Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Belonging and bravery: The Boy and the Spy by Felice Arena

From its first lines, The Boy and the Spy drops readers right into the action. We're swept along with the story's young protaganist, Antonio, as he leaps to outrun a German soldier. The spare, present-tense narration clips along at a rollicking pace that is at once urgent, exciting, and readable.

Antonio is a rota -- an unwanted baby deposited in a wooden wheel tied to the wall of the convent in his Sicilian hometown. The name is a slur that Antonio just can't seem to shrug off; it carries with it the constant reminder of rejection. Antonio's only family is Mamma Nina, a widow who took him into her home. But Mamma Nina is sick, and Antonio worries for her. However, his everyday battles get thrust to the background when Antonio discovers an injured American soldier hiding out in a sea cave. If the soldier is found by the Italian army, he'll be shot. But if Antonio keeps the soldier a secret, is he a traitor to his country?

Inspired by author Felice Arena's family connection to Sicily, the story evokes a rich sense of place. Words in Italian and German, sprinkled judiciously throughout the text but never so much as to slow down a voracious young reader, help build a sense of a multilingual Europe, huddled together in wartime yet separated into allies and enemies. The Sicilian coastline, finely drawn, is almost its own character -- rich and wild and very clearly beloved.

Honest about the darkness, grief, and complexities of war, yet never too gritty or raw for young readers, The Boy and the Spy manages to hit the magical sweet spot of middle grade fiction. It asks thoughtful questions -- Is it okay to lie to save someone's life? -- and deals with ideas of loss and belonging in a way that is warm, kind, and engaging.

It's lively historical fiction with all the charm and adventure of The Secret Seven. What more could a kid want? And it's the perfect jumping-off point for incorporating WWII history into a vivid and compelling English unit. The teacher in me is delighted.

The Boy and the Spy
Felice Arena
Published April 2017 by Puffin Books
164 pages