Sunday, 29 October 2017

Book Review: 'The End of the Sky' by Sandi Toksvig


It's no secret that one of my favourite books for children is 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig, so when her agent offered to send me a copy for every one of my workshop delegates at Reading Rocks I could hardly say no. In fact, I also asked for an extra copy so I could read it myself.

'The End of the Sky' picks up on many of the themes that Hitler's Canary covered, albeit in a completely different historical setting. The story tells of a family fleeing Ireland in the 1800s, hoping to make a new life on the west coast of America. The story chronicles the terrible journey that many of the pioneers would have made on the Oregon trail and doesn't shy away from the loss and sadness that was experienced by them.

As I read I kept reaching for Google to find out more about the book's contents: Choctaw 'Indians' sent foreign aid to Ireland; the John Bull was a steam engine made in England and shipped in pieces to the US without any instructions as to how to put them together; the Allegheny Portage Railroad really did carry canal boats up and over the mountains. This book really is an education, especially for children living in the UK who will have very little idea about the journeys people made as they looked for a new life.

The book's main theme is family, and how others might become part of a family. It deals with loyalty, loss, resilience, racism and probably must crucially, feminism. The female characters really shine in this book, but never in a forced way - it just celebrates a variety of achievements and abilities from holding a family together to leading a whole wagon train safely across a desert, to preventing a buffalo stampede to cooking delicious food. Toksvig's gift lies in highlighting and exploring current issues in an accessible and non-threatening way, as well as providing plenty of opportunities for her readers to learn historical facts.

The book is a little on the long side and unevenly paced: at times the story seems to be a little too drawn out (perhaps deliberately as it does give a sense of the journey west taking a long time) and at other points, particularly towards the end, the book feels rushed. When compared to 'Hitler's Canary', 'The End of the Sky' is not as well written and has a more sombre mood overall - there are fewer light, hopeful moments which help the reader to keep going.

If you're looking for a book with a strong female lead for upper key stage 2 readers then this would be a worthy addition to a growing selection of books in that category - it has the potential to change the perceptions of both boys and girls when it comes to gender stereotypes. It also provides a fascinating insight into a significant part of UK and US history, times and events which are generally ignored by the UK primary curriculum. Overall, 'The End of the Sky' is worth a read, but prioritise 'Hitler's Canary' if you've never read any of Sandi Toksvig's books for children.

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