Review Blog

Feb 08 2019

Through the smoke by Phil Cummings

cover image

Ill. by Andrew McLean. Scholastic Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781760274702.
(Age: 4+) Highly recommended. Themes: Fire, Survival, Firefighters. Three children play on a hot blustery day; the wind feels like dragon's breath. They roam the paddocks around their home, waving their swords, making their way through the wheat fields to their castle, Everdell, a cave in the riverbank. Here they continue their game, watching the cockies screech overhead, splashing water at each other, jousting and playing with their swords. But as they play the sleeping dragon wakes and they become aware that the wind and smoke has intensified, the dragon roaring around them. Riley panics and the older brother takes both their hands racing back to their cave, a measure of safety. Here they sit surrounded by the wind and the fire, and just when the branch of the nearby tree seems to want to fall, out of the smoke voices can be heard and a fire engine and group of firefighters arrive. These knights use their sabres of water to fight the dragon, and push him back. The children are saved.
Phil Cummings surrounds his story of children trapped in a firestorm with the metaphor of playing at knights and castles: each of his wonderfully evocative textual images parallels the games that the children play: castles and knights, dragons and swords, and when the fire appears, a dragon wakes, stalking them across the wheat fields. The arrival of the firefighters continues this image; they are knights rescuing the children from an ancient scourge.
This imagery is paralleled in McLean's equally evocative watercolour and charcoal illustrations. With end papers full of smoke, McLean builds the approaching bushfire from the first pages; the dragon's claws on the cliff wall, the dusty, blustery wind giving the nod to the approaching bushfire. When it arrives, his illustrations take on the colour, swirl, heat and fear that a bushfire evokes, ensuring the readers will understand how the children are feeling. They will sweat with them in their hidey hole, all too aware that some people do not survive these events.
Phil Cummings wrote this story when he was unable to leave his house for several days during the Sampson Flat bushfires, north of Adelaide, in January 2015.
He recreates the fear that fire engenders, making it accessible to younger readers as they play with the trio on the pages, and then shelter with them as they are surrounded by fire.
His book's dedication to the firefighters tells of the service these men and women do in our communities, eliciting our gratitude.
Fran Knight

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