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Dear Olly

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: Positive and thought-provoking look at the effects of war on the children of Africa, and on the difference one determined young man can make.

Cover of Dear Olly

Author: Michael Morpurgo

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published in: 2000

Age Range: Children+

Period: Contemporary

Setting: Britain, Africa

Genres:  AnimalGrowing-UpThought-provokingWar


Characters:

  • Olly is the younger sister of Matt. He's just got good A-level results but is determined to go to Africa to help war-injured children. Olly uses his hide to watch the swallows he used to watch until they, too, fly away to Africa.

Synopsis:

Intelligent and talented 18-year-old Matt travels to Africa to help war-injured children, leaving his widowed mother and younger sister Olly behind. They in turn wait for his letters and watch the swallows he watched grow up and fly away to Africa.

Notes:

What Michael Morpurgo does best is to present a serious, adult issue in a way in which children can understand and engage. As here, this often involves seeing adult matters through the eyes of a young but interested party. And, here as in Joan of Arc, he uses the device of a bird to add a third party observer when no other is available. The bird is used cautiously, given a personality but not anthromorphised. In this case Hero the swallow has an adventure of its own involving the annual migration of its kind and the dangers of a greedy hawk, but really it's present to bridge the distance between Olly and her brother Matt in far-away Africa.

This is a short book with illustrations reducing the text further but it manages to get across several issues in a thoughtful way. The choices open to a young man with good results and the decisions one makes in conscience even when one's parents are opposed. The plight of war-stricken children in Africa and the unselfish help many people give to them. The pleasure of quietly watching nature at work and understanding the habits of birds as they migrate. The effect of landmines and the largeness of spirit it takes to overcome the loss of a limb.

The matters being addressed here include Matt's mature if impassioned decision to sidestep his mother's plans for him and devote his time and his talent to helping uncared-for children in Africa. The effect this has on the rest of his family, his widowed mother and his younger sister Olly, are portrayed sensitively. This is not a case of a young man, embittered and resentful, banging out of the house in a storm. His mother and his sister both understand the generous nature that has taken him away to help other people while they regret his absence.

Olly takes over Matt's hobby of watching the swallows from a hide in the garden, at first in homage to her brother, but later because she finds she learns something from watching the birds' lives. Bird-watching isn't something which features greatly in books for youngsters. Try the Cherokee series for another take or, in an older style, the Swallows and Amazons books, especially the ones on the Norfolk Broads: Coot Club and The Big Six. Olly's hardly a dedicated twitcher but somehow she gains peace of mind from watching the birds as her brother did and feeling that they're providing a link between her and her brother far away.

Finally we see Matt come home after he loses a leg when he goes to rescue a lost child. As it did when he was entertaining the orphans in Africa his largeness of spirit and sense of humour carry him through and he tries to avoid giving his younger sister any distress until he's recovered as best he can and is comfortable with a prosthetic limb. We're not told how old Olly is, although 12 seems likely but her devotion to her older brother is touching and credible.

Ultimately, then, a thoughtful book touching on a number of worthwhile issues in an accessible way. Even younger children should have no real difficulty in reading this.

Themes:

  • The effects of war on the innocent
  • The generosity of the many people helping the injured and homeless in Africa
  • The best use of ones talents

Hero flew out over the lake to feed, and the feeding was easy — for it was almost evening by now and the flies were down. He dipped down to drink and, as he did so, he heard from some way off a sound he knew so well — the sound of children's voices. As he left the lake behind him, Hero saw below him a courtyard of long low buildings, and there were children laughing. They were all sitting on the ground, watching a clown, a clown in a battered bowler hat, red check trousers, a yellow spotted jacket, and floppy shoes. He was juggling and tripping over his feet at the same time, staggering about, almost dropping the balls, but never quite. The children were squealing with joy.

Sunday 9th September 2007