I took this new title from Sally Nicholls home to read yesterday and devoured it in one sitting! It is a fantastic read and one that I really wanted to share with you. It has been longlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and is aimed at ages 11+, but I think capable readers from age 9 would also enjoy this book. Alternatively it would be an gripping story to read aloud to year 5 and 6 classes.
Siblings Holly (12) and Davy (7) live in a flat in London with their older brother, Jonathan (19) who has been their legal guardian since their mum died. They muddle along together but life isn’t easy for the siblings. Jonathan had to give up his place at university and start work full-time in a café in order to supplement the small government allowance he is given to act as foster parent to Holly and Davy. They may not have much money but they all pull their weight and are determined to stick together as a family. When a series of incidents collide, they decide to take a risk for a better life. Their very clever but eccentric Great Aunt Irene dies leaving them some jewellery which might help them with their financial emergencies – Davy’s pet rabbit needs an expensive operation and the derelict dishwasher they fixed up in their flat has flooded the fish and chip shop downstairs. However, the jewellery can’t be found and neither can any of the other things that their wealthy aunt left behind. Holly believes that the set of photos that Irene pressed into her hand at the hospital are the clues to where everything has been hidden and the siblings set off on an adventure to try and recover their jewellery, but they’re not the only ones after the treasure.
The story is narrated in the first-person by Holly and she begins by telling the reader about that she is the ‘author’ of the story:
I told my brother Jonathan I was going to write a book about all the things that happened to us last year. About the homemade spaceships, and the lock-pickers, and the thermal lances, and the exploding dishwasher, and the island that was old when the Vikings came, and Auntie Irene’s treasure, and all the things that happened before we found it.
This immediately sets up a connection between the reader and Holly, and she is such a likeable character who manages to remain cheerful even though she has lost both of her parents, spends all of her free time looking after Davy, and never goes to birthday parties as they can’t afford to buy presents. Her experience of going shopping for her first bra with her brothers is one of the few times where she feels sorry for herself.
What makes this story exceptional is that whilst it has the elements of a good old-fashioned adventure/quest story, it is set in a contemporary world that will really resonate with lots of children. For a start, the siblings aren’t a stereotypical family with two parents, and they live in a flat above a chip shop in an area in London that is home to a multitude of nationalities. Holly’s best friends are Sizwe and Neema whose families are from South Africa and Pakistan, and she points out that there are only two white faces in their school photo. Holly also notes that it is a bit like the Chalet School books, but at her school kids come from exciting countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Bangladesh rather than boring places like Switzerland. The siblings are also always struggling to make ends meet so their treasure hunt is helped by crowd-sourcing where Holly sets up a website with the photos and their story and asks for people to pass on the message so that it becomes ‘viral’. People reply with ideas of the photo locations, offers of train vouchers that they’re not using and places to stay. A lot of Holly’s ideas on how to find the jewellery are created and implemented when the siblings go to a Makerspace (also called Hackerspaces), which are community organised workshop spaces where creative people like programmers, scientists and artists gather to make things and share knowledge. Here she is shown how to find location co-ordinates on digital versions of the photos, how to open locks, and how to hack into a laptop.
An Island of Our Own is a really exciting page-turner and you will be cheering the siblings on in their quest to find the jewellery that might change their life. Highly recommended.