The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay

The Skylark's War

The Skylarks’ War is our Children’s Book of the Month for July.

The Skylark’s War – The Blurb

“Clarry and her older brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall, staying with their grandparents and running free with their charismatic cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September – boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and a boring life for Clarry at home with her absent father, as the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer.

When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers are finally slipping away from them. Can their family survive this fearful war?”

Page count, age count

At nearly 300 pages Skylarks’ felt like the book club’s biggest book ever. This was possibly related to the content. Occasional references to the brutalities of war and a boy’s unrequited love for another boy made it perhaps less suitable for the younger reader. I note it is pitched at the 9-11 year old bracket. I would probably advise a naive, non-confident at reading 9 year old to steer clear.

Women, suffragettes and war

Unfortunately Skylarks’ lacks a mother figure (again!) However the role of the female during the early 20th century was expertly depicted by McKay and something the children discussed at length. Imagine not being allowed to ride a bike, or swim simply because you were a girl! We inevitably ended up talking about the suffragettes and women not being allowed to vote which tied very neatly into a recent school topic. I love it when a book brings school work to life.

We also talked about how the war actually helped the role of women. Vanessa who was living away from home, dancing and nursing had far more freedom than would have been given to her ten years previously.

We all liked Clarry who was a really strong positive female character, not defeated by anything. It would have been so easy to make the older, beautiful, Vanessa an enemy to Clarry. Yet McKay avoided the cliche of pitching two girls against each other and I loved her for it.

Back of the book

At the back of the book there is a useful bibliography and an Authors Note on the ‘World Behind The Story’. This is something I am finding a lot with children’s books at the moment. It really is worth taking the time to read at least the Author’s Note as it does help the children (and the adults) get a grasp of what they are reading.

World War One

Being a book set during World War One the topic of war was also high on our agenda. I really appreciated the fact that it was the first World War as opposed to the second, something that I think adult fiction dwells all to easily on. There was some fantastic writing from McKay, particularly Chapter 27 describing the Western Front in a way that was quite staggeringly brilliant:

“The line was the shape of a long, lopsided smile. A ravenous, expectant smile. A greedy, unreasonable smile, considering how very, very well it was fed.”

The (lack of) news available to Clarry surprised the children the most. Imagine someone facing that ravenous smile and your family not even being aware it existed. In this age of information, where images of a bomb going off on the other side of the world are with us in minutes to be so ‘protected’ from what was happening very close to us, involving our families seems unbelievable. Yet it was.

A cousins war

Towards the end it did get a little unbelievable with Clarry and Miss Vane’s ‘save Rupert’ campaign. Yet the children didn’t seem to mind one bit. I also slightly failed to grasp Rupert’s connection to Clarry. Whilst I loved their relationship, at the time we are introduced to Rupert, Clarry is 10 and Rupert is nearly 17. A very big age gap at that particular time of their life. The children were more concerned with the fact Rupert and Clarry were cousins (yuck!) despite my claim cousins did marry a lot in years gone by. I don’t think I have convinced them.

Memorable

I was probably more engrossed in this book than our previous children’s book club books. This again perhaps reflects the fact the book is more for older children than the 9 upwards band suggests. In any event, it raised a lot of disbelief of times gone by from the children who really seemed to enjoy the discussion it brought about. I just loved the ending (particularly the last line) and the writing really was memorable. Without doubt The Skylarks’ War is a good one to prompt discussion and to paint a picture of World War one, and the life and times of women. Particularly if your child is a good reader and curious. I loved it.

If you enjoyed The Skylarks’ War try the very good Swallows and Amazons, one of our favourite ever children’s books.

The Skylark's War
The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay