Cathy Cassidy has written many best- selling books and is currently one of the most widely read children’s authors. I am a big fan of the ‘Chocolate Box Girls’ series of books because they would have been exactly the kind of book that I would have avidly read when I was a young teenager. Each one focuses on a different character from a big extended family and succeeds in drawing the reader in as they get to know their various quirks and qualities from different angles. As an adult, I have only read one but found that I was wishing to be part of their exciting world even so!
‘The Lost & Found’ series is aimed at a slightly older set of readers and is about twelve individual teenage members of the Lost & Found band, all of whom have very interesting and often difficult back-stories. This is the second one in the series so far and I think she is definitely onto a winner because it certainly left me wanting to know more about the other characters.
Fifteen year old Sami is trying to come to terms with his new life in England living with his aunt and uncle. He has escaped from war-torn Syria, travelled to Turkey with his family and lived for a while in the cramped conditions of a refugee camp and then made a perilous journey in an overcrowded boat across the icy waters of the Aegean Sea to Kos. The boat capsized and he was hauled out of the sea with no sign of his father, mother or little sister. After two months, he was sent to the Greek mainland where he lived in another grim camp, and then continued travelling by foot across Europe with many other children:
‘We stuck together because it was safer that way, but still we faced danger every day. We grew tough and cynical and ruthless, and we cried silently at night for all that we had lost’.
At long last the charity ‘Footsteps to Freedom’ helped him to locate his relatives in London and he was ‘added to the last consignment of unaccompanied refugee minors to be allowed into the UK’. As a result of these dreadful experiences, he is severely psychologically damaged and describes himself as still being ‘held together with glue and good luck’. He is nevertheless getting on with life, learning to make friends and doing well at school. He had arrived in the country with virtually nothing but his flute and his battered old, silver lined coat that used to belong to his dad who was once a professional tailor( hence the clever book title). He wears this precious coat all the time because it is a vital part of his identity, even though it is starting to disintegrate.
I was curious to know how this story could be upbeat whilst at the same time letting us know about his tragic background. I imagine that teenage readers need a good intricate plot to keep them interested and so probably wouldn’t to keep being told about this. Cassidy crafts this delicate balance of light and dark very well by using the device of Sami’s handwritten private journal, which regularly punctuates the story that is set in the present day. In this way we can track the events which happened in the past and so begin to understand why he is so reluctant to give up his personal secrets.
Sami is enjoying some good times playing flute in the band which is beginning to get some positive recognition since they played at a big local music festival organised to save five local libraries threatened with closure. He and his friends regularly rehearse in an old railway carriage in the grounds of a big mansion house owned by, Louisa Winter, an eccentric elderly artist and ex- model who was part of the trendy music scene back in the 1960s. The band is unofficially managed by her friend, Kes Wilder, who used to be a famous pop musician, but who doesn’t seem to be paying them much attention as he is off writing new material in Provence for the summer. At the beginning of this story, Lost & Found are in urgent need of a new keyboard player and so they audition a selection of terrible acts ending up with choosing Bobbi- Jo, who doesn’t seem to be able to play at all. I was reminded at this and several other points of the film ‘The Commitments‘, because the atmosphere is almost exactly the same. They are so intense and obsessed with their music and fiercely bound together with possibility. Other band scenes with a familiar flavour include them sitting in the Leaping Llama hipster café as Marley, who is the leader of the band, waxes lyrical about their future fame and the chaotic rehearsals (particularly after Bobbi- Jo joins).
As well as being able to play the flute, Sami is also realising that he has a real talent for drawing and creating beautiful things that other people appreciate, like the little silver stars that his father first taught him to fashion from old pieces of tin. He remembers how the family sat up on the roof of their home in Damascus before the war:
‘Damascus or London, we all live under the same stars!’
He is also falling in love for the first time and his developing relationship with Lexie, who was the central character of the first book in this series, is tenderly told. She has a tortoise called ‘Mary Shelley’ whose unusual name is the subject of their first conversation:
‘You’ve heard of Mary Shelley?’ she asks. ‘Hardly anyone at school has! Have you read Frankenstein? I don’t suppose…did they have it in Syria?
‘I’m sure they did, ‘I say. ‘But I read it in English. I borrowed it from Bridge Street Library.’
As they grow closer, Sami feels comfortable to confide in Lexie and begins to allow himself to stop dwelling on the agony of losing his close family and friends and to be more hopeful about the future:
‘I’m the Arctic tundra come to life at last, my heart a big mess of joy and pain, hammering in my chest, telling me I’m alive and I shouldn’t waste a single minute’.
I strongly recommend this well told multi-layered story which is all about friendship and camaraderie. These are likeable, generous, creative young people who really care about the world they live in as well as being determined to have a good time. It is also about a very sensitive young man and so I hope that it will be read by both boys and girls, although this might be a marketing challenge as Cassidy is probably seen as a predominantly ‘girly’ author. Without spoiling the plot, I need to reassure you that there is a very positive ending and eventually Sami is ready to take off the coat and to give it a new life.
Cassidy is keenly aware of the political power of fiction to help readers understand and want to ask questions about real world concerns. In the afterword, she explains that Sami’s story is based on the reality faced by thousands of child refugees who are trying to find sanctuary in the UK. As such, this is an important campaigning novel with a clear message for readers to get in touch with her with details about how they have raised money for refugee charities.
( This review was originally published on the Letterpress Project website)