When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

Inspired by a true story. It’s 1940, and Joseph has been packed off to stay with Mrs F, a gruff woman with no great fondness for children. To Joseph’s amazement, she owns the rundown city zoo where Joseph meets Adonis, a huge silverback gorilla. Adonis is ferociously strong and dangerous, but Joseph finds he has an affinity with the lonely beast. But when the bombs begin to fall, it is up to Joseph to guard Adonis’s cage should it be damaged by a blast. Will Joseph be ready to pull the trigger if it comes to it?

Andersen Press

Phil Earle has written such a range of books, for a range of readers, and I’ve read and enjoyed most of them. WHEN THE SKY FALLS is his latest and, in my opinion, his greatest novel. There are a few strands to the story, I was particularly taken with Joseph’s school problems, all of which tie together beautifully to make a gripping and poignant read. I enjoyed it so much (including the bits that made me sob) that I had to ask Phil a few questions:

From the first few pages we get a real feel for Joseph and Mrs F’s characters. Was that always the opening scene or did you consider joining Joseph before he got to the station?

I did initially have a prologue. I’m a BIG fan of a prologue, and this one started with the bombs falling and Joseph clutching a rifle…I thought it was terribly exciting. My editor Charlie thought it was superfluous and confusing. Charlie won. She’s usually right (ok, always).

I wasn’t ever tempted to show Joseph’s life up north at the start of the book. I wanted his backstory to unravel as the reader turns the page and the story goes on…

The afterward, sharing the detail that inspired WHEN THE SKY FALLS, of your friend’s dad having to keep his gun trained on a zoo’s lion during air raids, is really interesting. How did a lion turn into a gorilla in your mind?

It was out of necessity really. I KNEW I had to write this story, it gave me goosebumps every time I thought about it, but it felt key for the boy to have formed a relationship with whatever was in the cage, otherwise the drama wouldn’t have been pronounced enough when the bombs started to fall.

It didn’t feel realistic that a lion would protect a child if it were set free, but there are lots of examples in zoos of silverback’s doing exactly this. I’ve long been fascinated by apes, so I knew as soon as Adonis popped into my head, that this was the right direction.

You’ve written books for a wide age range, including more accessible novellas for Barrington Stoke, how much does your process vary with the target audience? Which type of writing do you find most satisfying?

Unless I’m collaborating, I tend to write the same way, as in I have an idea, then I do zero planning. All I do is write. I love how exciting that feels, like I’m the reader discovering the story for the first time. Sometimes I have a start and an ending, but where it goes in-between is largely a mystery to me when I begin.

In terms of satisfaction, I don’t think there’s any one age group or genre I favour. There is nothing more satisfying than when you discover a story for any age. Or as exciting. If I’m not excited as I write, then I know it’s not working.

Did you think about writing this story for a younger audience or as a shorter Barrington Stoke title, or was a longer MG+ novel the plan from first ideas?

I think I knew that the scale of the story dictated that it would be 60,000 words, which took it outside of Barrington Stokes remit. Writing for them is an absolute joy. And it’s brilliant to work in a shorter medium. It really sharpens your skills. Ensures that every word counts.

I know you enjoy talking to children and young people about your books, but do you prefer events with younger or older readers?

People think I’m odd, but yes, I LOVE doing events. As much as I do writing itself.

It’s a different energy when you speak to different ages. For the first five years I spoke exclusively in secondary schools, and you often have to work harder and give more to keep the students attention and elicit a response (and if they’re year 9, it’s all about survival!).

In junior schools it’s different as the students are largely enthusiastic and bouncy. This means it’s about harnessing their enthusiasm, rather than trying to gee them up. Both are hugely rewarding.

In an ideal world, what kind of events would you like to do with this book?

I’d like to be in a classroom with the students. Zoom events are great, and it’s been a financial lifeline, but nothing beats being there in person.

To do an event at the Imperial War Museum would be incredible. Imagine that. One for the bucket list…

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I am just finishing Tom Palmer’s Arctic Star, which is excellent. Tom is so vastly under-rated. A brilliant story-teller. I’m also reading Jonathan Stroud’s The Outlaws Scarlett & Brown. Jonathan’s ability to do fast-paced adventure AS WELL as beautifully written, is something else. I’m deep with envy.

Both these books would be perfect for upper end of junior as well as secondary (years 7,8 and 9)

What will we see from you next?

I’m staying in WW2 for the next novel, with a book called Noah’s Ark. Again, it’s inspired by real life events. In Sept 1939, as war broke out, the government told families to have all their pets put down, that it wasn’t safe to keep them alive. As a result, over 750,000 animals were killed in one month. Can you believe that?? So my story is about one rebellious boy who says no, and steals a boat in the hope of saving as many animals as he possibly can. I hope it’s a rollicking good yarn, though there may be some tears again…

Thanks Phil for your great answers, and to Andersen Press for sending a review copy.

WHEN THE SKY FALLS is out now!

About Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

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