I know this place is magic. And I know it’s real. But it’s not the sort of magic that comes from wands and spells…
This debut middle-grade novel by Aisha Bushby is a tale that reflects on how we can grow towards a light even in dark family times, published by Egmont.
Safiya and her mum have little in common, and perhaps it’s for the best that she lives with her dad; time with her mum is full of arguments. School isn’t much easier – her best friend Ellie is distracted by a boyfriend and no one around Safiya shares her gaming interests. Her uncertainty about her world is compounded when her mum falls into a coma, but in a tender moment where she kisses her mum’s forehead, Safiya blinks and finds herself in another place. Here, under orange skies another teenage girl lives, someone familiar who is also misunderstood by her mum; Aminah – her own mother.
In a quest to bring her mum back, Safiya begins to piece together her mum’s life, both by visiting her empty flat and through the dream memories that happen during hospital visits. It feels like the Fairy Hunters game, lifting Safiya’s mood as she seems to make connections with her mother’s past in Kuwait– and once she discovers her mother’s perfume is a gateway to the dream memories, she uses the precious drops sparingly. These moments in the past show Safiya how Aminah too struggled to be understood by her own mother and it’s a revelation – ‘If you cut Mum and me open we’d be filled with the very same fire, glowing red and orange and gold.’
But as Safiya grows closer to understanding her mother her childhood friendship begins to crumble. In a chapter that was crammed with awkward frustrated energy, Safiya channels her anxiety to confront her best friend Ellie. I felt my cheeks flare up when Saffi finally gained the courage to call out Ellie’s boyfriend on his crass behaviour – it was a leap of faith moment. She thought Ellie would agree and remain loyal to her, and when this isn’t the case Saffi hits her lowest point. Her childhood friendship dismantling before her eyes is a painful read but her fortitude has witnesses; witnesses who admire her nervous gumption and so Saffi’s world grows in a different direction with a new circle of friends.
Her mother’s health deteriorating, Saffi’s plans for rebuilding a relationship with her mum run away from her like the spilled perfume. She now has limited visits that she can make using a dilution of the scent. It’s Eid when she returns, she sees her mum Aminah and her grandmother make their peace under stars. Determined that she can finish her quest and save her mum, Saffi makes a return visits but nothing changes and slowly she realises that her quest is not to save her mother but to help her say goodbye. The final dream memory is quiet and beautiful, full of whispers and cuddles, under a Kuwaiti night sky as Saffi lets go of her mother.
Bushby writes for all the senses – this is a story that sticks in your palate and lingers on your skin. Like Saffi, you find yourself wanting to return to the family home of Kuwait to immerse yourself in a world that has a rich Persian warmth missing from the cold reality of the hospital or classroom. A Pocketful of Stars is a middle grade debut where the past is no longer a foreign country, it is somewhere to explore and is a key to changing your future.
Aisha Bushby was born in the Middle East and has lived in Kuwait, England and Canada. Her short story, Marionette Girl, was featured in the Stripes award-winning anthology, A Change is Gonna Come. She now lives by the sea and writes children’s books, sometimes with a little bit of magic in them. She loves cats, gloomy days, and animated films. You can most likely find her on Twitter @aishabushby, where she spends most of her time avoiding deadlines.
(c) Olivia Hope
Olivia Hope is a children’s writer from Killarney, Co. Kerry. She was once an international athlete, has been a teacher of all subjects; from English to ice-cream making, and has worked in a variety of scenarios from nurseries (plants and children, although not at the same time unless you count the daffodil incident) to nursing homes. She writes for all ages and her picturebook ‘Be Wild, Little One’ will be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. Follow her on twitter @OliviaMHope.
Order your copy of A Pocketful of Stars here.