My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Amina tells stories. She has an imagination, a powerful one, and it’s been her companion throughout the war that has ravaged her country. Her family have felt the impact of this differently, but they are together. That is enough. That is enough to survive. But then things start to change, and slide horribly out of control and Amina’s family life is shattered. Nothing will ever be the same again. Will Amina ever tell a story again? What’s going to happen to her family?
I am reading some good, good books lately. This, a tale of family and refugees and the terrible impact of war, is one of them and had me utterly in tears at the ending. Looking At The Stars is a book about imagination, voice and the power of story. It is also a book about the worst of humanity, and how people can so easily shift into horrific violence. It is, as you may imagine, hard to judge this sort of tone in a book for young readers and I think one of the strengths of this is that it is set in a fictional environment. This could be anywhere; there are echoes of Iraq, Afghanistan but also of Nazi Germany and the cumulative impact of this is to create a fictional ‘everyplace’ where, in a way, the story gains more immediacy precisely because it could be anywhere. It could be anywhere.
Cotterill pitches Looking At The Stars perfectly; she writes with a sympathetic warmth which doesn’t shy away from detailing some of the more graphic incidents that occur throughout the narrative. There are some which are difficult to read (as ever, read the book if you are working with it and know the context of the children you work with) but they are never gratuitous. They are painful, heartbreaking, emotional, but they are never poorly handled. It’s a great skill to have and one that gives this book its great strength. It is a story about stories and storytelling, and the delicious edge of that isn’t dulled. If anything, it’s sharpened through Cotterill’s restrained and quiet prose and her beautiful ability to see the wonder in a starlit sky. What a book this is.