Stay where you are and then leave by John Boyne (Doubleday, 2013)
14 chapters; 247 pages
Subjects: World War One, England, London, hospitals, shell shock, conscientious objectors, junior fiction (Year 5-8)
Alfie Summerfield is five years old, living on an ordinary London street called Damley Road, when the war starts. His father, Georgie, signs up almost straightaway. Four years later, Alfie is nine, the war is still going on and there is no word from his father. His letters have stopped arriving and all Alfie knows is what his mother Margie tells him: that his father is on a secret mission for the Government, and that’s why he can’t write any more.
The community of Damley Road is a close-knit one, and we find out what happens to a number of its other occupants during these four years. One of the most powerful moments is when two men in military uniform knock at the door to (slight spoiler alert here) deliver the news of a soldier’s death. Margie’s emotions skip from shock to horror to outrage as she realises they have the wrong house, and every other woman along the street stands in fear on her doorstep, waiting to see where they go next.
Money is tight and Alfie decides to help out by skipping school (except on the days when they have history or reading) and working as a shoeshine boy at King’s Cross Station. This is where he finds out where his father actually is, and where he starts to dream up a plan to get him home again.
The Guardian review points out some of the coincidence in the plot, and there are some events that stretch credulity. I found it hard to believe that Alfie could get around the hospital without being detected, or that he could escape so easily when finally spotted. But it is still a story that pulls you along, and John Boyne does an amazing job of telling it from the point of view of a young child – for example, the way that Alfie views anyone aged 21 or over to be unimaginably old. There are some lovely insights into the nature of loyalty and friendship, especially that shown by Georgie’s oldest friend, Joe Patience, who is ostracised by everyone else in the street for being a conscientious objector. And I loved any scene with Mr Asquith in it!
The Guardian book review (mentioned above) says "There may be a fairytale feel to this wartime tale of a boy's quest to find his father, yet it's a solid, engaging read."
The Pretty Books blog also comments on the fact that "it is fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a child."
Finally, the reviewer in The Book zone for Boys loved the book and says it is "much more than just a story about a victim of shell shock" and which "really brought alive the everyday travails of the people left at home".
About the author
You can read about John Boyne on his website, which has a special page for this book (although this older link is also quite amusing).
About the illustrator
The chapter titles were hand lettered by Oliver Jeffers!
Other books you might like
I can’t think of many similar books to this one. The way John Boyne gets into the head of a five-year-old, then a nine-year-old is hard to replicate. If you haven’t read The boy in the striped pyjamas, you should definitely read that.
Only to say that I heard John Boyne speak a year or so ago and was fascinated by his account of how he wrote The boy in the striped pyjamas in about three days, virtually non-stop. You can read about it here in this transcript of a talk with Dublin Public Libraries
Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know much about shoe shine boys, but now I've found out that the Shoeblack Brigade set boys up as shoeblacks in London in 1850. More than a dozen brigades were formed, each with their own uniform, and the boys often lived in hostels. The Shoeblack Brigades had mostly disappeared by the start of World War One. “Shoe shining continued as a London street trade for many years” but had virtually vanished by the 1960s.
You can see more of Frederick Wilfred's evocative photos of London here.
Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!