Where the Heart Should Be

Where the Heart Should Be

By Author / Illustrator

Sarah Crossan


Historical Fiction

Age range(s)



Bloomsbury YA








The outstanding novel from the Carnegie Medal-winning, former Laureate na nOg Sarah Crossan; thought-provoking and incredibly moving, it explores love and family during The Great Hunger.

Ireland, 1846. Nell is working as a scullery maid in the kitchen of the Big House. Once she loved school and books and dreaming. But there's not much choice of work when the land grows food that rots in the earth. Now she is scrubbing, peeling, washing, sweeping for Sir Philip Wicken, the man who owns her home, her family's land, their crops, everything. His dogs are always well fed, even as famine sets in.

Upstairs in the Big House, where Nell is forbidden to enter, is Johnny Browning, newly arrived from England: the young nephew who will one day inherit it all. And as hunger and disease run rampant all around them, a spark of life and hope catches light when Nell and Johnny find each other.

This is a love story, and the story of a people being torn apart. This is a powerful and unforgettable novel from the phenomenally talented Sarah Crossan.

Find out more in ReadingZone's Q&A with award-winning author Sarah Crossan



"It is hard to tell a love story and also the story of a people being torn apart" but Crossan achieves this magnificently in her latest and best verse novel, Where the Heart Should Be. Set in 1840s Ireland at the time of the Great Hunger, it tells the story of 16-year-old Nell Quinn - clever, curious, sparky - and now working as a scullery maid in the kitchen of the 'Big House' to try to keep her family from starvation as the crops start to fail. Not that this bothers cruel, heartless Lord Wicken, who owns the land her family have lived on and farmed forever; even his dogs are better fed than his tenants. Starvation, disease and death sweep the village, and Nell's family, but hope arrives, improbably, in the form of Wicken's nephew, Johnny, who will one day inherit everything but who is equally powerless against his uncle's tyranny and abuse. Nell and Johnny fall in love across the class divide, sharing a passion for poetry and for justice, injecting hope into this harrowing depiction of relatively recent history.

Where the Heart Should Be is an absolute masterpiece and such an important book. It tackles huge themes of love and loss, family, class, community, kindness, injustice, education and emancipation through relatable characters and heart-rending situations.

Although it paints a detailed, accurate picture of a specific man-made famine in history, it also asks wider questions about privilege, colonialism, distribution of wealth and people in power who seek to protect their own interests rather than helping those who need it. Questions which are equally relevant today.  As always with Crossan, every word is meticulously chosen for maximum emotional impact. It's almost impossible not to read this book in one sitting.

Where the Heart Should Be needs to be in every secondary school library. The verse novel format and emotional impact makes it accessible to even the most reluctant reader. It would make a stunning introduction to historical fiction for those who claim to dislike it. It will bring the GCSE curriculum to life for History teachers with its impeccable research. English teachers will welcome the Romeo and Juliet vibe, poetry references and masterful writing. It will prove a popular and invaluable addition to tutor reading time programmes, broadening horizons and provoking discussion.

Powerful, emotionally devastating, unforgettable - it's a must-read, I can't praise it highly enough.

432 pages / Reviewed by Eileen Armstrong, school librarian

Suggested Reading Age 14+


All of Crossan's books are deeply affecting, totally immersive and utterly unforgettable and Where the Heart Should Be is no exception.

Where the Heart Should Be is the story of lowly scullery maid Nell and Johnny, English heir to his Uncle's estate in mid-nineteenth century Ireland. As hunger, disease and famine savage Nell's rural community, she finds herself conflicted by her feelings for Johnny - a man whose class, nationality and entire world are forbidden for the likes of her. But whilst Johnny's uncle, Lord Wicken, is a malignant Landlord, completely without feeling or justice for his poverty-stricken tenants, Nell sees that Johnny is different - and an initial spark of feeling amid turmoil and uprising leads to an improbable romance.

Crossan's latest book is a love story set against a harrowing historical background. The stark reality of life at the time is expertly conveyed and as ever, I am amazed at how the author manages to convey so much emotion with such an economy of words.

This is a powerful exploration of love, hope and family and also an urgent but eloquent reminder of a devastating time in Ireland's history.

432 pages / Ages 12+ / Reviewed by Clare Wilkins, school librarian

Suggested Reading Age 11+


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