It is 1940. 10-year-old Barney and his mum are on the 11.50 train to London, all their worldly possessions contained in a suitcase on the overhead luggage rack. Bombed out of their home by the Luftwaffe, they are moving in with Barney’s aunty Mavis. But events on this journey will haunt them forever, as a mysterious travelling companion shares some chilling revelations. The Children’s Book Award is voted for entirely by children. This makes it an especially lovely accolade, and one that this year has been awarded to Michael Morpurgo, for An Eagle in the Snow.
The story begins when a middle-aged gentleman enters the carriage. Through Barney’s train-loving eyes, the era of 1940s British railway travel is vividly evoked, aided by Michael Foreman’s glorious illustrations. He watches the telegraph poles whipping by, and the train smoke rising up to the clouds, shape-shifting to form a roaring lion, a map of Britain, then a plane. But the plane is real. In fact, it’s a Messerschmitt, and it’s firing at them. A brilliantly suspenseful scene sees the speeding driver braking to a violent halt in the safe haven of a tunnel.
It felt almost as if the train and ourselves were breathing in unison, panting, both of us trying to calm down
While waiting for danger to pass, the stranger relates a true story, about a chap he once knew, a hero, burdened with the most terrible secret. Barney is gripped by his dramatic recounting of World War One killing fields, a telephone call from Mr Neville Chamberlain, and an encounter with the most infamous Nazi of them all.
For those readers not usually drawn to historical fiction (and I’m one of them) I say put your prejudices aside. My initial indifference turned to admiration. An Eagle in the Snow has been voted the best book of 2017 by its young readers, and that’s the highest recommendation of all.