Little Bits of Sky by S E Durrant

little bits of sky

Every so often a book is published that oozes emotional intelligence. This is one such novel. Told from the point of view of a young girl in the care system in the 1980’s, the book is much more than its plot or subject matter. The author Christopher Edge recently asked on Twitter for examples of a distinctive outstanding voice in children’s fiction. I would recommend this book to him. Written in the first person, eleven year old Ira (the protagonist) steps out of the book and into the reader’s head.

It is an easy read, the writing flows almost as if Ira is saying ‘and then this happened, and then this happened’, and yet with acutely attentive and well-crafted writing, such as in the aftermath of the big 1987 October storm, when Ira witnesses a tree falling and a house with its roof blown off:

“We Skilly [care home kids] were really excited. We already knew everything could be turned upside down at any moment and now everyone else could see it too.”

The prose screams authenticity. Ira’s thoughts spill out fluently but she also creates childlike lists as she goes, such as favourite things, favourite people. At the same time, her thoughts are subtle and understated. Ira is clearly emotionally damaged by her ignorance about what really happened to her parents and her unsettling past (shipped from home to home), but she maintains an equilibrium throughout the novel, a general matter-of-factness that conveys the world around her simply. In this way the prose spells out her personality – a calm veneer with a raging storm beneath. And her perceptions of the people and things around her are conveyed with simplicity:

“Anita says we had a mum once but she couldn’t look after us any more. It’s what people say to care kids. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like saying its cold outside when really it could be stormy or wet or snowy or icy and you haven’t got a window so you can’t check. All you know is you’d better put your coat on.”

Her matter-of-fact voice represses the emotion and hidden complexities that lie hidden just beneath the surface. She manages to size up her situation and other characters in a few words – but at the same time pointing to that which is unsaid between the lines. Durrant does this all the time with her writing. In this case when the children are eating personalised chocolate Easter eggs:

“Eating an egg with your name on is one of the nicest things in the world. But it does have to be your own name.”

Another quality that shines through is the humour, despite the threads of sadness and worry that sometimes interrupt Ira’s thoughts. She is sometimes funny without meaning to be (the author’s influence at playing with the reader is apparent here), and sometimes funny on purpose, but many wry smiles are sprinkled throughout the book:

“Hortense says teenagers need family more than anyone else, which is a shame because teenagers are the least lovely sort of kid.”

There is also a stunning representation of sibling affection. Ira is in care with her younger brother Zak, and the care and protectiveness she demonstrates for her brother is heart-wrenching, but it’s her understanding of him that is truly magical:

“Martha said to Zac, “Do you like it?”
Zac shrugged, which gave the wrong impression. It was because he liked it too much.”

In fact, all the secondary characters are drawn with equal sensitivity and intelligence, from the adults in the care system to the other children in care. In particular, the fairly stereotypical Jimmy, who although represented as the archetypal care child, is in fact drawn beautifully by Durrant, so that you feel an intense sadness when reading about him. Also, Pip, because her hurt is apparent through the protagonist’s insightful way of looking at her:

“She didn’t say anything at tea and she didn’t look at anyone. I tried to catch her eye but it was like she had a wall in front of her face. She looked sad sitting there looking at her wall.”

This wall cleverly blends in with the historical setting of the book, which treads from 1987 to 1990, incorporating the huge storm of October 1987 in Britain as well as the protestations over the poll tax, and finally the taking down of the Berlin Wall. The events are woven carefully into the narrative, and each one resonates with the children in a different way, but again, with layers of intelligence so that they fit into the plot – or rather the plot fits into them.

This is not a complicated plot, a huge tragedy, an outlandish comedy or a blaring book. The whole story is understated, and yet reaches a perfection that few books with wall-to-wall marketing reach. This is a stand-alone title – the author makes this clear from the ending, in which the protagonist is grown up, and it’s refreshing in children’s literature to read about what happens to the characters when they are older – this device reminded me slightly of Carrie’s War.

But this title should be shouted about for the authenticity of Ira’s voice, for the tangibility of the characters – by the end of the novel I was crying for two reaons – the uplifting spirit in which it ended, and because by finishing the book I had come to the end of a beautifully written children’s book. Treat yourself. Read it to your child so that you can both enjoy it. You can buy it here.

Cover and inside illustrations by Katie Harnett