one of its ‘jumps’ goes wrong, all the adults are stuck in their sleeping state and it’s up to a crew of children, who don’t always see eye to eye, to try and get a badly damaged ship past space pirates, unknown alien (Videshi) ships to safety.

Things become more complicated when the children gradually realise something’s amiss, but can they get to the bottom of it and put it right?

I’ll be honest, I’m not a sci-fi fan and this did not sound like my cup of tea at all and, despite knowing lots of fellow bookish people had loved it, I wasn’t really looking forward to it.

But I thought it was BRILLIANT. One of the most unique and original MG books I’ve read in recent years.

Whatever my personal reservations, I had been pleased to see a slice of Sci-fi entering the MG world as it felt like there was a real gap to fill and, although I’m no expert, I thought this filled that gap splendidly.

It was full of technical details and language that fans of the genre/space will appreciate, and that give it a sense of authenticity and authority. But, and it’s an important but, its cleverly done so that total newcomers to the genre who don’t speak science (ie me) could not only follow what was happening, but become completely immersed and invested in it.

The characters, and their relationship with each other – particularly the difference, conflict and contrast between Beth and Vihaan – had a lot to do with this. There was a really good mix of personalities which worked really well together and Beth was a particularly likeable and believable main character (and also a handy way to get my head round the more technical aspects of the book as they were explained to her too!)

I really liked the way Beth and Vihaan showcased between them the qualities of a good leader, and the way the novel examined what this was and the balance it needed.

What I also really enjoyed about this book though was the perfectly plotted mystery that gradually developed, subtly at first, creeping up on us a little clue at a time, until we reached a hugely tense and dramatic climax.

Although I did have a couple of correct inklings early on, I didn’t come close to piecing the whole thing together and it really kept me guessing the way the best mysteries do.

I’ll probably never be a true sci-fi fan, but I would absolutely jump on the next novel from Alastair Chisholm so if that counts as being converted, consider me a convert! This was great!

Peapod’s Picks – Mouse and Bear

We are still reading A Pipkin of Pepper, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea has made a reappearance in our bedroom reads, but two new books in the post have also edged their way into Peapod’s oh-so-slow-to-change bedtime book basket!

One of these is Ross Collins’ There’s a Mouse in My House, which we were delighted to see picks up where There’s a Bear on My Chair leaves off and we’ve been reading them back to back each evening.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the first book, we’ll start there. ‘There’s a Bear on My Chair’ sees an increasingly frustrated mouse desperately trying to get Bear off his chair.

Peapod especially loves seeing Mouse up the ladder giving Bear his nastiest glare (mostly because he loves a ladder..!) and when Mouse calls him a “stinky bear” which he finds hilarious.

In the end, our exasperated rodent gives up and leaves. Bear, clearly feeling smug to have won the battle of wills, also decides he can now get up and head home, only to find that perhaps he’s not won after all..

We rejoin this pair as an outraged Bear tries to boot out his unwanted lodger. I loved how some of the scenarios reflect some of those in the first book to an extent but are different enough to not feel like a repeat (important when you’re reading one after the other night after night!)

The ending is just what you’d want and is definitely Peapod’s favourite part of the book (along with the leaky bath and “cheerio” which he delights in joining in with!)

It’s a wonderfully warm and joyful way to leave this troubled twosome, referring back to the very start of book one in such a pleasing way.

These books are a brilliant example of what a really enjoyable picture book should be. It’s such a seemingly simple concept, but it works so well – bouncing, rhyming text, great characters (and a great relationship between them) and expressive illustrations all combine to create a lively, funny read with enough humour for the adults reading it to appreciate too, and buckets of visual humour too of course.

It’s a classic case of the picture being worth a thousand words telling, as the way Bear and Mouse are feeling towards each other is so clear throughout and we clearly see their exasperation building as we read towards the showdown(s)!

Ross is a big favourite in our house and this newest outing is no exception. Lots of fun.

Peapod’s Picks – A Rather Blustery Day!

We’ve bought several new picture books recently and I’ll be trying to review them all in the coming weeks, but as September begins and Autumn settles in, it seemed fitting to start with two blustery books that both Peapod and I have instantly loved.

First up…

Jeremy Worried About the Wind by Pamela Butchart, illustrated by Kate Hindley.

Probably most well known for her early chapter books, Pamela Butchart is a brilliant children’s author who writes with bags of humour and really knows her audience.

Likewise, Kate Hindley’s illustrations are firm favourites in our house; her characteristic images always so expressive, fun and packed with detail.

And the two combined have worked magic here!

In Jeremy, they’ve created a tryly loveable character – a sensible and sensitive soul, he is worried about everything – from bananas to dinosaurs, zips to the wind.

But, being as caring as he is nervous, when carefree Maggie shows up throwing caution to the wind (geddit?!) Jeremy takes it upon himself to protect her, even when she decides to make the most of a wild and windy day!

We love the series of spreads with no text, set out in a comic strip style to showcase Jeremy’s adventure when he’s blown away. Kate’s style is perfect for this, with the perfect balance of disbelief, mild, pirate-y peril, wide-eyed panic and excitement!

This is a brilliant book that has broad appeal. Peapod doesn’t yet understand some of the finer points in the humour of the story, but older readers will. He does however love listening to it regardless (and I’d say holding a hyped up two year old’s attention is the biggest test of all in a picture book!) and thinks the visual humour and action is wonderful. And I agree.

A hilarious, ridiculous adventure that is heaps of fun and full of warmth and the joy of living dangerously! Love it.

The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming and Nicola Slater

This is such a brilliant book. If you work in EYFS/KS1 (or dare I suggest it KS2) you need a copy of this immediately.

Full of the joys of spring autumn, this is a laugh out loud look at seasonal changes.

Squirrel wakes up one morning to find a leaf missing on their tree! Panicking, they go to ask seemingly long-suffering Bird what could have happened to it.

When another one vanishes the next day, no one is above suspicion – Mouse and Woodpecker and even poor Bird are all accused!

The characters in this are wonderfully written, with Nicola Slater’s energetic and expressive illustrations the perfect match. You can really feel Squirrel jittering and skittering up and down and round the tree and see the patient resignation in Bird.

I love the way Bird explains the leaves falling to Squirrel; beautifully described, with a touch of humour then explained more fully its the perfect introduction to the season for young children, as well as creating a brilliantly funny story in its own right.

We read this for the first time last night and it’s another that Peapod won’t understand ‘properly’ for a while yet, but he loved the pictures and listening to the story, giggling at Squirrel hunting for the leaves and suspecting Mouse!

But for older children there’s so much to love here and there’s even a double page of facts about how trees and leaves change in autumn at the end of the book, which I think is a great idea and again is clearly written – easy to understand without shying away from ‘real’ terms such as ‘deciduous’, ‘hemispheres’ and ‘hibernation’.

A brilliant book for the season, with wonderful characters, lots of laughs and a fantastic, funny twist that finishes the book superbly! I’ll be looking out for more from this duo!

Have you read either of these?

Do you have any favourite windy day picture books?!

#MGTakesOnThursday – TrooFriend

Mary over at Book Craic has started a really exciting new meme (I think that’s the right word!) #MGTakesOnThursday.

  • Post a picture of the front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book.
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Following on from last week’s post which finally got my review of the hilarious Freddie Yates posted, I thought I’d use this week to highlight another book I read a while ago but have been lax in reviewing…

TrooFriend by Kirsty Applebaum, art by Sam Kalda, published by Nosy Crow.

I loved The Middler by this author and while TrooFriend didn’t leave me with quite such a book hangover, it was nevertheless a very clever and very enjoyable read that I would be recommending to many young readers if work was open at the moment!

Like The Middler, it takes on a potentially dark and difficult subject area not typically seen in children’s fiction and makes it not just appropriate, but appealing, relatable and interesting for a younger age.

Set in a fictional but plausible not-too-distant future, Sarah is given a Troofriend by her parents. The Troofriend is an android designed to be given to children as a ‘safe’ friend – one that will not bully, harm, lie, covet, steal or envy – a perfect friend in fact. But reports start to come in that the robots are developing real feelings and putting their owners at risk of harm.

Not only does this open up many questions about rights, freedoms, morality, parenting, values and actions but it also deftly and realistically explores issues of friendship that will be familiar to many (if not all) in one way or another – the desire to belong, to be popular and fit in; falling out with best friends and the challenges of making new friends.

I thought the way we saw Ivy gradually becoming sentient was so clever and having the reader see what was happening ahead of but not instead of the characters was very effective. Likewise, I thought the way we grow to really feel for Ivy was equally well done.

Overall, this was a quick but original and cleverly written read that blended contemporary MG with sci-fi ideas seamlessly.

In three words?

Technology. Friendship. Philosophical.

My favourite sentence from page 11

Yes, Shirley-Mum. My name is Ivy. Sarah named me. I like my name very much.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this from the publishers. All views and opinions are my own.

The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Fahrook, cover art by David Dean

This is a book I would have read at some point, but probably one which would have joined the pile in my shelf for a while in favour of others had it not been for the fact it’s the Children’s Book of the Month in work! So it jumped to the top of said pile, and I’m really glad it did!

In many ways it’s got everything you’d expect from a great MG adventure – friendship, danger, a feisty, female main character and a beautiful and unusual but often inhospitable setting – but it’s also got plenty to make it stand out.

For starters, our main character Chaya is a thief. The book opens with her stealing the Queen’s jewels and the tension doesn’t let up from there.

From the fear of being caught to realising the implications of her actions to examining the reasons behind them and ways to put things right, this is not only a gripping adventure but also a book which subtly explores feelings and actions, right and wrong in a completely non-judgmental way.

When Chaya’s beat friend Neelan is arrested for stealing the jewels, the adventure really begins with a jail break and an escape on an elephant with newcomer Nour in tow (much to Chaya’s annoyance).

The relationship between Nour and Chaya is really well drawn as we see them getting the measure of each other, with Chaya hard and unwelcoming and Nour alternating between being cool and unbothrted and keen to join in. It’s lovely to see this friendship take shape tentatively and to see the feelings behind their actions so well understood.

The escape is a dangerous trip through the jungle to who-knows-where. I loved the off-the-cuff nature of their escape – tension is high and the action is pacy. And, while I partially figured out how they’d resolve things, there was a great twist at the end that I didn’t see coming til right before it happened.

I really liked Chaya as a character – she has that strong-willed, determined self-belief common in female leads, but combined with an absolute heart of gold and a wish to do what’s right (morally if not legally). She’s utterly believable and loveable.

This was a quick but utterly gripping read. The setting was vivid and easy to picture, the characters were likeable and the plot fast-paced.

With a royal robbery, a prison break, a jungle escape on the King’s stolen elephant, bandits and a coup, not to mention opportunities galore to explore questions of morality, justice right and wrong – there’s a lot packed into this relatively short book! I look forward to seeing what Nizrana does next!

Peapod’s Book Advent Day 10

You can find out more about our Christmas Book Advent here.

Last night we read…

Little Robin Red Vest by Jan Fearnley

This is one we received and reviewed last year, but I was very happy to get it back out again today and enjoyed it even more this time around.

It’s absolutely over-flowing with Christmas spirit as Little Robin shares his vests with the other animals to keep them warm before being found by a rather jolly man and his wife who make him a special red vest to keep.

Peapod loved looking at the front cover for ages, then looking at the animals in the story and signing bird for the Robin as we read through, even while semi-distracted by milk!

Peapod’s Picks 26/8/19

We were lucky enough to request and receive copies of these free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. Opinions and views are all my own.

Peapod’s Picks is a weekly round up of some of the books that Peapod* has read (often, but not always, for his bedtime stories) each week plus a review of at least one of them.

*His social media alter ego, not his real name!

My Pet Star by Corrinne Averiss and Rosalind Beardshaw

This is a lovely story and one that I think will be extra enjoyable as the nights draw in and autumn arrives – there’s just something really cosy and comforting about it.

A little girl finds a star that’s fallen from the sky. She takes it home, patches it up and takes care of it. As the days pass, the star gets better and brighter until the time comes when it’s time to say goodbye as the star returns to the sky.

With pared back text, this is a perfect example of illustration and text working in harmony to tell a story, create atmosphere and express feelings. To do this using rhyme (and using rhyme which flows, reads well and doesn’t feel clunky or forced) is an achievement indeed.

Bonus points for a non-white main character who doesn’t live in a detached house with garden!

I loved the way the book conveyed imaginative play and bigged up reading – if I still taught I’d have the spread below framed:

“I showed him pictures in my book. He couldn’t read, but he could look.”

So many early years children would start the year telling me “I can’t read though” as if being able to decode the words was the only way to enjoy a book. A lot of work went into encouraging looking at pictures, making up stories etc.

And of course, there’s a gentle introduction to the idea of letting go, transience and saying goodbyes.

This is a warm, tender-hearted book perfect for snuggling up with at bedtime.

I can’t wait to have Corrinne into work in October for one of our Read and Make sessions!

There’s a Rang-Tan in my Bedroom by James Sellick and Frann Preston-Gannon

Produced in collaboration with Greenpeace, this starts much like your typical picture book might – funny, animated, bright and seemingly light-hearted. An orangutan (or Rang-Tan) has arrived in a little girl’s room and is causing chaos.

But, when the little girl stops to find out why the Rang-Tan is there, the book’s more serious message is revealed, along with a clever change in illustration style to mirror it.

We see how humans are destroying the Rang-Tan’s home for palm oil in dark and muted tones, desolate and bleak.

We’re then offered a ray of hope along with a nudge of encouragement not to be passive but to do whatever we can to help. We see the little girl writing letters to big companies, rallying friends and neighbours through posters and word of mouth and going on protests.

It finishes with more detailed information about orangutans and their habitat as well as palm oil, its uses and the problems with it, as well as suggestions for action similar to that taken by the girl in the story.

This would be ideal for use in schools, as well as for reading at home, as a way of both developing understanding and interest in environmental issues and getting children engaged and involved in doing something about them.

Be More Bernard by Simon Philip and Kate Hindley

Bernard pretends to be just like the other bunnies, who all eat, dress, act and even dream alike. But deep down, he knows he’s different.

Until one night, he decides to let his inner self go! Of course, the other rabbits are shocked at first but they soon start sharing their dreams of being different too and slowly the burrow realise they can be themselves as well.

We always love Kate Hindley’s illustrations but the burrow scenes in this are truly fab and not without a touch of Richard Scarry which is wonderful!

Its an enjoyable read with a positive and affirming message about being yourself and following your dreams, and Bernard is brilliant in both words and pictures.

Here’s the thing though – we love You Must Bring A Hat by this duo so were very excited for this and, honestly, although we enjoyed it and it did have some of the dry humour that we love in YMBAH, it just couldn’t compete with it…even with Bernard’s absolutely kick-ass, roller-disco-dancing outfit and moves.

Fun, positive and guaranteed to make you smile, but it didn’t have the originality, daftness or ‘just because-ness’ of ‘You Must Bring A Hat’ so while we like and recommend this, for one you’ll want to read and read again get YMBAH.

This is a Dog by Ross Collins

This is a great example of a book that benefits hugely from not being afraid to strip the text back to bare bones and let the pictures do most of the work.

Written in the style of a young children’s animal primer, each page introduces us to a different animal…except that dog (in typical dog style) isn’t content with just his page. He needs your attention on everyone else’s page too!

From crossing them out to chasing them off the page, disguises and even wee – dog goes to great lengths to remain centre stage!

The other animals eventually get fed up of dog’s antics, but he has one last trick up his sleeve to ensure he stays top dog (couldn’t resist that, sorry!!)

It’s such a great book – dog is utterly doggish! It’s simple but clever and its minimal style allows the humour to really shine.

Peapod loved looking at this too. It’s a book that we enjoyed as a softback story to read together, but one that would make an even more fantastic board book – perfect for toddlers to ‘read’ with its repetition, recognisable animals, block-coloured backgrounds and visual humour. I’m told there are whisperings so fingers crossed!

Peapod’s Picks – Review Reads

Peapod’s Picks is a weekly round up of some of the books that Peapod* has read each week plus a review of at least one of them.

*His social media alter ego, not his real name!

This week, we’ve been lucky to receive two picture books to review.

We also recently received not one but two of our favourite That’s Not My… books as well. Let’s start with them!

I’ve posted before about how much we love this series and these two 20th anniversary celebration editions are no exception, and have made a fine addition to our current animal themed shelf downstairs.

Peapod has most of his books in his room, but some on the bottom shelf of our bookcase downstairs, I just switch out which ones every so often.

Peapod is especially taken with That’s Not My Lion, as it has it has a shaggy mane, but his favourite ‘feel’ is always the scratchy, velcro-y, rough one so we were very pleased that there was both a flamingo and a lion with rough feet!

That’s Not My Flamingo feels perfectly summery and fun (so much so that I’m using it for one of my storytime sessions over the summer and I’m very excited), while Lion has classic kid appeal – who doesn’t love a chance to roar along with a lion book?!

With shiny, sprayed edges and the usual touchy feely fun, as well as the obligatory mouse-spotting on each page and bright, illustrations, these are welcome additions to our collection! We now have nearly half the set. I think I have a problem…

Next up, picture books.

Chatterbox Bear by Pippa Curnick.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but all three of us really enjoyed it.

Gary is a chatterbox. He chats about everything to anyone everywhere, but not everyone appreciates Gary’s chat so he sets off to find someone who does…

Peapod (and I) liked the bright illustrations, whose pallette zings with neon pinks and yellows, dark purples and tropical blues. The lively style is really fun and characters’ expressions are depicted brilliantly.

Speaking of expression, I loved the eyebrows. I don’t want to give too much away here, but prawn eyebrows are a touch of genius. I also loved the ending – one of those ‘here we go again…’ endings that really makes you smile.

This book is a subtle and touching take on friendship and finding ways to overcome barriers to welcoming newcomers, but mostly it is a hugely fun read with lots to love and laugh about.

Suzy Orbit, Astronaut by Ruth Quayle and Jez Tuya

Suzy Orbit is an ingenious, enthusiastic and problem-solving (female, BAME) space engineer working on a space station with her boss, Captain Gizmo, who would much rather buy his way out of sticky situations with shiny new gadgets and clothes.

As an aside, I have no idea how they haven’t killed one another alone on that space station, or more to the point how Suzy hasn’t lost her infinite patience with her dismissive, arrogant and incompetent boss. If this review were to take a drastically different turn about now, I’d say it was a fine example of modern politics, a warning on capitalism and its effect on the environment and a portrait of how racism and gender issues are still rife in the workplace. But, we’re not going down that route today, so instead I’ll say…

Peapod loved Suzy Orbit, who he kept reaching out for, and the pages put on space where the contrast between the dark sky and the bold colours of the shiny spacesuits, swooshing spaceships, fiery jets and nearby planets helped create striking and lively spreads.

An enjoyable story with everything space-loving children could ask for – speeding space pods, meteoroid storms, aliens…and pizza. This is also a great example of a smart, capable (insanely patient) BAME girl absolutely killing it in a STEM job.

Have you read any of these?

Which picture or board books have you been reading this week?

No Ballet Shoes in Syria

I requested and received a copy of this free from the publishers, in exchange for an honest review. All views are my own.

Apparently today is Empathy Day. Its amazing that I know this when I’m not often sure whether it’s Tuesday or Sunday at the moment, and keep thinking it’s March. But, you know, good old Twitter.

And so I should (but don’t) have a whole post full of books that would help develop empathy. Though really I think all good books do that to a certain degree, because they all force you to see the world through the characters’ eyes.

But, as luck would have it, I needed to give myself a kick up the bum and post my review of No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton, and as that’s perfect for empathy day, let’s all pretend I planned it this way…

We follow Aya and her family as they attempt to find their feet in England after escaping the war in Syria.

Billed as a modern version of, and as the author herself explains in the introduction, influenced by the wonderful ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’, this had big shoes to fill (excuse the pun).

While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a modern version, it certainly has echoes of Pink Rabbit. Miss Helena especially feels like she’s stepped straight out of it and I loved her character and the way we gradually discover her back story along with Aya’s.

The other character I loved was Dotty. She brought real balance to a book that tells a sad but all too common story and doesn’t shy away from the dark bits. Dotty though lifted it with her cheerfulness, her slight clumsiness, her brightness and sparkle, her positivity and friendliness.

What I liked best was that she was properly fleshed out, not just a one dimensional, cheery new friend. She had issues of her own and it is testament to Bruton’s lightness of touch that they were made an integral part of the book while emphatically not over-shadowing its main message and Aya’s story.

At the community centre she visits with her mum and brother, Aya stumbles across a dance lesson which reminds her of her own ballet school in Syria. Tired and worried with more on her plate than she should have as she struggles to support her mum (depressed, grieving and alone with a baby and child in a new country with nowhere to live and no English), she discovers an escape in dance.

But it becomes more than that. As she joins Miss Helen’s dance class, interacts with the others and, of course, dances, her memories of her old life resurface.

The way what is happening or being said in the present is mirrored in her memories and flashbacks, and the way they gradually move us forward from before war hit her home to her arrival in England is genius and so skilfully done.

It also helps to convey the idea that this is not something vague happening somewhere else to some ‘other’ people – they are just like us and it could happen anywhere to anyone.

Similarly, the juxtaposition of bombs and shrapnel and fleeing and fear and camps and danger and loss and despair with everyday life really brings home how awful it is. And I was pleased to see Catherine Bruton didn’t shy away from this. While it is sensitive, it is also unflinching and honest.

I really enjoyed Catherine Burton’s writing style. The little details in her descriptions brought everything to life and the amount of research she’d clearly done showed through in how believable Aya’s voice is.

This was a brilliant, well-balanced and carefully thought out book. The way it looks at the war in Syria is timely, sensitive and informative. But more importantly it makes it real, and it makes those fleeing it real. Honest and unflinching, but sensitive, hopeful and joyous too – I can’t recommend this enough.