For ages 9+
Here I am sitting in my local Clip N Climb at 10am on a Saturday morning watching my kids having the time of their lives… I am nursing a strong Americano with a lump in my throat, holding back the tears as I revisit and commence writing my review about an UNFORGETTABLE and UNMISSABLE new work from the award-winning children’s author, Phil Earle. The same Phil Earle, who last month walked the red carpet at The British Book Awards to win the Children’s Fiction Book of the Year Award 2022 for his first children’s middle grade novel published by Andersen Press last year, ‘When the Sky Falls’. Much deserved and I’m so utterly thrilled for both him and his lovely team at Andersen Press, and beyond.
Phil Earle is a staple of children’s fiction. He now has over 20 books published and is legendary for writing emotional and punchy everyday life stories that stay with you forever, whether about football, animals, war, families, school-life, he’s really got our kids backs! When you read his books you almost feel like he’s in the room putting an ethereal arm around you when the reality of a traumatic event or the overwhelming sense of relief or joy in his story hits you BLAMMM right in the heart. His favourite crisps are Frazzles and he’s probably one of the sweetest people in the industry. I’m off to the launch party for this book in London next week and I can’t wait to finally meet him in person. NOW… let me get on with telling you all about ‘While The Storm Rages’…
About the story
Like 'When the Sky Falls', 'While the Storm Rages' is set in England in the World War II era. At first glance, this new story feels like it should be a sequel just looking at the book's cover art, and in some ways when you read it you do get the feeling that Earle might have been so overly inspired when writing 'When the Sky Falls', he was exploding with imagination so much he spilled it into a just-as-brilliant 'While the Storm Rages'. Get ready for some lessons in survival, World War II, faith, hope, animal welfare, geography and compassion... this book's packed to bursting with it all.
In the weeks before war breaks out in 1939, the Price family are living in the dockland area of Wapping, East London by the River Thames. It's just mum, dad, Noah and dog, Winn at home. Noah's dad has just enlisted, as it looks like war against Hitler will soon breakout. With Earle's writing, emotions are always palpable for the reader, and right from Chapter 1 with Noah's dad asking him to keep mum safe and Winn safer until he returns, the reader reads between the lines that perhaps things aren't great in the marriage and that with dad gone, Noah is going to be without his right arm, utterly lost, abandoned, and anxiety-ridden.
As if things couldn't get any more upsetting, the thunderbolt of then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's Operation Pied Piper during the Summer of 1939 came into play. Noah arrives back home one afternoon after school. His mum looks unwell, and Noah's immediate thought goes to his dad, but the government is stirring up the nation into preemptive action and Noah's going to be evacuated to Cornwall with his classmates. We now know that almost 3 million people from urban areas in England were evacuated to lower risk places away from German bombs in the first 4 days of the operation. The first bomb didn't drop in London until August 1940.
Noah's questioning mind immediately sense checks everything being thrown at him. The war hasn't even started yet. What if he doesn't want to go? What'll happen to Winn? His last promise to his dad was that if he keeps Winn and mum safe, then he'll be keeping his dad safe and then they can be reunited at the end of the war! Noah's world is torn apart, Winn can't go with him.
I'm just going to plough on with the devastating chain of events, because the next thing you know, a handbook arrives by post from the National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) with "Advice to Animal Owners" on what to do with pets... think alleviate their sufferings and have them painlessly destroyed... kill them while you can do so 'kindly' before starvation, abandonment or bombs get them. Utterly horrific. This event at the start of the war saw approximately 750,000 pets in the UK culled and is now referred to as the 'British pet massacre' or the 'pet holocaust'. What's more, negotiating with mum to keep Winn at home with her while Noah is evacuated, fails. Mum's not a great fan of Winn's it turns out...
At this point, the reader is only up to p. 38 of a 370-pages epic tome. It's a lot to take in. What follows is a scene of mass hysteria, which includes Noah and his best friend Clem panicking about their pets and being forced to queue at the vets with hundreds of other distressed local families and children, all waiting for their beloved animals to be put down. The pace for the reader is intense, as it's evacuation day the following morning, perhaps it's now or never, Noah and Clem need to escape. They can't go through with the murder of their beloved dogs. Their mothers are going to be furious. Who cares, wins (right?)!
Before now, the reader, even the mightiest of kids books readers, won't have taken much notice of our protagonist's name, the true significance of it. Noah, after all, is one of the most popular kids names of the last 10 years (2nd most popular boys name in 2020, 1st/top in 2021). I'm very excited to let you in on something... this book is filled with religious subtext. Perfect for classroom research, development and analysis, and hopefully some enthusiastic discussions.
Even the most irreligious person would pray for a miracle in the face of war and Earle has helicoptered in probably one of the most famous religious characters in ancient history - Noah (Noach, pronounced know-akh in Hebrew and also known as Nūḥ in Arabic: نُوْحٌ), whose story is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament and the Qur'an. I'm going to side-step into this for a moment, it's going to become clear why, I promise.
Noah was a ninth generation descendant of Adam and Eve, God informed Noah of his plans to eradicate mankind due to their evil ways, and instructed him to build a specifically designed ark, in which he and his family were to take refuge along with two of every living species chosen by God to survive a great flood in the year 1656 of Creation (2105 BCE). Ark in Hebrew is 'teivah' - which also means "a word". Apart from the words of the Torah and prayer, mitzvahs and kind deeds are also considered to be encompassed within an 'ark'. The name "Noah" is etymologically connected to the word for inner peace and tranquility.
Drawing parallels from the above, Hitler's Nazi evil hegemony had to be eradicated by declaring war on Germany in 1939. Many a miracle will have been prayed for those who enlisted and left loved ones to march into the unknown. Children needed to have faith and hope that they'd be reunited with their families again after the war, that their parents and siblings would return from the fighting alive, that the strangers they were being sent to at a moments notice with barely any belongings were kind and safe. Earle points out in the story, "Noah wasn't religious". Clem asks Noah "You never did read the Bible, did you?" Noah shakes his head. "Course I didn't. None of it's true. It's just all stories, isn't it?"
The night of the vet queue flight, Noah creates a temporary pets sanctuary on his father's rusty old boat moored up on the Thames, the 'Queen Maudie'. The following morning they're meant to be on an evacuation train to Cornwall, instead Noah and Clem are marching their animals to Battersea Dogs Home. By now the class bully, Big Col has joined them with his huge python, Delilah. It's a disaster. More queues and sadly war is declared whilst they're in the queue and the staff there have to turn everyone away as they've already reached capacity. It's at this point that a lady from the Home tells the crushed children that there's a Duchess somewhere who is a campaigner for animal welfare (real person in history: Duchess of Hamilton) and they might find her and ask her to take the animals whilst they're evacuated. They didn't have much to go on... she's on an estate west of London. How are three kids and a their pets going to get there, and undetected too, seeing as they're on the run!
I know I need to leave you with the mystery of what unfolds, it pains me to admit it to myself... soon, I promise!
Taking the only option available to them, Noah captains his rusty old ark, the 'Queen Maudie' on a perilous journey down the River Thames towards Windsor. His crew: ever-faithful hound Winn, "walking encyclopaedia" Clem and her elderly dachshund ‘Nazi’ dog according to Big Col or “arthritic draught-excluder”- Frank, Big Col and his python - Delilah, the donkey - Samson who had been left tied to the boat by a hopeful stranger, two kittens - named Mary and Joseph who were found adrift on a rowing boat. Together, they have to navigate perilous shipping lanes, strong currents and tides, locks, dangerous and suspicious river folk, biblical downpours and more.
The children have to find the strength to survive alone; where they might vehemently butt heads in the past, they now have to work together to find food, water and shelter - to save each others lives over and over again. So concerned with saving lives against all odds, the children are also confronted with the ideology of not taking a life, even Hitler's when they meet a conscientious objector. Only with miracles along the way e.g. a 6 year old mute boy, Matthew, and his older sister, Esther, who "looked fierce, like she'd put the fear of God into Col", or a medal-worthy victorious rescue by Samson (who instead of mighty invincible strength through his hair sports a fetching straw hat), might this wing-and-a-prayer mission have a hope of succeeding. Will they ever reach the Duchess? Will they deliver their beloved pets to safety? Will Noah's dad return from the war?
Tip: I advise you to consciously remember to breathe through this dramatic adventure. It's like an emotional Dambuster's bomb bouncing through your chest as you read the last few chapters. You WILL be deeply touched by both the heart-warming and devastating events in the story no matter how tough you might think you are. Boy, does the climactic ending get you! You won't guess it, so don't even try.
The sheer gut-punch is the reality of this story, based on historical events less than 100 years ago, about children who will now be in their 80s, still living, able to remember the start of the war. They may even have had to take their pet to be put down, be evacuated, may have even tried to run away at the thought of it all.
I'll leave you with this beautiful passage I found, which conveys so beautifully the sentiment and journey I experienced whilst reading Phil Earle's 'While the Storm Rages':
"When the waves rage—whether from outside or from within your own heart—direct their power into those harmonious words. Rather than drown you with everything else, let that raw energy of the mighty waters carry you upward—into a serene world you could never reach without them.” - Mayim Rabin 5738 on Noah's Ark
About the creator
Phil Earle (author)
Born and raised in the north of England, Phil is the author of over twenty acclaimed, award-winning books for children and teenagers. He has worked as a carer, a drama therapist, a bookseller and a publisher, and loves talking at schools and festivals around the world. He lives on the side of a very steep hill with his partner, their five children and two dogs.
World War II
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Publication date: 2 June 2022
*Andersen Press provided me with a review copy of 'While the Storm Rages'.
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