Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Book Review: 'The Closest Thing To Flying' by Gill Lewis

If you're looking for a book to provoke conversation with children and young people, then this would be a good choice. Especially if you want to tackle, or just discuss, issues such as bullying, discrimination against women and human trafficking.

Semira, a refugee from Eritrea, discovers an old diary of a girl living at the end of the Victorian period. As she reads it, a bond spanning the chasm of time develops between her and Henrietta. Samira identifies with the plight of voiceless 19th century British women and is ultimately inspired by their courage to escape her own situation. Although this concept isn't original, it is certainly done well in 'The Closest Thing To Flying'.

I've read several books for children and young adults centring around the lives of refugees but this is the first one which truly takes on the theme of human trafficking. Robel provided safe passage for Semira and her mum when Semira was little but now, in the UK, he is controlling them, forcing Semira's mum into a sham marriage, taking all the money from the jobs she works and providing them with inadequate food and living conditions. Whereas many of us are aware of the term 'human trafficking', there is still little understanding of what this can incorporate, or how we can help.

But the diary isn't Semira's only lifeline. Thankfully she has school - another new one - where she meets and makes good friends, particularly with Patrick. Patrick has known life with an abusive father, however his mum's current partner provides the antidote to the other patriarchal (and just plain vile) male adults in the story. He up-cycles bicycles, bakes delicious cake and always has time to listen. Patrick's family's response to Semira's plight is a real example of how people can actually help those who are being trafficked.

Gill Lewis skilfully weaves the historical and present storylines together with various strengthening threads: readers will love spotting the links which focus on birds and bicycles. Henrietta is present at the formation of what is now known as the RSPB (all the names mentioned are actual historical people - lots of scope for further research and learning) and Patrick is an avid birdwatcher. The hat that Semira finds with the diary has on it a bird which she has memories of from her home country. Henrietta rides one of the first bicycles whilst delivering leaflets about the Society for the Protection of Birds and Semira discovers her own love of cycling. All of these links definitely mark this out as a work of fiction (a very well-realised one) yet they are what makes it such a joy to read, despite its tough content.

This would be a perfect read for children in upper key stage two, as well as children in key stage three. I'd totally recommend that parents and teachers read it if their children are reading it - not because the content is tricky, just because it would be such a shame to miss the opportunities for discussion that it affords!

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