Ruby and Slate separately see an unusual card on the noticeboard advertising an Audition for Life. When they attend the audition in a torn-down Salvation Army hall, bringing their pets as required, they alone are selected by the flamboyant and mysterious Frederick, April and Cherie, to take ship from Pier 225 to travel to The Island. With the orphaned Nadine and St Ives and Ruby’s best friend Lee, who stows away, they travel to the island with other children who seem strangely unreal. This island is to be the stage on which each of them will develop and display his or her talents in an audition for life.

The story is gentle. The main characters are probably 10 or 11 years old: old enough to worry about toe-rings and mobile phone styles but young enough not to care when someone has to take her jeans off to get rid of spiders. Such tragedy as there is – Ruby’s father’s desertion, Slate’s dad’s imprisonment, Nadine and St Ives’ orphaned state – is some way from the forefront of the story, present just enough to cause the others to fret sympathetically.

The whole tale is a little fantastic. You’re told that time stops when the children enter the audition, but the rest, however outlandish, could just be real. The effect is to give the reader security while offering strange and interesting events.

Lee, Ruby and Slate each change a little in their relationship to each other and to the other children. Lee is still overbearing at the end, but shows a gentler side, while Ruby is more assertive and confident with herself. Each child has a trial of his or her own to face on the island, none of them extreme, but the whole point overall is to build the children up to be able to face their day-to-day life with confidence and grace.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. This review first appeared on