YA "Looking at the Stars" Jo Cotterill

Looking at the Stars
Amina’s homeland has been ravaged by war for many months, but so far she and her family are safe, together. When a so-called liberating force arrives in the country, the family think their prayers for peace will soon be answered, but they are horribly wrong . . . The country is thrown into yet further turmoil and Amina’s family is devastated . . .
Through it all, Amina has her imagination to fall back on – of a better place and time. But can her stories get her through this?
This is a really interesting novel about survival and what it is like to flee your own country and end up as a refugee. Cotterill has written a bold and important story which tells us the plight of Amina who lives in a developing country under an oppressive ruling “Kwana”. It appears to be a fictional place and remains non specific which I did find a little confusing to start with but appreciate that Cotterill really wants to explore the human story behind the family’s struggle rather than make a political statement or stick to factual events.
The story begins with the aggressive intervention of the Kwana as the girls are unsuspectingly just walking home. Their mother is immediately suspicious: “Why did they pick on you?” “I was smiling….I looked too happy.” The Kwana don’t need an excuse and Amina’s response is almost flippant in her acceptance that this is just how it is. “Nobody cares what I think,” she continues, “The Kwana have taken away everything women had had- jobs, rights, freedom – when they came to power”. Amina and her sister have to stop going to school and her mother has to give up her job.

Cotterill doesn’t shy away from the more shocking aspects of a controlling, militant dictatorship and the story of Amina’s brother, Ruman, is distressing and upsetting even though it is a powerful and necessary part of the plot.

The fear and hopelessness of the characters is palpable, their need to escape but with nowhere to escape to is well captured. The description of the refugee camps is convincing and clearly well researched and despite the sense of location throughout the novel generally remaining (deliberately) a little hazy, the scenes within the camp are very easy to visualise.

Amina remains a positive and optimistic character as much as she can and turns to the power of storytelling to help the people survive the atrocities. As in her other novel “The Library of Lemons”, Cotterill shows us the power of stories, imagination and sharing in books to heal, unite, reassure and calm.

This is a moving story. It is one which will remain with you. It is poignant and definitely an important read for the now. It would be a good book to use in the classroom or with a young adult reading group because of the issues raised and also because of the characters and their fortitude.
I would rate this book 3.5/5 stars and would highly recommend that you check out “Library of Lemons” as well.
More about Jo Cotterill (taken from biography on Amazon) 
I like variety, which is why I’ve had three careers so far: acting (and music), teaching (English GCSE, eep!) and writing children’s books. Writing is my favourite job so far because it enables me to create all the variety myself! I write the Sweet Hearts series for girls aged 9-13 and also lots of short books for reluctant readers (Love Bites, Take Two etc). My standalone novel Looking at the Stars came out in January 2014 and is the book I’m most proud of. It’s about a girl called Amina who’s a natural storyteller but her society has never valued her imagination. When civil war brings in a foreign army, Amina’s family is torn apart and she and her sister are forced to walk to a refugee camp to seek help. To keep their spirits up, Amina tells her sister stories – and soon, both of them discover that storytelling is possibly the most valuable skill a person can have when all around is horror and grief.
I live in Oxfordshire with my husband and two young daughters. I like sewing, making cards and writing songs – and I read a lot of fiction for 9 upwards. You can find my reviews and my general musings on my blog at jocotterill.com – and the Sweet Hearts series has its own website at http://www.ilovesweethearts.co.uk
I have also published several books under my maiden name Joanna Kenrick.


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