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‘The Swallows’ Flight’ by Hilary McKay

‘The Swallows’ Flight’ by Hilary McKay reviewed

A review of Hilary McKay’s new book, set at the time of the Second World War. The Swallows’ Flight is written by the double Costa award winner Hilary McKay.


Published by Macmillan, May 2021. Available from Amazon.

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‘The Swallows’ Flight’ – sequel to ‘The Skylarks’ War’

The Skylarks’ War, published in 2018, was hugely successful for Hilary Mackay, and won the Costa award for children’s books (her second) and the Boston Horn-Globe award. You don’t need to have read it to appreciate The Swallows’ Flight, but they’re both lovely, so why not! The Skylarks’ War is set in England and spans the 20 years before, during and after the First World War.

Its many delighted readers have waited anxiously for the sequel, The Swallows’ Flight. Could it possibly be as good? Will we be re-united with the characters that she has so lovingly created for us?

The Swallows’ Flight will not disappoint, although we have moved forward in time to another generation, another set of characters and another World War.


Published by Macmillan, 2018. Available from Amazon.

‘The Swallows’ Flight’ in Germany

It starts, surprisingly and cleverly, in Berlin, in 1931, where 10-year-old Erik is bartering cards for flies to feed two fledgling swallows. His best friend Hans does his best to help him, and for the next 16 years we keep in touch with them and their deep friendship. For Hans and Erik, nothing is simpler than their plans for the future. Erik will be head keeper at Berlin zoo, and Hans will have a very expensive pastry stall just outside the gates. Our sympathies and interest are always with them as they grow up.

Hans has two sisters, Lisa and Frieda, who are as annoying to them as sisters always are to two inseparable boys, and there is the ever-present kind, funny Uncle Karl. Erik, in contrast, lives alone with his mother.

The English characters

In between Erik and Hans’ story, we have a wealth of other characters and settings. We are in a backyard in London, where a tied-up and seemingly abandoned dog lives. His plight, his future, and his personality make him as important as any other character in the narrative. With or without him we move from family to family, from our much-loved Clarry in Bristol to our new heroine Ruby, who is evacuated to live with her cousin Kate in Plymouth.

Kate is the quiet youngest child in a family of six children, assiduously writing her diary. Everyone, she notes, is doing something about the war effort. All she can think of doing is to be extraordinarly brave. The adored honorary uncle, Uncle Rupert, comes and goes, bringing fun and presents.

The 10-year-olds become 26-year-olds, the First World War is echoed in the Second World War. The children we met and loved in the first book step back and allow their own children to star. This is their story, and this time it is Ruby, scarred and self-conscious from the start, and introverted Kate, who win our hearts.

My thoughts on ‘The Swallows’ Flight’

I was determined not to re-read The Skylarks’ War before I read The Swallows’ Flight. A sequel has to stand on its own. I have to admit that the cast of characters baffled me at first. I longed for a family tree, and actually began to compile one, when I discovered one at the end of the book. It’s worth referring to till you get the different characters and their relationships sorted, and then the narrative bowls along. Clarry, Peter and Rupert are still there, as strong and lovable adults, but it’s not their story.

The novel is funny, sad, poignant and always absorbing, with engaging and believable characters. There is intense and sometimes searing drama throughout the narrative of Erik and Hans’ wartime years. They, future pilots, create the evocative symbolic thread that runs through the novel: “Perhaps because Erik had watched so many birds – the scythe-cuts of swifts, the kestrels on their sky-hooks, the ribbon trails of his beloved swallows – perhaps because of these, the air seemed to him a natural place to be, from the very first flight.” It begins and ends with the image of swallows.

The Swallows’ Flight is a beautiful story, touchingly told and utterly without sentimentality. Hilary McKay has a keen ear for sparing dialogue, the banter of families, the awkwardness of saying what needs to be said. You believe completely in these children, their relationship with each other, their role in the family, simply by the way they communicate. What’s more, you care about them. This is a book for all the family to love.

Promotional mailing for ‘The Swallows’ Flight’ by Hilary McKay
Promotional mailing for ‘The Swallows’ Flight’

About Hilary McKay

Hilary McKay, author of ‘The Swallows’ Flight’ and ‘The Skylarks’ War’
Hilary McKay

It’s no surprise to know that Hilary McKay has a deep love of the natural world. She studied Zoology and Botany at St Andrew’s, and is very much involved with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. She says “I have helped with school parties and Forest School and survey work for woodland birds and butterflies. I love to be dissecting owl pellets and pond dipping with the children.”

She is the author of many children’s books and the winner of several major awards and nominations.

Hilary McKay’s website

The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

The Wildlife Trusts

I also recently blogged about another WWII-related book – Shadow Time Stories by Lilo Beil.

What do you think?

Many children are fascinated by the Second World War, and I wonder whether it’s because it’s on the core curriculum or whether they just love war stories? Any theories?

Let me know what you think in the comments box below.


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Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her new picture book The Seamaiden’s Odyssey, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell, will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. See the About me page for more information.

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