Alice in Wonderland meets The Time Machine . One wrong step on a path of stepping stones in the forest where she is playing sends Charlotte “Charlie” Livingstone hurtling 55 years into the past.
Picking herself up, she finds herself in the Cold Tarn Open Air School, set up for children who are physically weak. Studying here makes them fitter—and obviously cleverer. Mistaken for Joyce Ingham, a student-in-waiting, the teachers take the furiously-protesting Charlie under their wing. As the days progress, the fight goes out of her as she realizes that it is almost impossible to prove that she is a girl living in 2007.
In the Nick of Time:By Robert Swindells, Corgi Yearling, 213 pages, Rs189
Though all of them are essentially kindly souls, only one boy, Jack, actually believes that Charlie is not Joyce. The others sit up and take notice when Charlie predicts the death of King George VI. But that is passed off as a wild guess that comes true. However, there is a strong feeling among the staff that Charlie is non compos mentes. And she is locked up while they send for Joyce’s parents.
Charlie—not too sure that Joyce’s parents will respond to the letter from school—escapes confinement with Jack’s help. Both set off to clear her identity. It is one long walk over two nights that Charlie won’t forget. She also realizes that Jack could be her grandfather, the only adult who ever understood her and didn’t talk down to her. But out to thwart the duo are the school’s teachers. More importantly, can she actually prove that she is not mad and get back to 2007 in good shape?
Robert Swindells tells a nice, clean tale. The short, snappy chapters make sure that you don’t put it down till you have finished. The Carnegie Medal winner (he won it for Stone Cold, a novel about a serial killer which drew applause and abuse in equal measure) doesn’t let the narrative flag at all.
Swindells is comfortable with darker subjects too. “It is not a good idea to keep things from young people. They should know what’s happening out there, that some of their contemporaries live less privileged lives than they do, to bear this in mind and perhaps do something about it one day,” he had once said in defence of Stone Cold, which dealt with homelessness. Swindells had researched for the book by sleeping rough in London for three days. In this book, too, Jack is a homeless boy brought up by the school.
Swindells himself didn’t finish school, though that didn’t stop him from turning out page-turners. He left school at 15 to work on a local newspaper and two years later, joined Britain’s Royal Air Force for three years. He then trained and worked as a teacher. He also has four Red House Awards (the most recent being Blitzed in 2003, an award judged entirely by schoolchildren in the UK) under his belt.
Copyholder (one who reads the copy aloud while the proofreader checks it), shop assistant, clerk, printer, engineer, teacher and author—Swindells has been each of these at some point in his life. His books have been translated into 21 languages, including Serbo-Croat, Catalan and Innuit.
The writer is the editor of Heek, a children’s magazine. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org