What Michael Morpurgo does best is to present a serious, adult issue in a way in which children can understand and engage. This often involves seeing adult matters through the eyes of a young but interested party. He uses the device of a bird to add a third party observer. The bird is used cautiously, given a personality but not anthropomorphised. Hero the swallow has an adventure of its own involving the annual migration and the dangers of a greedy hawk. However, it is present to bridge the distance between Olly and her brother Matt in far-away Africa.
This is a short book with illustrations reducing the text further but it manages to get across several issues in a thoughtful way: choices open to a young man; decisions based on one’s conscience even when one’s parents are opposed; the plight of war-stricken children in Africa; the unselfish help many people give to them; the pleasure of quietly watching nature at work and understanding the habits of birds as they migrate; the effect of landmines and the courage required to overcome the loss of a limb. The matters being addressed here include Matt’s mature if impassioned decision to sidestep his mother’s plans for him and to devote his time and his talent to helping neglected children in Africa. The effect this has on the rest of his family is portrayed sensitively. This is not a case of a young man, embittered and resentful, banging out of the house in a storm. His mother and his sister both understand the generous nature that has taken him away to help other people while they regret his absence. Finally we see Matt come home after he loses a leg when he goes to rescue a lost child. His largeness of spirit and sense of humour carry him through. He tries to avoid giving his younger sister any distress until he has recovered and is comfortable with a prosthetic limb. Olly’s devotion to her older brother is touching and credible. This is a thoughtful book touching on a number of worthwhile issues in an accessible way. Even younger children should have no difficulty in reading it.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.