Saturday, 6 November 2010
Review: Put Out The Light by Terry Deary
It is 1940 and war is underway. In Sheffield, England, a brother and sister set out to solve a mystery, brazenly believing that the air-raid signals are only false alarms. In Dachau, Germany, two boys come up with a bold plan to bring an end to the war and help a Polish prisoner escape. But when the bombs falling on Sheffield become a reality, and the German boys plan hurls them unwittingly into the midst of the action, the children's adventures swiftly become a terrifying fight to survive.
Terry Deary is a a writing god. His Horrible Histories books have turned so many children on to history, and I often wonder whether I might have been a little more successful in my O-Level history exam if those books had been my main source of information instead of the dreadfully boring teacher I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts. He is also the author of a host of fiction titles for young readers, and Put Out The Light is the latest of these (and, would you believe it, his 200th book). It was released at the beginning of September, on the 70th anniversary of the of the start of the Autumn 1940 Blitz.
Put Out The Light follows the lives of two different groups of children: in Sheffield we follow the story as narrated by young Billy Thomas, whilst in Dachau, Germany the story is told from the third person and focuses on Manfred and his friend Hansl. Billy is very much a typical schoolboy growing up in a difficult time, and the story starts off during the school summer holidays as he and his sister Sally run around their suburb of Sheffield as darkness falls, searching for excitement and making fun of the friendly Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden as he does his rounds bellowing "Put out the light!" at any offending household. Meanwhile, over in Dachau, Manfred and Hansl are equally typical examples of boyhood, yet their society is even more difficult as they have to constantly think before they speak in order to toe the line of the ruling Nazi Party.
The book consists of a different storyline for each of the two key locations. In Sheffield the two siblings suspect that someone has been stealing small amounts of cash from many houses in the neighbourhood, whilst their residents are waiting safely in shelters whilst the air-raid sirens sound. This all becomes a big game for them, as they pretend to be like their favourite radio detectives, Sexton Blake and his assistant Paula Dane. Over in Dachau Manfred is playing a much more dangerous game as he is plotting to help a young Polish girl called Irena escape from the factory in which she is forced to work, and the concentration camp she must live in when she isn't working. Time is running out for Irena and her fellow Polish prisoners as it was around this time that the Nazis started killing more and more of the people they believed to be sub-human.
These two storylines are complemented by the narrative taking occasional short visits to focus on other secondary players, whose parts seem fairly unrelated at the beginning but become increasingly more important as the story progresses. We therefore witness the young RAF pilots on their training missions, or waiting with nervous and excited anticipation for the call that will have them scrambling in their Hurricanes to head off the Luftwaffe's bombers as they head towards Sheffield. We also spend some time with their German counterparts, the men who will just as bravely take to the skies, but theirs is an attack mission with the sole aim of dropping bombs on British factories and airfields. At no point do these excursions away from the two main storylines cause us to lose the thread of the overall plot - instead they give us an even greater sense of being there.
I found the two concurrent storylines very tense and engaging, although I have to admit that I preferred the Sheffield-based story. Part of this is because of the great voice in which this part of the story is told; Billy tells is exactly how it is, and his relationship with his sister is both funny and heart-warming. Sally is a great character - she is the typical annoying little sister whose mouth gets her and her brother into trouble time and time again - and she has most of the best lines in the book. I did struggle at times with Manfred's story as I found I had to suspend disbelief a little more and question whether a German boy would have risked all to save a Polish girl who he hardly knows. Despite this thought I still found their story very exciting and tense, and I think 9+ kids will love it. It is, after all, not supposed to be a historical documentary; it is a story about young people not really understanding the true nature of war and all the horrors it brings, and the courage and resilience they can show in these situations.
In my opinion, there aren't enough books set in this period published these days, although more recently we have seen the likes of John Boyne (The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas), Paul Dowswell (Auslander) and Craig Simpson (Special Operations series) addressing this situation and producing some excellent World War II stories for Young Adults. With Put Out The Light Terry Deary has produced a hugely enjoyable book for a slightly younger audience and I hope that other authors will continue this pleasing trend as it is such a fascinating time in which to set stories for young people, many of which will study this period at some point in their school careers.
Put Out The Light was published at the beginning of September and my thanks go to Annie Macfarlane at Yomego for sending me a copy to review. If you are a fan of Terry Deary, whether it be his fiction or his brilliant Horrible Histories books, then watch this space as I will soon be announcing a related competition with an incredible Terry Deary prize.