Cath Howe is an exceptional writer for children. Last year, I loved her book 'The Insiders'. 'My Life on Fire' is absolutely wonderful too. Cath Howe completely gets children and also the role teachers and adults play. This is compassionate, authentic, emotional storytelling - it's joyous! It also contains one of the most heartwarming, sensitive, empathetic child characters I have come across in quite a while. A book about a fire, but a book to melt your heart.
Ren's family lose their home in a fire. They're living with her grandmother now and things are a bit tense. Ren lost her collection of things, her clothes; her brother lost his little bear and is inconsolable. So Ren starts replacing things with other people's possessions. They've got loads of stuff, after all. But she gets caught and has to strike a terrifying deal to avoid detection...
Immediately the book hooks you in with Ren's family home going up in flames. It's a powerful moment with ramifications that affect the rest of the narrative as Ren struggles to come to terms with losing so much while having to adapt to living at her Gran's. The impact of losing a house and all its belongings is brilliantly and sensitively handled, capturing the confusion in both Ren and her younger brother, and how their parents desperately try to cope with the financial and bureaucratic fall-out. Chapters where Petie keeps asking about his lost teddy are utterly heartbreaking, evoking such innocence and vulnerability.
Cath Howe has such an ear for dialogue, particularly between children and teachers. Being a teacher myself, so much rang true for me - little phrases and actions in the classroom. And it's in the character of Caspar where the story really comes to life and shines brightly. Oh, he melted my heart entirely. On the surface, he appears very chatty, slightly annoying to others for his constant questioning and his matter-of-fact nature, but, oh, how he is so much more! He has such a depth of empathy and insights into other people - he cares so much - that you cannot be anything but completely blessed by his very-real presence on the page. How he helps Ren with her stealing is just so lovely. What a fantastic role-model Caspar is for young readers.
Really, this is such a fantastic book to read aloud to Upper Key Stage 2. A magnificent book to help children develop empathy.
Thank you to the brilliant Nosy Crow for sending the book my way.