My third granddaughter (GD3), aged 9 and an avid reader, recently decided and declared that the books she likes best are about real people in real situations, although she stretches a point for Harry Potter. This gives me a very strange sense of déjà vu because I came to exactly the same conclusion at about her age and have never wavered from it although I can cope with a bit of speculative fiction occasionally. The odd thing is that I don’t think I have ever discussed this with GD3 (until now) so she has worked this out independently. Maybe it’s a genetic thing?
Unsurprisingly, therefore, she likes Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and David Walliams – coming to Chickenshed Theatre with me before Christmas for a musical version of the latter’s Mr Stink and loving every word, note and action. She is also very keen on Onjali Q Rauf whose work was unknown to me until GD3 told me about it. Well, both as a secondary English teacher and as a reviewer of books for magazines and newspapers I have never bothered to distinguish much between “adult” and “children’s” or “Young Adult” fiction. I agree with Philip Pullman that a good book is for anyone who engages with it. Ageist labels are usually unhelpful and irrelevant.
So I sat with GD3 the other day when her mother was at work and I was on essential childcare duties and – to her delight – downloaded The Star Outside My Window. which was published in 2019. The next day I read it – almost in one sitting, swept away by its tragedy and optimism.
Aniyah and her little brother Noah have arrived in a kindly foster home. She, a first person narrator, is temporarily mute and there has clearly been some kind of catastrophic trauma which she has partly blotted out. Of course she’s the traditional unreliable narrator convinced that her mother has been transmuted and eternalised into a newly identified star. The adult reader sees quite quickly that her mother is dead and I worked out what must have happened long before the end. I suspect it would take most young readers longer although the hints are there. The truth is utterly appalling – no wonder there is a lot of information at the end for people who need help and Rauf has founded a charity called Herstory. And yet this is also a story with hope. By the end Aniyah and Noah have gained a great deal as well as lost. And the quest and friendship story which lie at the heart of the novel as the children set off on a mission (no spoilers) is full of tension, warmth and good humour. You also glean as you go that Aniyah’s former homelife was quite “privileged” with a hedge fund manager father, two cars and trips to Disneyland and yet … Abuse, of course, is classless.
Read it. Trust me. You really don’t need to be a primary school child to be moved and engaged by this novel. Rauf has got inside the minds of the children she writes about so convincingly that you’ll emerge knowing a lot more about how it must feel to be a vulnerable, troubled, damaged child.