Safiyyah’s war by Hiba Noor Khan

Most of us will have read books about World War II and about the role that children had, sometimes as participants and sometimes as observers.  This is usually told through the eyes of those on the Home Front or those that are refugees because of persecution.  This story takes a different slant, but nevertheless it is a tale that is based on truth and what happened in Muslim communities in war torn Europe.

The central character in this story is Safiyyah, who lives with her parents in the Grand Mosque of Paris, together with the small community who work in the complex.  As the Germans move ever closer to the city, many of Safiyyah’s friends start to move away, but her community feel relatively safe.  However, when the bombs start dropping and the German troops move in to the city, life takes a much darker turn.  Safiyyah is horrified by what she is seeing happen to the people around her and finds it difficult to understand why her father seems to be doing nothing to help those in need.  It is only when she is discovered looking through papers in his office that she is told that he and other members of the community have been providing forged papers and then helping others to escape from the city; in fact there is a whole network based in the grounds of the Mosque.  When her father is arrested for helping Jewish neighbours escape, Safiyyah decides that she has to start helping the resistance in their humanitarian efforts.  What follows is a breath-taking story of courage and daring, as Safiyyah negotiates the dangers involved in leading refugees through the catacombs of Paris, as well as coping with the death of her beloved grandmother and trying to find a way to save her father.

I absolutely loved this story, which helps tell us about the bravery of people that we hear so little about.  This is yet another example of ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things’, when faced with the inhumanity shown by some political or religious leaders.  Safiyyah is a delightful character, but as with most young people she tends to see the world in very defined ways.  It is only through experience that she begins to understand that life is far more nuanced and that the adults in her life are having to juggle a multitude of needs.  The relationships between the members of the family really highlights the closeness of all the generations and we really feel for Safiyyah when she realises that her grandmother is not going to survive; but she also learns that sometimes older people want to join those who have gone before them.  This is such a poignant episode that echoes the experience of all those other people who were losing loved ones during the war, but it also resonates today  This is one of those books where you are in danger of running out of superlatives.  There is so much hope, even amid the horrors of war and the importance of family and faith shine a real light in the darkness.  Thank you to the author for such an inspiring story, which is bound to become a classic in future years.

The author

Hiba Noor Khan

Hiba’s academic background is in Engineering/Physics, having completed Postgraduate study at the University of Oxford in 2015. Since graduating she has worked in the Environmental Sector, as a Refugee Advocacy Worker for The Children’s Society, a Physics teacher and TV presenter. She has a keen interest in social and political affairs and assisted policy research for the Governments Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life in 2015. Her passion for international development has led Hiba to travel to implement various sustainable development projects in rural Tanzania, and to deliver aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue by Anna Fargher and Sam Usher

The second and final book in this sequence is being published in July and will be eagerly awaited by the many fans who loved the first story.  It was originally due for publication in April, but the pandemic has meant that there has been a delay, as with so many other books this year.  The adventures of Umbrella Mouse are the first books that the author has published and they are a stunning success.  Anna’s imagination is glorious, but it is also grounded in the reality of what is actually achievable for the individual creatures, so we never have a sense of being outside the realms of possibility.  The illustrations by Sam Usher are truly delightful, as you would expect from such an accomplished illustrator.  I particularly love his series about a young boy and his grandfather and would definitely recommend “Snow” and his new title “Wild“.  Not only has he produced the cover illustration for  Anna’s book but he has also  given us some  really strong images to link with the text throughout the book.

I came across the first book when the proof copy was available at a conference I was attending, probably in late 2018 or early 2019.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved it and especially the young mouse Pip Hanway who is the heroine of both stories.  At the beginning of the sequence she is living on the premises of a well known umbrella maker in London, but then one day the shop is bombed and the owners killed; Pip has no where to go as her parents are dead, so she decides to follow an old family story about a museum in Italy, where the ancient umbrella she owns was originally from.  As she starts her journey she meets up with a group of animals that support humans in the fight against the Nazi enemy; they are called Noah’s Ark and they agree to help her with her quest.  Most of the action takes place in France, where Pip is instrumental in foiling a plot by German troops and their animal supporters.

The second story sees the delightful ‘Umbrella Mouse and her friends in the French animal resistance recovering from their battle against the Nazis and linking up with the group in the local area.  Unfortunately the German animals, led by a renegade dove called Lucia, are still trying to kill Pip; making the band of friends decide to try and get to Paris, to help in freeing the city.  Their adventures put them in great peril and they lose some of their comrades on the way, but their determination and sense of loyalty is what sees them get through.

This is a wonderful story of friendship and of courage and I am sure it reflects the feelings of the millions of humans that went through the trauma of the Second World War.  The author has allowed the animals to experience the dangers that real people faced during this and other conflicts, but because it at a slight distance from us, it is easier for the audience to cope with.  However we all understand the feelings when loved ones are lost and when something positive and uplifting happens to the central characters .  This is a heartwarming story at so many levels and is perfect for the older middle grade.  Whilst it is an animal story it does not shy away from describing the dangers and tribulations that were faced by ordinary people during this period of history and is very suitable for reading to children who are studying the war.

I am not giving the game away about the ending, but I will tell you that there is a very fitting ending and that we are left with a sense of hope for the future.  This really is highly recommended reading


Some book gems to read


“Brilliant” by Roddy Doyle

I have been waiting for a while to write this review as I was privileged to read the proof several months ago.  It is not often that a book lives up to its title in such an concise way but Roddy Doyle really has written a brilliant book.

Macmillan, 978144724884

Macmillan, 978144724884

It is an allegorical tale of life in Dublin and how the ‘black dog’ of despair hits the adult population.  Luckily the children still have faith in the positive and over a day they seek to banish the darkness by affirming that things are brilliant.   It may be that having an Irish mother made me more susceptible to the concept, but I had no difficulty in hearing the accent in my mind as I was reading the book, together with the very lyrical language..  It really showed the spirit of the children as they banished the ‘black dog.

Despite the serious theme of the book it is full of humour and a huge optimism about the ability of people to overcome even major problems.  It truly is brilliant!



“The boy on the wooden box” by Leon Leyson

This is the amazing true story of a young boy who survived the war thanks to the efforts of Otto Schindler.  Along with his father he was employed in Schindler’s factory and the book’s title related to the fact that he stood on  box to reach the machine controls for his job.

The story is a simple retelling of his story, but it is haunting and  a real reminder of the horrors that people went through.  It also shows how human nature can overcome such trials and succeed in life.

Simon & Schuster 9781471119682

Simon & Schuster

Unlike many other wartime stories it does not end in 1945 but follows Leon as he grows into adulthood in the USA and eventually meets Otto Schindler again.  It gives us the answer to the question about ‘what happened next?’, something which is often missing from other accounts, but which will be greatly impacted by the trauma that the main character has been through.





“The cat who came in off the roof” by Annie M G Schmidt

The cat who came in off the roof

Pushkin Children’s Books, 9781782690368

It seems amazing that I have never heard of this author.  When I was growing up in the 1960s she was the most famous children’s writer in Holland and went on to win the Hans Christian Andersen award in 1989. Thankfully her work is now being translated and brought to a wider audience.

It is a quirky little story about a reporter called Tibbles who loves to write about cats, but is told to stop by his editor because the stories are boring.  Then one day Tibbles rescues a young lady from the tree she is hiding in, because of a dog.  The woman is called Minou and she shows some remarkably catlike traits.  Well, as it turns out, she was a cat and turned into a human after eating scraps from the waste bin at a science institute.  All sorts of situations occur as she struggles to keep her cat links whilst living as a human.

It is a fascinating book about change and being accepted as well as about the dangers of big business.  There is a very 1950s feel to the book and I keep imagining Miss Minou as Audrey Hepburn (not a bad thing),  but the themes are still relevant today and the characters are full of personality.


Fleeced by Julia Wills

What a great piece of fun for those who love oddball heroes and a tongue in cheek approach to the Greek myths.

Fleeced 9781848779853

Templar, 9781848779853

Aries, the ram of the Golden Fleece, had been in the underworld for millenia and he is still mourning the loss of his fleece.  Then he wins the opportunity to go on a quest to our world in order to search for it.  However he and his friend Alex end up in modern London, not Athens and then all kinds of dangers start presenting themselves.  Who is trying to kill them and can they depend on their new friend Rose to help them, but most importantly what has happened to the fleece since it was last seen in ancient Greece?

Fantastic fun and will really suit those who enjoyed books such as “The Pig Scrolls” by Paul Shipton, “Corydon”by Tobias Druitt and of course the Percy Jackson novels of Rick Riorden.

I do hope that we will see further adventures for this Ram with attitude.


“The Bubble-wrap boy” by Phil Earle

A really great book for those 8-12 year old who want to spread their wings, but feel that they are being stopped by their parents.  We all know that the world is a dangerous place but sometimes being over protected  can feel like being wrapped in bubble-wrap.  Charlie finds that he is really good at skateboarding, but is not allowed to anything dangerous by his mother.  How he fights for his dream and discovers a family secret are the two main themes of this book.  Charlie is such a great hero, he just wants to be normal and do the things that others do, so that he is not picked on at school.  Yet again Phil Earle has produced a fantastic story with lessons for us all and a hero who we can all cheer for.

Penguin, 9780141346298

reading copy with thanks to Netgalley