Over the last few weeks I have visited many bookshops in the US and Canada. On my last few days I needed to grab a few books to read on the journey home and so I visited Kidsbooks in Vancouver. This is a fabulous book store set out over two large shop spaces with an enormous collection organised into ages.
It is odd that I find selecting books quite difficult. I can easily buy books for my school library and Kidsbooks had hundreds I would have gladly bought but browsing the Middle Fiction section looking for a book to read myself took a long time. One of the young staff was very helpful but nearly every title he recommended I had already read. We both ended up laughing about this. I finally picked up this book - Beautiful Blue world and another simply splendid one by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel which I will talk about later.
Suzanne LaFleur is a US author and Beautiful Blue World is her fourth book. I am so glad I have discovered her writing because I devoured Beautiful Blue World in just one sitting (well before my long travel day). I made this choice based on the cover and the words on the blurb "kindness can be a weapon, and children have the power to see what adults cannot."
Beautiful Blue World is set during a time of war in an invented world with fantasy names such as Tyssia, Sofarende and Eilean, but this book is not a fantasy. As the story opens Mathilde and her family have to take shelter from bombing and air raids (look closely at the cover and you can see images of planes called aerials). There are posters around their town asking for young recruits :
CHILDREN AGES 12-14
SERVE YOUR COUNTRY NOW!
SIGN P FOR THE ADOLESCENT ARMY
APTITUDE TEST AT YOUR SCHOOL!
The family of children who are recruited will receive a large amount of money and regular payments "you would be provided with room and board for the duration of your service and, at eighteen, your university education." The catches are - the children cannot return home, they cannot send or receive letters and if they are successful with the test they are then committed to serve. All of this is a huge dilemma for the family. Father does not want Mathilde, who he calls Big, to go but this might give her opportunities far beyond what the family can provide. Mathilde is called Big because she has two younger sisters. I love this idea :
"I used to be Little, a long time ago, before Kammi came, but since she was born when I was four, I have been Big. When Tye came, Kammi became Middle. Little, Middle, Big."
Mathilde and her friend Megs sit the test. The questions are very strange and complex. Megs is one of the smartest girls in the school but she is not chosen instead Mathilde is given the news that she has been selected - the only student from her school. She travels by train to a strange old house where she finds other children working on solving puzzles. The military people are using the children to make predictions about bombing patterns and raids by the enemy. Mathilde feels she has no skills for this. She is set a different assignment. Talking with a captured soldier. Over many weeks she forms a relationship with this young man and makes an important discovery about human frailty and kindness. Take a look at this review for all the plot details.
I absolutely loved this book. Mathilde is a deep thinker, problem solver and most importantly she has a deep emotional intuition. I rarely give ratings but this is a five out of five book.
Listen to an audio sample of the first pages here. There is also a map at the front of the book which will help with your understanding of the threats facing Sofarende.
Deeply emotional, compelling, and brilliant. Kirkus
Writing in the first person, LaFleur crafts a protagonist who is compassionate and resourceful, in a war-ravaged world in which children are, by turns, exploited and empowered. The tension is high and danger ever present. School Library Journal
Mathilde is one of those characters whose resourcefulness you want to teach your children, whose loyalty is unsurpassed, and whose penchant for kindness is one we all should model. Happily Ever Elephants
Good news there is a sequel - Threads of Blue.