All dedicated bookworms are familiar with the Victorian orphanage, looming large in children’s literature as a place of gruel and gruesomeness. Here we have something much much worse, the Home for Unfortunate Girls, an institution that houses girls with disabilities ‘that make it improper for them to be part of polite society.’ For 12-year-old Cosima and her officially ‘defective’ friends, years go by in ceaseless monotony. Until one fateful week in 1899, when they’re called upon to simultaneously foil a villain, stage a heist, and reveal family secrets, in the inspiring Cosima Unfortunate Steals A Star by Laura Noakes.
The establishment is run by Miss Stain, a deliciously Dickensian grotesque, whose imaginative punishments involve such acts as plucking head hairs one by one, and holding a lit match to the bare feet of disobedient girls. She is a dedicated tippler of spirits and grinder of souls, but in the manner of childrens’ book heroes everywhere, Cosima (Cos) and her friends refuse to be quelled.
Cos struggles with terrible joint pains, Diya is in a wheelchair, Pearl appears to be on the autism spectrum and Mary has mental health issues. Each girl is considered an ‘invalid,’ and yet they are blessed with creativity, tenacity and courage. Just as well really, considering what happens on the day Lord Fitzroy pays a visit.
An imposing, monocled gentleman (his elaborate moustache denoting scoundrel status), Fitzroy sweeps into Miss Stain’s office one day, where Cos overhears an extraordinary conversation. By close of day, she will be in possession of two life-changing facts. Fact one: her long-lost parents have left a trail for her, Fact two: Lord Fitzroy wants to adopt the girls.
In a whirligig tale that encompasses a familial treasure map, and science of the most evil kind, Cos and co also find time to plot a jewel heist, address colonial theft, and shine a light on historical ableism.
A wonderfully energetic and inclusive read.
Cosima Unfortunate Steals A Star by Laura Noakes is published by Harper Collins Children’s Book, 304 pages.