The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021. 9781665900911
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5
Genre: Historical fiction
What did you like about the book? This compelling World War II novel spans nearly two decades and weaves several story strands in alternating chapters, keeping readers in suspense, until nearly the end, as to how the characters will ultimately cross paths. In 1930s Berlin, best friends Hans and Erik, age 10, live in the same apartment building. Both of their families were impacted by World War I and as the decade progresses, they are more and more disturbed by the rise of Hitler and what it might mean for the country and their homes. The boys reluctantly join the Hitler Youth, even though they’d rather be at the zoo. They ultimately join the Luftwaffe as fighter pilots.
Meanwhile, in England, two girls who share a godmother become pen pals and are eventually brought together by virtue of evacuation. Shy, sickly Kate Penrose lives in Oxford with her five older siblings and their parents. In Plymouth, Ruby contends with embarrassment about her facial birthmarks, a difficult relationship with older brother Will, and helping her mother in the aftermath of the sad loss of her loving father. And in London, a neglected scrapyard dog is set free in advance of the Blitz, taken in by Rupert (a Penrose family friend) and ultimately becomes Kate’s pet.
These storylines would each be sufficient on their own to make a readable, interesting book. But it is fascinating to read them all at the same time and try to predict where the lines will eventually intersect, and so rewarding when that happens. The settings and events are beautifully written with crisp detail, and all of the characters are well-developed, even those that only appear briefly, such as Kate’s curmudgeonly grandfather or Hans’ sweet little sister Frieda. The Swallows’ Flight is a follow-up to McKay’s World War I novel The Skylarks’ War, but it stands on its own. (Hopefully it may inspire readers to seek that previous book out to learn more about the Penrose family!) An author’s note briefly addresses “The World Behind the Story” and family trees are appended to help readers connect the characters.
Anything you did not like about the book? With four different threads (counting the dog), it does take a little work at the beginning to keep the settings and characters straight, particularly their family members. It would also be helpful for readers to have a solid background knowledge of World War II, particularly regarding the events of Kristallnacht, the Nazi occupation of France, and the bombings in England.
To whom would you recommend this book? Upper elementary or middle school readers who have enjoyed books such as The War That Saved My Life or A Place to Hang the Moon.
Who should buy this book? Public, elementary and middle school libraries
Where would you shelve it? Fiction
Should we (librarians) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City: Leigh Russell King, Lincoln Street School, Northborough, Massachusetts.
Date of review: January 5, 2022