Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll.


Though my arms ache more than ever, I’m getting used to that bobbing, weightless feeling. I can’t believe I’m flying. Time and again, I’ve looked up at the sky and wished myself there. Or envied pigeons pecking in the gutter for being able, with a flap of their wings, to escape the filthy street. And now it’s happening to me. I feel lighter. Like my body doesn’t matter. For once I’m not cold or hungry. I’m brave and strong and alive.

(Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll. From An idea by Neal Jackson. PP 29 -30.)birdSynopsis:

Magpie doesn’t know who named her. She’s never had a family. Now it is her and Coco the cockerel. They exist by stealing what they need. This is what brings Magpie to Madam Delacroix’s attention. She wants a box stolen from a house, and offers five gold coins in return.

The robbery is interrupted by a boy and his duck, and later Magpie saves the same boy when he is taken up into the air by a kite. The boy’s name is Pierre and his father Joseph is trying to discover the secrets of flight. The family takes Magpie in. She and Pierre inform the King that the flight will be ready in time to beat the English. Spurred on by this lie, they must help Master Joseph take to the skies, but there are people who would take their secrets.birdReview:

Emma Carroll is my undisputed Queen of historical fiction, and Sky Chasers is as beautiful as any of her other books. It is extra-special that it began with an idea by Neal Jackson, winner of The Big Idea competition. The Montgolfier brothers – Joseph and Etienne – really were the first people to design a hot air balloon, and it really did take flight in Paris during the reign of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. It is lovely that this information is included in the back of the book, to help young readers place the story in time and think about what they might research.

The story is structured around the Magpie rhyme, (‘One for Sorrow’ etc.) This works beautifully, because when you cotton on you realise the story will end with a secret never to be told. I managed not to look ahead, but it was a close call.

One of the main themes is the extent to which women have been credited for their work throughout history. This is a big conversation: we are all aware of certain names, like Rosalind Franklin, who were under-or-uncredited at the time of their work, but this novel points out that there are many more women whose contribution to our knowledge has never been recorded. Names which have been forgotten because of gender prejudice. Magpie herself is concerned about this. I love her character – she is uneducated but observant. Her observations contribute hugely to the men’s work, but she is considered a nobody. Poor. Female. Black.  This shows how quickly we judge other people based on preconceptions.

I enjoyed the race to get the balloon in the air, and the journey from rural France into Paris. Emma Carroll’s novels are full of detail. I always feel I am emmersed in the era, and this was no exception. I also liked the animal characters, especially as Marie Antoinette is known to have walked around Versailles with sheep at her tail.

It was also lovely to live the excitement of early flight. It is hard to imagine, in the age of budget airlines, how exciting early flight was. Fiction allows us to empathise with people long gone, and to gain some sense of what it meant. The detail which made it most real to me was the King’s willingness to risk the lives of poorer people for the sake of progress. The same has been true in other situations (ship builders, for example, used to expect a number of fatalities, and factor this ‘rate’ into the cost of the ship).

Another beautiful novel from Emma Carroll, and if that wasn’t enough The Lost Boy is due in 2018 about the excavation of the Pyramids. Savour Sky Chasers, then look forward to The Lost Boy. Perfect.


A big thank you to Jazz Bartlett at Chicken House for sending a copy of the book. This does not affect the honesty of my review.






waiting on wednesday

Waiting On Wednesday: Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll. From an idea by Neal Jackson

WOWbanner.jpgExtract (from the ChickenHouse website): 

sky-chasers-675x1024A encounter with a boy dangling from the sky changes pickpocket Magpie’s life forever. Like her, the boy dreams of flying over the rooftops of Paris. His family, the Montgolfiers, are desperate to be first to discover the secret of flight. Together with Pierre, Magpie is soon caught up in a world of inflatable bloomers, spies and a trio of unruly animals in a race to be the first to fly a hot air balloon – in front of the King and Queen of France …

A rich and inspirational story based on the true story of the first hot air balloon flight over Paris in the eighteenth century; beautifully written by acclaimed author Emma Carroll from an original idea by Neal Jackson, and with stunning cover art from Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize winner David Litchfield.breakbirdWhy I can’t wait to read Sky Chasers:


  • I love stories about early aviation. Fictional or historical, from the adventures of Amelia Earhart, to the post-apocalyptic rediscovery of aviation in A Web of Air by Phillip Reeve. Humans taking to the skies made a sensational story when it happened. Fiction allows us to share in that awe and wonder, when we are used to taking flight for granted.


  • Spies? It doesn’t sound as if this is going to be a straightforward competition. Having read the extract, I want to know the extent to which other competitors will go to win the race.


  • Paris is a setting which captures people’s imaginations. One of the (many) things which made Rooftopppers by Katherine Rundell a wonderful book was the way it found a different angle (literally) from which to view Paris. I look forward to birds-eye view of the city, and to the historical setting.


  • Emma Carroll’s writing is amazing. She was the perfect choice for a historical narrative. I love her atmospheric settings, from a Victorian fair on a frozen river, to the suspicion and fear of a coastal town in WW2, and a modern-day wood riddled with fairies. She finds a story in every setting.


  • The idea for the story, by Neal Jackson, won The Big Idea competition. Held in 2014, the competition aimed to identify multi-platform stories – stories which could be sold as films, television programmes, computer games and beyond. I’m excited to see the results. The competition was also responsible for the pairing of Anna Day with runner-up Angela McCann. The resulting book, The Fandom, is a hugely anticipated release.


Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Chicken House Books

January 2018

Middle Grade Reviews

Review – Letters to the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll



Emerging from an alley-way was a man I did not recognise. He was tall, with slicked-back hair, wearing a mackintosh belted tightly around his middle. He looked wet through, like he’d waded through a river to get here. Sukie went right up to him and shook his hand. I stopped in the middle of the street, confused. 

What was she doing

They were talking now. It didn’t look like a normal chat about the weather either, because their heads were close together and the man kept glancing behind him. He gave Sukie a piece of paper, before taking her hand and squeezing it in both of his. 

Was she out here searching for us then? It didn’t look that way. 

All I knew was she’d left us in a hurry, and this was where she’d gone – not to the toilet or the tube station, but to meet a young. It was probably why she’d got glammed up in the first place. I didn’t know whether to laugh or burst into tears.

‘Sukie!’ I yelled.

She spun around. A strange shadow flitted over her face. As the young man shrank back into the shadows, Sukie hobbled towards me, shaking her head. 


Olive cannot accept her father might have died in the war. ‘Missing in action’ means ‘missing’. With the Second World War rife in Europe, plenty of people have become separated from their families. With her mother stressed, and a little brother to look after, Olive does not know where she would be without her big sister Sukie. Sukie is the pretty one, the life and soul of the party, and she always knows what to do.     

Except Sukie is up to something. On the night of the air raid, Olive sees Sukie take a piece of paper from a stranger. Then the bomb explodes.

Olive wakes up in hospital. Sukie disappeared in the blast. Mum doesn’t seem to think Sukie is dead, but she won’t explain why. Olive and Cliff are evacuated to Devon, alongside irascible Esther Jenkins. Something is afoot in Budmouth Point, and the coded message Sukie took the night of the blast appears to link her to this sleepy village in Devon.

Olive wants the truth. She wants to find her sister. She wants to know why Esther Jenkins hasn’t got a nice word to say.



Budmouth is a place of small-town politics. You can live there nearly all your life and still be an incomer. It is a place where people can’t mind their own business – usually a minor annoyance, but as Olive is constantly warned, in times of War, careless talk costs lives. It makes an excellent setting for a story which deals with prejudice, and for secretive missions. Whatever is going on, the stakes are always there. The likelihood is, your business will be found out.

I love the characters. Carroll uses description sparingly. Each character represents a trait – Cliff, the playful child.  Queenie, in her oversized jumpers and spectacles, is industrious, and refuses to be feminine. The buildings in Budmouth are described the same way. By the end of the novel, they feel as much like characters as Budmouth’s human population. My favourite is the lighthouse, which works as a metaphor for lost people searching for light and shelter.

The main theme is prejudice and displacement. The discussion about people forced from their homes is as relevant today as it was during WW2, when the story is set. The themes come out of the story in manageable chunks. For the most part, the story is a young girl’s search for the truth. The situation is always there under the surface.

Carroll captures beautifully a child’s perspective of the war. There is never a time she is not aware something terribly wrong is going on, but she unravels it at her own pace. This reminded me of something Morpurgo said in April, when he spoke in conjunction with Seven Stories. He talked about how children now are exposed to vastly more information than children during the Second World War. Truth, lies and opinion are a click away. Olive’s information about the Holocaust comes in drips, starting with a newsreel at the cinema. It is easy for adults to gloss over what is happening, especially with soundbites about ‘careless talk’ at their disposal.

Olive’s relationship with Esther is both a subplot and key to the Olive’s character development. Throughout the novel, from Esther to Queenie to Ephraim the lighthouse keeper, Olive learns that you may not know the secrets a person is carrying.

This may be my favourite of Carroll’s novels. Given how much I love In Darkling Wood, with its enchanted wood, that takes saying. She is the Penelope Lively of our time. Her work is rooted in history. As with Lively’s work, Carroll’s interest in the past comes out differently in each of her works. Her work is versatile, but always well-constructed. By the end of each novel, I feel a part of its world … or perhaps those worlds feel like a little part of me? Roll on The Lost Boy.