Looking at the Stars

Instead of trying – and maybe failing – to write a true story from a real war torn country, it’s possible to do what Jo Cotterill has done. She made up her own troubled country, somewhere hot. It’s probably Afghanistan. Or Iran. Iraq. The main thing is she won’t have got it wrong.

Jo Cotterill, Looking at the Stars

In fact, she has got it very right, as long as you can overlook the horrors of war and sudden death and refugee camps and starvation. Not suitable for the very youngest readers, it is still – I think – aimed at fairly young children. The two main characters, Mini and Jenna are 13 and 14, but I think you’d want to read this younger. Sort of Jacqueline Wilson meets the Taliban.

Except here they are the Kwana, and they are harsh rulers, making people’s lives worse every week. Jenna and Mini are not allowed to go to school, nor is their much younger sister Vivie. It’s only their brother Ruman who goes to school, and their father Potta who teaches – what he is allowed to teach – at the university. He and their Mamie works hard to keep the family safe.

But one day the foreign soldiers come, and Ruman disappears; possibly to work under ground. Neighbours grow suspicious of each other and making a living gets harder every day, until the unspeakable night when this family is split up in the cruellest of ways.

In the end Mini and Jenna have to escape, as they try to make sense of the situation. They end up in a refugee camp where conditions are far worse than either they or the reader could have imagined.

Jenna is the kind one, and Mini survives by telling stories. They continue looking for the others. They make friends among the other camp dwellers, and they grow up very quickly.

I don’t want to say what happens, but it is bleak, albeit somewhat hopeful. Jo has written a fantastic story, which is easy to read, or would be were it not for the awful conditions people suffer. This book will hopefully help young readers to understand what they hear about in the news.

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