The inspirations behind
When the Sky Falls
by Phil Earle
For over 20 years Phil Earle has been one of the UK's finest writers for young people, and When the Sky Falls is his thrilling new novel. Set during the Second World War and inspired by a real events, this is a brilliant story of love and friendship, as Joseph is sent to live with Mrs F, a gruff woman with no fondness for children, who looks after a rundown zoo and its mighty silverback gorilla, Adonis. Phil has written a piece for the Foyles blog where he shares some of the other books and authors that have inspired his writing and fed directly into his new novel.
In the third year of junior school, I struck lucky.
I was put into Mr Parr’s class.
Everyone wanted to be taught by him. He was young, had a season ticket to Hull FC and drove the coolest car in the staff car park (a canary yellow Nissan Cherry was practically a Ferrari in 1980’s Hull).
It turns out though, that his wheels weren’t the thing I remember most about Graham Parr, nor was it that he read to us. What I remember most, is what he read.
I Am David – Anne Holm’s classic novel about a boy escaping a concentration camp, and the role of a dog in helping him cross the border to Denmark.
I’d be lying to you if I said I remember every plot point or emotional beat: I’d be lying if I said I’d read it endlessly since. But I do remember how having that book read to us made me feel, especially when the dog sacrifices its life so David might live.
I remember feeling shocked, and outraged and moved. There were tears all around me. It was the first time in my life that I realised that books, mere words on a page, could elicit such a response.
I’d seen my parents weep at films (I thought my mum would never stop crying after Kramer Vs Kramer), but until this moment I had no idea that crying over books was a thing.
I didn’t spend my childhood finding this out. I spent my teenage years and early twenties reading mostly comics and graphic novels. These weren’t wasted years, far from it, but something changed when I turned twenty-six and took a job in the children’s section of a bookshop. Encouraged to read and hand-sell books for young people, I fell down a rabbit hole that I’ve barely emerged from since. As there I found books that have been an immense influence on When The Sky Falls: books where war and animals are often at the forefront.
I could start in many places, but it seems right to mention Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom early on. What a book. THE evacuee story. One that I don’t think has ever been bettered. I think what I love most about her novel is the anger in it: both William & Tom are furious at the world, but their path to acceptance and their growing, undiluted love for each other is both deftly and expertly handled.
I must mention Robert Westall too, in particular The Machine Gunners, which I never read as a teen, although I did devour the TV series that ran on the BBC. It remains a strong and joyous memory.
What I love about Mr Westall’s book, is that the children in it dispense of the need for adults, recognising that grownups would merely hinder their adventure.
I also love that one of the only sympathetic adult characters is the fallen German pilot, Rudi. The author plays with our allegiances, shows that good and bad are never black and white.
There is an allusion to The Machine Gunners in When The Sky Falls, and I remember when I handed my first draft in, desperately wanting my editor to smile and allow it to remain, such is the debt I owe to Robert Westall.
Morris Gleitzman is another key name, especially his novels about Felix, a young refugee, which begin with the novels Once & Then – I had no idea it was even possible to write so emotionally using so few words, whilst at the other end of the spectrum is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. What a novel. Imagine telling your reader only fifty pages in, that characters are going to die at the end, but still managing to make their deaths shocking and emotional beyond compare. I’d give anything to write like that man.
The final influence is a special one, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. As with The Machine Gunners, I discovered this on the TV first, but it wasn’t until I read it, that I discovered its real and unflinching power.
Growing up in the north, I never saw people like us on the telly, not unless they were ruddy faced farmers on All Creatures Great and Small, and they didn’t count as the actors were more than likely RADA trained and heralding from the Shires.
But here was Hines, telling us truthfully and brutally about life in the north, and in Billy Caspar he created one of the finest characters to set foot on the page.
That boy’s capacity to love his kestrel was endless, his grief at Judd’s killing of him overwhelming. If there was a single, greatest influence on Joseph and Adonis’ relationship in When The Sky Falls, it was this. Barry Hines set the bar imperiously high, and while I can only ever limbo miles beneath it, I do it with a happy, knowing smile.
So I owe a lot to Mr Parr, as without knowing it, he set me on a path that led me to an angry boy, a decrepit zoo and a surly, ageing silverback by the name of Adonis. And if you want to know what happens between them? Well, you know where to buy the book...
Born and raised in the north of England, Phil Earle is the author of over twenty acclaimed, award-winning books for children and teenagers. He has worked as a carer, a dramatherapist, a bookseller and a publisher, and loves talking at schools and festivals around the world. He lives on the side of a very steep hill with his partner, their five children and two dogs.