Values: Kindness, Courage, Hope and Community.
I was lucky enough to receive this for Christmas, and literally could not put it down. I read the whole thing in an afternoon and an evening! If you know Onjali's writing (The Boy At The Back Of The Class, for example), you will know how magical and enthralling her writing is... so this should not have been a surprise.
Hector, the protagonist, is unusual in that he is a very dislikeable character. He takes pleasure in bullying others at school and purposefully disobeying his headteacher, parents, teachers and childminder. As a result, nobody trusts him and he is deemed a 'lost cause'.
One day, Hector preys on a vulnerable homeless man named Thomas - aiming to hide his trolley of possessions. Instead, he loses control of the trolley and it ends up at the bottom of a lake. Meanwhile, an unexplained mystery is occuring in London - landmarks are going missing and appear to be framing homeless people for the crimes by using a code system used to communicate between this community about safe places to sleep etc. Hector ends up helping to solve the mystery and ensure the right person is accused. In doing so, he surprises himself with the things he ends up doing - working a soup kitchen, making friends with the teacher's pet and getting to know the homeless people in his area.
This book would be great for an UKS2 class. It is pacey and addresses modern, real issues such as family, bullying and homelessness. One of the main Values running through the book is that of kindness. It's absence at the start of the story when Hector and his friends are beating people up, playing pranks and stealing money and sweets off weaker children is remarkable and it is interesting to view the book through the bully's eyes. We also see that Hector has a softer side though with the kindness he shows towards his younger brother. As the plot develops, the reader witnesses Hector showing more and more kindness as he addresses his own stereotypes of homeless people and assumptions of others in his class. It is a great Value to track through the story and what causes this change in Hector. You could easily adapt this to look at the Values of compassion, respect or love.
Secondly, I would unpick the Value of courage. Hector thinks he is brave at the start of the book when he teases and bullies others in his community including his older sister, Thomas and others at school. In fact, he comes to realise that true courage is facing his fears and stepping out of his comfort zone. One good example of this is learning to help others in the soup kitchen or going to sit and chat with some of the homeless people he meets. It is a great book to think about stereotypes and assumptions of others and how this can lead to fear.
I would also discuss the impact of community. We often talk to children about a community of people being a school or neighbours. But what about those that often get forgotten who may also live in our area? People without a home, for example. The soup kitchen in the story providing food, clothing, showers and friendship is a great example and it could be a nice class project to look into local charities or people doing good for their communities.
Another Value you could look at with children is hope. The character of Hector is deemed a lost cause at the start of the book by his teachers; his family compare him to his elder sister and he feels disliked. However, not only does he show a different side to his character in the course of solving the mystery, but he learns from his mistakes and uses some of the prize money to help homeless people in the future. Mapping a change in a character like this can show children that they all have the potential to be who they want to be and to make changes if they so desire.
I love the way Onjali addresses very real issues in Britain with a compassionate view. She doesn't shy away from the grittiness of the reality of some people's struggles, but she makes the content accessible and age-appropriate. Furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, she uses her voice to signpost readers to more information and resources. Onjali tells her own story at the back of the book about how she grew up supporting people in East London who were homeless (and continues to do so). This can be really empowering for children and young people. The character of Thomas is based on somebody she knew and this adds a real layer of authenticity to her writing.
Definitely a book for the Values bookshelf - you could also explore equality, empathy, consideration, pride, self-belief and so many other Values too! If you would like your own copy, you can find one at Blackwell's or read an interview with her on the CILIP website.
Find other books with similar Values themes here: