Allayne Webster tackles difficult subjects and made them approachable for teenagers and children. Young adult novel Our Little Secret deals with the secrecy of sexual abuse in a small town. Paper Planes was written for middle grade readers but its themes of war and religious persecution make it appropriate for older readers as well.
Her latest book, A Cardboard Palace, is aimed at those in the middle grades, with eleven-year-old Jorge as protagonist. Set in contemporary Paris, Jorge has been bought from his parents by controller, Bill, and forced to work as a thief. He is sent out every day with other children around his age, to popular tourist destinations, to pickpocket and steal from unsuspecting visitors.
This is where Allayne Webster’s skill comes in. Nobody wants to be robbed, particularly when on holiday. But she makes you empathise what these children are going through, to care for them and worry what might happen to them.
Having been in Paris recently, and been warned about the gypsies and refugees, and to watch my bag, I was more concerned with the overzealous policing. A few times I saw one or two people bailed up by many police, as is described in the book at one point.
I also saw some of the camps, like the one that Jorge’s cardboard palace is part of, and felt devastated for these people who had so little. The squalor that she describes is so real, and the joy the children experience over the little things – some food, or a game of quoits, make us realise how lucky we are.
Allayne really gets you to walk a mile in the shoes of Jorge especially, but also those of his friends, which is an important exercise for people of all ages. The book deals with poverty and disempowerment but is ultimately about resilience. I think this is her best work yet, and it should win many awards.