Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction

The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman

From the very first chapter, The Highland Falcon Thief felt like home. Full of suspense and anticipation, the familiarity of the trains I love mixed with mystery and history carried me away. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and read the book in a day – what a lovely day it was!

Eleven-year-old Hal Beck is invited to go on an incredible railway journey with his journalist Uncle Nat. The legendary train, the Highland Falcon, is taking its final journey around the country with some very special passengers. Surrounded by royalty, celebrities and wealthy business people, Hal soon finds himself in the middle of a classic train mystery worthy of the Orient Express. Jewels are stolen and it’s up to Hal and his new friend Lenny to solve the case. As they gather clues, observe suspects and try to catch the thief, they experience the adventure of a lifetime and Hal can’t help but fall in love with trains.

This book is a celebration of British engineering and the development of the railways from the Industrial Revolution to present day. The level of detail about how a steam engine works, the elements of a train and the roles of those who work on the rails is magnificent. The reader can’t help but take away so much knowledge, understanding and respect for what went in to creating and running this technology. Each stage of the journey takes the reader to another station, bridge or tunnel so iconic of the Victorian Era and its architecture. From Kings Cross to the Forth Bridge to Balmoral to the Ribblehead Viaduct to Bristol Temple Meads and back to Paddington Station, the importance of these places comes alive on the pages.

The wonderful illustrations by Elisa Paganelli bring an added depth to the book. Readers are able to picture life on the train and see the adventure through Hal’s eyes. As he records his journey, Hal’s sketches become an integral part of the story. They are not there for the reader but as a key part of Hal’s character and essential clues as he tries to solve the mystery. The map of the route and diagrams of the train pull the entire journey together and allow the reader to travel along with the characters.

Opportunities to link this book with the school curriculum are endless. So many possibilities jumped out at me as I read. In the first instance, children would simply enjoy spotting people and places they already know. Our Year Fives visit the Ribblehead Viaduct in the Yorkshire Dales as a part of their residential while our Year Sixes study the Industrial Revolution, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the great importance of the development of the railway. I can just imagine their spark as they make connections while reading.  The excellent model of a mystery story, the science of steam engines, the history of the railway, the A4 Pacific land speed record and links to the Mallard – these are just the beginnings of so many exciting lessons based on this story.

Trains have a special place in my heart. My Dad’s best friend (my godfather) was an engineer with the Canadian National Railway in Western Canada and the Rocky Mountains. When I was very small, we would visit him and his family in the towns where he was based and hear stories about his adventures on the rails. I think one of my Dad’s best days was when he was invited to ride with him on the footplate of his train.

As I got older, we visited England and the National Railway Museum in York. There’s something about the oily iron smell and the size of the trains that evokes such a sense of adventure and wonder. I can’t help but be transported back to a time when these great locomotives ruled the landscape. Once I moved to England and had children of my own, the railway museum became a regular destination on our family days out. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve walked through the Great Hall trying to keep up with my children as they raced up and down the bridge, climbed the steps to peer into every locomotive, measured their height against a train wheel and watched in amazement as the turntable slowly spun round.

My own preschool Thomas loved everything about Thomas the Tank Engine and we spent many years tripping over the train set on the lounge floor (although now it’s the Hogwarts Express that gets his imagination firing!) We’ve travelled on trains in Canada, England, Italy and Hong Kong, always marvelling at the diversity and beauty of these magical machines.

This book reminded me of every one of these lovely memories.

The Highland Falcon Thief is the kind of book that only comes around once in a while. The authors and illustrator have come together to create something truly special that will stay with readers for a very long time. As soon as I’d finished this captivating story, I wanted more … I’m thrilled that it is the beginning of what promises to be an extraordinary series.

Click on the covers below to find out more or purchase on-line from Amazon.

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