Present day: Semira doesn't know where to call home. She and her mother came to England when she was four years old, brought across the desert and the sea by a man who has complete control. Always moving on, always afraid of being caught, she longs for freedom.
1891: Hen knows exactly where to call home. Her stifling mother makes sure of that. But her Aunt Kitty is opening her eyes to a whole new world.
A world of animal rights, and votes for women, and riding bicycles! Trapped in a life of behaving like a lady, she longs for freedom. When Semira discovers Hen's diary, she finds the inspiration to be brave, to fight for her place in the world, and maybe even to uncover the secrets of her own past.
Reviewed by Caroline Bradley
The Closest Thing to Flying is a story about courage, hope and perseverance. Two girls separated by a century have more in common than you might expect.
Written with a dual narrative by Hen a nineteenth century headstrong girl and Semira a present day immigrant, the story weaves their two lives together through Semira’s periodical reading of Hen’s diary. Semira came to England with her Mamma, when she was four years old, brought across the desert and the sea by a man who has complete control over their lives. He treats them badly and whilst her mother submits to the hopelessness of their situation, Semira is determined that there must be a better life for them.
When Semira discovers Hen’s diary, she finds the inspiration to be brave, to fight for her place in the world, and maybe even to uncover the secrets of her own past. For these young women, riding a bicycle represents freedom and plays a significant part in both their lives.
The historical context of Hen’s story includes the origins of the RSPB and the era in which women began to come together to fight for the right to vote and work in hitherto male-only roles.
Gill Lewis has a real talent for writing about the human condition. She clearly also has a strong passion for animals and the natural world, and this is not the first time the preservation of birds has been a subject of her stories. Both elements are evident in this title. The creation of these two strong female characters and a third, one of the most inspirational characters I have encountered in quite some time – Kitty, Hen’s aunt offer some excellent role models for young girls reading this story. Kitty oozes confidence and her self-assured approach to life is an inspiration to both Hen and also to Semira reading about her exploits a century later.
The cover is beautiful and links the lives of the two girls through a variety of items and places. Each chapter also begins with a relevant illustration to draw the reader’s attention to a particular aspect of the story. Every item has a significance and as the story progress the connection between the objects and the two girls is revealed. There is plenty of potential to compare and contrast the worlds of Semira and Hen through these objects and links to history through artefacts could be made too.
The opening pages include maps of Africa, from the present day and the 19th century, both embossed with a pair of Abyssinian lovebirds, one of the key links between the lives of the two girls.
The messages in this story are strong: be brave, take risks, take an interest in issues that effect you and the world you inhabit. Take care of the future for everyone, but live your life in the present and make every moment count.
This story could lead children to reading a wide variety of other quality fiction titles. For more Gill Lewis I would direct children towards Sky Hawk, another story with two places connected by a bird or A Story Like the Wind for more on the refugee experience. Little Bits of Sky by S E Durrant has a similar structure to The Closest Thing to Flying and a document this time a letter, that connects the past with the present; No Ballet Shoes in Syria for another story about a Syrian immigrant. Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird follows the perilous journey of a family from Syria. To follow the next chapter for women’s rights try The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay.
An instant win for me. This book is definitely worthy of a place in a Junior library or KS2 bookcorner. Take Kitty’s advice and
Enjoy the glory of the ride!