In the war-ravaged England of 1940, Charlotte Bromley is sure of only one thing: Kitty McLaughlin is her best friend in the whole world. But when Charlotte’s scientist father makes an astonishing discovery that the Germans will covet for themselves, Charlotte is faced with an impossible choice between danger and safety. Should she remain with her friend or journey to another time and place?
Her split-second decision has huge consequences, and when she finds herself alone in the world, unsure of Kitty’s fate, she knows that somehow, some way, she must find her way back to her friend. Written in the spirit of classic time-travel tales, this book is an imaginative and heartfelt tribute to the unbreakable ties of friendship.
If you are ever given the opportunity to go through a portal, you had better be absolutely certain that you can handle never coming back.
If you are a reader of young adult novels, you may recognize author Leila Sales from her well-received titles such as Tonight the Streets Are Ours, This Song Will Save Your Life, or Mostly Good Girls. I have been a fan of Sales’ novels since her debut so I was delighted when I read that she was set to release a middle grade title in 2016. Once Was a Time, a time-traveling story with a young English protagonist, is indeed a big departure from Sales’ more known work in contemporary YA; a departure that absolutely succeeds. At its heart a story about a deep friendship between two kindred spirits, Once Was a Time is another surprising, beautiful and memorable read of 2016.
The story begins in 1940’s England, where we meet our ten year old protagonist and narrator Charlotte. Charlotte and her very best friend Kitty are endlessly fascinated by the strange and wonderful-sounding work of Charlotte’s father. A professor of science and working with the British government, Professor Bromley’s area of intense focus and research is that of time travel and portals. One night, Kitty and Charlotte are kidnapped by sinister, threatening forces who want Professor Bromley’s research. Facing down the possibility of imminent death, Charlotte saves her own life when she makes an irreparable decision: seeing the elusive, nebulous, shimmery shape of a portal, Charlotte decides to JUMP. Without Kitty.
Charlotte ends up in Sutton, Wisconsin, year 2013. An entire seventy three years away- gone- from her past life in Bristol. While I don’t wish to get into too many details here due to spoilers and space, I will say that Sales does quite an incredible job of placing Charlotte from one distinctive decade and country into another completely different time and place. In a plot device I particularly appreciated, a local library, its resources, and a kind-hearted librarian become a key factor in how Charlotte survives, begins and maintains her new, strange, surreal life in Sutton- and also how she starts to uncover more about her ‘old’ life, …and what happened to her family and friends. Charlotte’s narrative voice here is so well done: a curious, resourceful, bright young narrator who never, ever forgives herself for leaving her dearest friend Kitty behind. As time goes on in the present for Charlotte, her memories of Bristol and her family begin to dim slightly, though her intense, aching pains of regret and sadness never do. It is not until a prescient discovery in the pages of a book, however, that Charlotte comes face to face with yet another life-changing possibility: that there may be some way that she can find Kitty again.
Overall, Once Was a Time is a moving, wonderfully written, tenderhearted middle grade read. While some of the time-traveling/portal aspects of the novel are a wee hazy, that had no bearing on how much I genuinely loved the experience of meeting Charlotte and reading her extraordinary story. Unexpectedly emotional, written with sophistication and elegance, Sales has done a tremendous job here with her middle grade debut. I hope she continues to write for both YA and children’s genre as she clearly has the terrific ability to do both very well.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions and comments are my own.