The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis

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The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: Two stories intertwine, highlighting both modern childhood challenges and those faced by a girl living over 100 years ago in an engaging and moving way.
Buy? yes Borrow? yes
Pages: 240 Date: February 2019
Publisher: OUP Oxford
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780192749482

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Semira is an Eritraen refugee, living in the UK with her mum and Robel, a man who controls their money, their food, and their every move in the UK. He threatens them that if they don't do what he says, they'll be sent home. One day, Semira finds herself buying an old hat on a market stall, strangely drawn to the bird that decorates the hat. When she takes it home she discovers there is an old diary hidden inside the hat box, written by a young girl called Hen over 100 years ago. Semira finds herself caught up in Hen's story, finding in it an escape from her own life that is full of hunger and loss. She finds that she is challenged by the girl in the diary, to speak up in her own life and fight for her place in the world.

This was a really enjoyable read, that cleverly covers a wide range of topics such as the origins of the RSPB and women's suffrage, as well as the challenges refugees face in the present day, and of finding friends and facing down bullies. I liked Semira as a character a lot, and her growing friendship with Patrick is well drawn. Patrick's family are so nice, and you're rooting for them to help rescue Semira as soon as she meets them! There's evidence of abuse, both for Semira's mother and also in Patrick's past - nothing explicit, but I felt it was good that it was mentioned, and that in both examples, there were options for escape. Helping children to find a voice is always a good topic, and there's certainly a lot to think about as you read.

The alternate story of Hen is told through diary entries, written in the form of letters. Hen addresses them as if she is writing to a 'dear friend', which gives them a more personal and immediate feel. Hen's Aunt Kitty is considered to be rather radical (unstable, as Hen's parents would have it) as she is busy fighting for the protection of birds, as well as for women to get the vote. Hen loves her aunt dearly, and loves the new visions that she is exposed to in her company, meeting new people, learning to ride a bike, and to think about things differently. But this causes trouble with her family. I liked that the issues Hen is facing felt very realistic and current, because we were hearing about them in her voice.

Semira, meanwhile, finds herself wanting to challenge Robel over his obsessive controlling of their lives. She begins to wonder if perhaps the things he tells them are not true - that only with him can they stay in the country - and that perhaps there's another possibility. Prompted by the sight of the bird on the hat, she begins to remember flashes of her past, and of another man who was in her life before. It is also through the bird that she gets to know Patrick at school, and in standing up for him against the school bullies, she finds her own voice. The diary becomes the key to her, and her mother's, freedom.

I really liked the feeling of escape, and joy, that Hen feels when she learns to ride a bike, and how that becomes mirrored in Semira's story as she is also introduced to cycling through her new friend. This then leads to more revelations in Semira's life, about who she is and where she comes from. I also really liked the resolutions we get to some, but not all, parts of the story - it was interesting that not everything is resolved. The whole story flows well, and is easy to read, and it's educational and relevant without in any way sounding like it's preaching. A good bedtime book, perfect for those probably around 9-10 and older who are confident readers.

Further reading suggestion: For more refugee stories, younger readers might want to look at this book Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland whilst teens could try Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah.

Buy The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis at

Buy The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis at


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