Following the disappearance of her mum, 10-year-old Aniyah suddenly finds herself living in foster care. With her life in disarray, she knows just one thing for sure: her mum isn't gone for ever. Because people with the brightest hearts never truly leave. They become stars.
So when a new star is spotted acting strangely in the sky, Aniyah is sure it's her mum, and she embarks on the adventure of a lifetime to make sure everyone else knows too - an adventure that involves breaking into the Royal Observatory of London, a mischievous scurry of squirrels and the biggest star in Hollywood...
Like most people, I believe that every child should get to see themselves in the books they read. It's why I champion LGBTQ+ titles for kids and teens, why I punch the air every time I come across a new picture book where the princess doesn't need saving and wants to slay the dragon herself, and it's why I (and plenty of others) continue to make such a racket about the lack of of BAME characters in children's publishing (for more info on that topic, check out CLPE's Reflecting Realities study).
Of course, representation goes beyond tick-box demographics like gender identity, sexuality, and ethnicity - it's about lived experience. It's no good including diverse characters if you're only doing it to meet a quota. Children from all backgrounds need to see their lives reflected in the literature they read and it's important that this representation is more than just surface-level. In The Star Outside My Window, Onjali shines the spotlight on an issue that children's books rarely address: domestic violence.
Maybe it's because we think of children's literature as pleasant stories filled with "happily ever afters" or perhaps it's because we view children's books as a form of escapism where nasty topics need to be sugarcoated or avoided entirely. Maybe it's just that as adults we're overprotective and don't like the idea of children knowing about violence and abuse. Whatever the reason, domestic abuse is a subject that rarely rears its head in mainstream children's publishing and whatever excuse we make for its absence, the fact of the matter is choosing not to write (or publish) books on domestic violence doesn't stop it from happening in the real world. And for the children experiencing it at home who don't know who to turn to or what the consequences might be if they speak out, stories like Onjali's can be a beacon of light.
Of all the children's books I've read, The Star Outside My Window has without question been the trickiest to review. Mainly because when I think about the characters and their stories for too long I get super emotional but also because when writing a review, I try to take a balanced approach: these were the things I liked, these were the things I didn't like so much. Except that approach doesn't really work with The Star Outside My Window because there was nothing about this book that I didn't enjoy.
As a result, this book review is going to take a slightly different approach. So without further ado...
3 Things I Loved About The Star Outside My Window
1. The Tone
Writing about domestic violence is never easy but when you're targeting a middle grade audience of 9-13 year olds it's absolutely crucial that you get the tone right. You don't want to downplay the issue of domestic violence because that would be doing a disservice to the thousands of children and families like Aniyah's who have experienced abuse. But at the same time you also don't want a story that's dominated by darkness and filled with despair - children want a book they can enjoy and it's important that they know that no matter how bleak things may seem today, the future can always be brighter. Hope is an important thing in children's literature and for children going through a similar experience to Aniyah and her family, it can be a real lifeline. It's clear that Onjali and her publishing team at Orion have spent a lot of time making sure they get this book right and I'm glad to say that The Star Outside My Window handles the subject with sensitivity, tact and Onjali's signature warmth which just radiates off the page.
One of the things I really admired about the book was that it included a content warning at the start:
Before we take flight...
This is a story written for everyone.
But it's also a story that may cause distress or upset for anyone who is seeing or experiencing abuse in their own home, and is having to be extra-especially brave and strong.
If you should happen to be one such special person, or are worried that someone you know is being hurt, please turn to the back of this book to learn more about the people who are ready and waiting to help you and your loved ones. No matter how big or small you - or your loved ones - may be.
Sending you all our love and stardust...
It's just a little thing but it's an incredibly thoughtful gesture. It goes without saying that this isn't a story for everyone and some children will struggle with the situations presented in this novel more than others. I actually got incredibly emotional reading the content warning because it really drives home the fact that while this book is fiction, for so many children this is their reality. At the end of the book, there's a list of support groups and phone numbers for anyone looking for advice and guidance on abuse if it's something they're experiencing. I hope that no child reading The Star Outside My Window ever has to use that contact information but it's comforting to know that they have access to help and support should they ever need it.
Despite the hard-hitting subject matter, there's actually a lot of humour in this book. If you've read The Boy at the Back of the Class, you'll know how good Onjali is at incorporating heart and joy into her characters despite the hardships they're facing. One of the things that amazes me about children is their resilience - no matter what they've gone through, they always seem to have this ability to bounce back. It's the same for Aniyah and Noah and the other foster children they meet while staying with their foster mother Mrs Iwuchukwu (more about her below!) Like The Boy at the Back of the Class, the narrative is told from the point-of-view of a 10-year-old and so there's a whole bunch of mischief, naivety and silliness that adds warmth to the story and makes you root for Aniyah and her friends.
2. Mrs Iwuchukwu
"She wears lots and lots of necklaces and beads and bracelets so that whenever she moves, she makes clunking noises like marbles moving inside a bag. She also smiles so much that I think her cheeks must hurt all the time. I've never seen anyone smile as much as she does. Most of the time I have to look around to see what she's smiling at, because usually you need a reason to smile. But Mrs Iwuchukwu doesn't seem to need any."
Okay so I'm going to say on record that Mrs Iwuchukwu is my favourite adult to ever appear in a children's book. She is such an incredible character who brings so much warmth to the novel. In The Star Outside My Window Onjali carefully unpicks the idea that adults are safe and responsible caregivers that children can always rely on. So often that it true, but sadly it's not always the case. Thankfully Mrs Iwuckukwu, the children's foster mother, is there to restore our faith in adults and human kindness and I'm so glad that Aniyah and company find their way to her after all the hardships they've faced. Although she's not a particularly prominent character, Mrs Iwuchukwu's presence is felt throughout the novel and she acts as a sort of moral compass guiding the children on their journey; Aniyah often finds herself contemplating what Mrs Iwuchukwu would do in her shoes and spends a lot of time agonising over what she would think of her decisions. Towards the end of the novel, we learn a little of Mrs Iwuchkwu's backstory - I won't spoil it for you - suffice to say you'll feel even more love for her once you discover what she's been through. I asked Onjali whether she had a first name in mind for Mrs Iwuchukwu when she was writing as it's never mentioned in the book. She told me it's Udo, which in Igbo means "peace". I can't think of a more fitting name for such a wonderful character.
3. Star Hunting
Throughout the novel, Aniyah is obsessed with the stars and is set on becoming a Star Hunter (that's an astronomer in boring adult-speak) when she grows up. Her mum once told her that the people with the biggest hearts go on to become stars in the sky watching over everyone, so when Aniyah hears a bang and later learns that her mum isn't around anymore, she's certain that her mum has gone to live up in the sky as a star. It's a beautifully poetic metaphor that masks the true circumstances of Aniyah's mum's passing without diminishing the raw emotions of loss and grief that both Aniyah and her younger brother Noah are going through.
Shortly after Aniyah's mother's 'disappearance', astronomers observe a huge star hurtling across the solar system travelling closer to Earth than any star has before. When Aniyah and Noah see a news report on the star, they realise it must be their mum making her way up into the sky. And so begins an adventure to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich as the children journey to see their mum through the Great Equatorial Telescope and try to convince the astronomers to name the new star after their mother, Isabella.
I found the idea that the stars in the sky are our loved ones watching over us a really comforting way of helping children come to terms with the idea of death. Towards the end of the novel, there's a reference to Greek mythology where Aniyah learns the tale of the Seven Sisters who were turned into stars and placed up in sky out of Orion's reach so that he couldn't take them. This was the first time I'd came across this story and I loved the way it reinforced the idea that our lives never really come to an end. I found it really clever and I loved the way that folklore and legends were intertwined with science and astronomy to help us make sense of the world and our place in it. There's more of this at the end of the book where readers get a description of different constellations and the stories behind them (each chapter header features an illustration of a different constellation and they're all explained at the back of the book).
Speaking of astronomy, one of the other things I loved about The Star Outside My Window was the positive representation of women in science. Professor Bridges at the Royal Observatory was such an inspirational character and a positive role-model for young girls like Aniyah who want to pursue a career in science. The scenes that took place in the Royal Observatory were so vividly depicted I felt like I was there and there was some really powerful moments towards the end where Aniyah and her friends find themselves grappling with a whole host of emotions: awe and excitement over the scientific discoveries all around them, elation at making it to the end of their journey and arriving at the Observatory despite all the obstacles they faced, and grief as the realisation finally sets in over the loss of their mother. I'd managed not to cry for most of the book but it was at the point that I couldn't hold it in any longer. My heart broke for Aniyah and Noah but as I saw Professor Bridges, Mrs Iwuchukwu (the children's foster mum) and the other children all come together to support the siblings I was overwhelmed by the compassion and empathy pouring out of the pages. I think a lot of parents might be skeptical about their children reading a book about domestic abuse, but this book is about so much more than that: it's about friendship, showing strength in the face of adversity, and learning that families aren't defined by blood, but by the loyalty and love we show each other no matter what.
When I first heard that Onjali was working on a second novel I was excited but skeptical: How could anything live up to The Boy at the Back of the Class?? Boy do I feel foolish. The Star Outside My Window is easily one of the best children's books I've read this year and, while very different to The Boy at the Back of the Class, it shares its warmth, heart and humour. Despite this being only her second novel, Onjali has most certainly made her mark in children's publishing and established herself as one of children's literature's heavyweights - and deservedly so. We live in a scary time where politicians and world leaders are using a divisive and dehumanising rhetoric to pit us against one another, creating a divided and dangerous world. Thankfully, stories like Onjali's are teaching children values that those in charge have forgotten - values like compassion, love and tolerance. And guess what - it's working. Just a couple of months ago, The Boy at the Back of the Class surpassed 100,000 sales. That's 100,000 reasons to be hopeful for the future. Now we just have to get The Star Outside My Window to the same milestone.
I cannot recommend The Star Outside My Window enough and if you do choose to read it, please do get in touch to let me know what you think. Just make sure you have tissues on standby!
Have you read The Star Outside My Window or The Boy at the Back of the Class? I'd love to hear what you thought! Leave a comment below!