When the Sky Falls

When the Sky Falls

By Author / Illustrator

Phil Earle


Historical Fiction

Age range(s)



Andersen Press Ltd




Paperback / softback




1941. War is raging. And one angry boy has been sent to the city, where bombers rule the skies. There, Joseph will live with Mrs F, a gruff woman with no fondness for children. Her only loves are the rundown zoo she owns and its mighty silverback gorilla, Adonis. As the weeks pass, bonds deepen and secrets are revealed, but if the bombers set Adonis rampaging free, will either of them be able to end the life of the one thing they truly love? Inspired by a true story.

Q&A with Phil Earle



Can we take a moment here to look at that fabulous cover illustration for When the Sky Falls? The magnificence of the silverback gorilla, Adonis, sat on his haunches, standing sentry. In amidst fire and brimstone, flames and destruction; searchlights picking out Hitler's bombers and there, through the chaos, a boy. Joseph.

'Against the tide of devastation walked a boy: tutting and huffing at the tears and carrying-on. He looked just like any of the other evacuees in the station: regulation case, tag and gas mask box. But instead of being shoehorned onto a train, he was marching away from one, having just arrived.' This is our first introduction to Joseph, a 12 year old boy from Yorkshire, who is fizzing with rage. Angry at everything, with everything; determined to go it alone, convinced he's been rejected by everyone, adamant he'll not suffer the pain of abandonment again. Angry. He's met by Mrs F. She keeps her pain in a tin and wears her kindness and loyalty under a coat of brusque efficiency and focused determination. She speaks plainly and appreciates the same in return. Her days, and now Joseph's, are consumed by the upkeep and maintenance of her family's zoo ...of which precious little remains. And then there's Syd. Syd is about Joseph's age and works at the zoo after school. She talks about her pain, the grief becoming almost bearable if she can talk about it and working at the zoo keeps her busy and takes her mind off it. The pain of loss, it shrouds them all: Joseph, Mrs F, Syd and Adonis.

Those are the four main characters and they're brilliant (I have to confess to loving Adonis, his quiet presence - you can feel it radiating from that cover). Thrown into a war torn city with these characters, Phil Earle shows us the harsh realities of wartime. The bombings, the night raids and the destruction from them, the endless disturbed nights sleep, the tiredness. The loss. With rations barely enough to sate their own hunger, Joseph, Syd and Mrs F are forced to forage, beg and barter for food for the zoo's remaining residents - camels, snakes, a couple of ponies, a pair of 'scarily thin wolves', and Adonis. The zoo, this is the glue that binds them.

Phil Earle's writing is simply brilliant. I started popping mini-postit notes on the pages where I particularly liked a sublime turn of phrase or where the imagery was so on point...but I soon realised, as the pages were lost under wave upon wave of sticky notes, that this wasn't going to be possible much beyond the first chapter! So many, so many! Love, loss, trust and friendship during the horror of 1941; 304 pages of brilliance.

304 pages / Reviewed by Catherine Purcell, school librarian

Suggested Reading Age 9+


When the Sky Falls is a thrilling World War II story set against the backdrop of the Blitz. Joseph is sent into the city in 1941 to live with Mrs F, a stranger who does not like children and who is struggling to survive the hardships of war.

Mrs F owns a zoo in London with a few remaining animals and she offers Joseph a chance to explore the derelict site with her and he slowly begins to share in the challenges of finding enough food to feed the animals that remain, including Adonis the silverback gorilla. During his first bomb raid, Joseph learns Mrs F’s secret.

Full of interesting characters and a brilliant plot, this is an interesting story. Shying away from the typical evacuee-in-the-countryside plot lines, the reader is able to experience the Blitz through Joseph's eyes as well as gain more of an understanding of being a child during the war. Joseph's school experience in London is heartbreaking and he struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia but soon finds a friend to help him read aloud during the monthly exams. Joseph learns more than just words during his time with Mrs F.

Brilliantly written and fast-paced, this is a superb book. Suitable for upper key stage two and key stage three. The end note shares the true story that inspired the book, which would make for a great classroom study or project. Highly recommended.

304 pages / Reviewed by Bryony Davies, teacher

Suggested Reading Age 9+


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