Twelve year old Jimmy and his younger brother Ronnie have been evacuated from London and sent to the Welsh countryside. Despite being taken in by the Thomas’, Jimmy is far from happy. Whilst Ronnie embraces the new life, Jimmy is struggling to fit in with the new surroundings and the strange-talking locals and is desperate to go home. But when he discovers a skull hidden in a tree he feels the urge to find out its story.
With the support of an unlikely friend, they set out to solve the mystery of the skull. Uncovering the truth may help Jimmy feel like he belongs in the village but what he discovers will change the lives of the locals forever…
Lesley Parr’s historical fiction debut catapults her straight into the same league as the Queen of the genre, Emma Carroll. Now for anyone familiar with Carroll’s books you’ll know that that is high praise but it is certainly warranted. Like Carroll’s Letters from the Lighthouse and Michelle Magorian’s classic, Goodnight Mister Tom, Parr’s story is about the children who find their lives dramatically changed through no fault of their own with the addition of an intriguing and well-plotted mystery.
Full of raw emotion, brotherhood, bravery and the challenges of fitting into a new place, The Valley of Lost Secrets whisks readers back to 1939 and to a small mining village in the Welsh countryside where a train full of children have been evacuated to escape the dangers of wartime London. To the reader, Llanbryn immediately feels like home and the characters are those you have known all of your life. It is the kind of place that would be nice to visit under different circumstances and to drop in on Aunty Gwen and Uncle Alun for a nice pot of homemade stew.
For Jimmy, Llanbryn is everything London isn’t and it most certainly isn’t a place to call home despite the best attempts of Mrs Thomas to make the boys feel welcome. Jimmy is fiercely protective of his brother and life in the countryside is not without its problems. Whilst they may have escaped the bullets, bombs and battles in the English capital they encounter mean children and angry and suspicious locals who keep a very close watch on the new arrivals and are quick to blame any trouble on the evacuees.
It is a beautifully told story of wartime Wales with friendship and mystery at its heart. Being an evacuee was tough and children will find this fascinating snapshot both heartbreaking and heartwarming. The kindness of some strangers is matched by the scathing suspicion of others, old and trusted friends break bonds and surprising new ones are loyal to a fault, a close-knit community is both a blessing and a curse.
Each new chapter begins with an illustration of the tree hiding the skull and it is worth paying close attention as these are ever-changing with clues popping up within the branches. A further mystery awaits as page numbers are replaced by letters and keen codebreakers will enjoy trying to solve this on their own (help is given at the end if needed).
Recommended for 9+.