Books can take us anywhere. They can sweep us away on grand adventures, or take us somewhere to quiet to think. In this post, we will be taking a closer look at children’s books that have a strong sense of place. As well as deepening understanding of curriculum topics, such as habitats and conservation, these books encourage empathy in readers. They feature characters who question their identity, searching for belonging in places – and people – that are often changing around them.
The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell
Location: Papua New Guinea
The breeze is warm. The sun is hot.
I turn around and walk over to look down on the other side of the island. The mountain is just as steep, the forest just as green and the sky and sea just as blue as each other. I can see the thin snek of road that leads from our village to the town, and in the other direction I can see the dry and broken-up skeleton of the long-dead copper mine.
Everywhere I look, the sea goes on for ever.The Shark Caller, p. 69.
After her parents are killed by Xok, a rogue shark traumatised by years in captivity, Blue Wing goes to live with Sirigen, her village’s shark caller. Despite her desire to become a shark caller, Sirigen believes that Blue Wing carries too much anger in her heart. When she is told to befriend Maple, a Japanese-American girl visiting the island with her scientist father, Blue Wing embarks on an adventure, and friendship, that could change her life once more.
We were swept away by the descriptive writing of this beautiful and suspenseful book. The inclusion of Papuan Pidgin English words adds to the richness of the story and Blue Wing’s narrative voice, bringing the island and characters so much closer to our hearts and imaginations. Like Blue Wing’s beloved sea, this is a book that has infinite depths. It is changeable and uncanny, with tides of feeling that gently ebb and then suddenly crash. Unlike anything you will read this year, The Shark Caller is a powerful story of grief, redemption and the lasting power of friendship.
Explore other books set in Oceania: Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo, The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean, Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, and A Glasshouse of Stars by Shirley Marr.
When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten
It’s hot down here. Hotter than on Sycamore Hill, where, if we’re lucky, we get a slight breeze from the forest. Walking into Sycamore Square is like walking into an oven. A noisy oven with people calling to each other, stray dogs barking, and the constant beep of horns. The courthouse is framed against the blue sky, the white paint barely hiding the cracks from the storm two summers ago, when a telephone pole fell and hit the building.When Life Gives You Mangoes, p. 20.
Clara’s quiet life in the small Jamaican village of Sycamore is upended by the arrival of English girl Rudy in Kereen Getten’s debut novel. With Rudy by her side, Clara begins to face her fears, slowly unravelling long-held family secrets as she gets closer to remembering her own forgotten summer…
Exploring the complicated ties of community, family and friendship, When Life Gives You Mangoes is a beautifully-written book for children aged 9 and above. The evocative descriptions of island life and its unpredictable tropical weather will transport readers to Jamaica, while its immersive and unexpected plotting will keep them hooked until the very end!
Explore other books set in Jamaica and the Caribbean: Queen of Freedom: Defending Jamaica by Catherine Johnson, A Thief in the Village and Other Stories by James Berry, Granny Ting Ting by Patrice Lawrence, Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender, The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, Tales from the Caribbean by Trish Cooke.
Tamarind & the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan
We skirt around a vast green lake with houseboats bobbing along its surface. A long-legged white bird swoops low across the water and dives in, reappearing a few moments later with a bright silver fish held tight in its beak.
We leave the busy streets and begin to climb away from the chaos of the city on hushed winding roads that wrap around the mountains, the car hugging close to the curves.
Small villages with house perched at steep angles appear now and then, and bearded brown goats wander randomly along the road. It’s getting cooler and quieter the further we drive, the sky turning the darkest pink I’ve ever seen.Tamarind & the Star of Ishta, pp. 18-19.
Tamarind visits the childhood home of her late mother, reconnecting with her family and Indian heritage, in Jasbinder Bilan’s sensitively told middle-grade novel Tamarind & the Star of Ishta. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, the story is rich in life and colour, cleverly combining the natural and spiritual to create a world that feels both magical and lushly tangible. Young readers will enjoy following Tamarind’s quest for belonging, delighting in the family (and golden monkey) she meets on the way.
Explore other books set in India and the Himalayas: Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi, King of the Cloud Forests by Michael Morpurgo, Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth, Lair of the Leopard by Bear Grylls, The Time Traveller and the Tiger by Tania Unsworth, Dindy and the Elephant by Elizabeth Laird, Torn Apart: The Partition of India, 1947 by Swapna Haddow (pub. 5 Aug 21).
Darwin’s Dragons by Lindsay Galvin
Location: Galápagos Islands and Victorian London
Where was I?
The iguanas told me this was still the Galapagos at least. Ahead was one almighty summit, a bigger volcano than any I’d seen. Some of the islands had thick forests covering the higher ground, but the plains of black volcanic rock leading up to this one sprouted greenery as sparse as the feathers on a vulture’s head. I hadn’t been here before, I felt sure of it.Darwin’s Dragons, p. 13
Telling the fictional story of Syms, a young sailor on board the real-life Beagle, Darwin’s Dragons is a must-read for Year 6 students studying Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. The island on which Syms is shipwrecked is vividly described – you can see the bizarre and beautiful vegetation, you can feel the dryness of the sun-scorched earth, you can taste the sweetness of the prickly pears. The clever mix of history, science, ethics and fantasy (here be dragons!) will excite readers of all ages.
World Burn Down by Steve Cole
Location: Amazon rainforest
To his horror, he saw the crimson shadow of flames closing in from his left. He panted for breath, shielding his eyes as the fierce orange inferno drove out the colours of the rainforest – the vivid jungle green, the blue of the butterflies, the bright palette of the parrots, toucans and hummingbirds.World Burn Down, p. 40.
Kidnap is a bold way to start a story, but the stakes only get higher in Steve Cole’s fast-paced adventure. After escaping his captors, Carlos is forced to go deeper into the burning Amazon. With no food, water, or shelter, Carlos must fight for his life.
World Burn Down exposes the human greed fuelling the destruction of the Amazon, with Land-Grabbers burning huge areas of vegetation to mine the gold dust beneath, displacing indigenous tribes and driving animals away from their natural habitats. There is a real sense of danger and urgency, a feeling heightened by Oriol Vidal’s expressive illustrations. As terrifying as Carlos’s situation becomes, and as relentless and unstoppable as the wildfires feel, we are given hope that things can change – as long as we are prepared to stand up and make our voices heard. In the afterword, Cole also includes small ways that we can all help to protect the rainforest, making an overwhelming challenge seem possible.
Published in dyslexia-friendly font, this short, uncompromising book will instantly grip readers.
Explore other books set in South America: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, Fire Girl, Forest Boy by Chloe Daykin, My Name is River by Emma Rea, Jake Atlas and the Hunt for the Feathered God by Jake Lloyd Jones, Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson, Riding the Americas by Alastair Humphreys, and Operation Honeyhunt by Jennifer Bell.
Swan Song by Gill Lewis
Below us, a river flowed across a green valley between the hills. The river got wider and wider as it reached the glittering sea. It was late afternoon, and the low October sun was sinking in the west, turning the sea and the river to gold. At the far end of the river, where it opened out into the sea, was a small town, the windows reflecting the setting sun. Smoke drifted from a few of the chimneys. It was so far away from the city. So far away from anywhere. It was a town at the very end of the world.Swan Song, p.18.
In Gill Lewis’ Swan Song people are strengthened by their connection to the natural world. Dylan, excluded from school and forced to move to a tiny Welsh village, soon begins to care about his new surroundings, especially the whooper swans who travel so far each year. When their habitat is threatened, Dylan has to step outside of himself, finding a new confidence and happiness.
At just 119 pages, Swan Song is a beautiful and accessible story of family, grief, community, and conservation, with characters that grow in realistic and touching ways. Dylan and his swan will make your heart soar!
Explore other books set in Wales: The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr, Where the Wilderness Lives by Jess Butterworth, Wilde by Eloise Williams, Sweet Pizza by G.R. Gemin, The Owl Service by Alan Garner, and The Secret Dragon by Ed Clarke.
Post by ELS librarian Samantha