You might be forgiven for thinking Elizabeth Laird’s ‘The Fastest Boy in the World’, with its Ethiopian setting and story of a boy who lives on a farm and who dreams of being a runner, might be a story children would find it a challenge to relate to, particularly as this is aimed at young readers.
But who wouldn’t understand exactly how eleven-year-old Solomon feels when his grandfather tells him they must journey together to the big city – and the excitement Solomon feels in being given this responsibility, the recognition that he is growing up and the sense that things are about to change.
We are quickly drawn into Solomon’s world. The capital may only be just over twenty miles away, but in a country where few people have cars, and even a bus journey is too expensive, Solomon and his grandfather must go on foot. And Solomon doesn’t even own shoes.
This is wonderful, evocative storytelling – a glimpse into a different land, a totally different culture. But a novel of heart and adventure.
We can feel the wonderful contrast as Solomon sets foot in a city for the first time, and understand Solmon’s excitement when they are finally plunged into the teeming world of the capital – Addis Ababa. Suddenly there are people, movement, pavements, pick-pockets – and relatives that don’t look that pleased to see them.
Solomon begins to understand some skulduggery has been afoot and prompted, for what has been for his frail grandfather, a huge journey.
But they find friends in unexpected places, plus a few stories of Grandfather when he was young are revealed – plus a little history of this troubled country.
And the backdrop of all of this is the impending returning visit and parade by the country’s running heroes fresh from Olympic success, and Solomon, always, always dreaming of running.
There is a simplicity of storytelling in Elizabeth Laird’s ‘The Fastest Boy in the World’ that masks that this is about some big themes, dealt with in a book suitable from age seven – no mean feat.
Grandfather has been a huge presence in Solomon’s life, but is taken ill. What eleven-year-old wouldn’t recognise the fear and responsibility of being alone in a vast city in charge of a very dear and ailing relative.
Even finding the right bus would be a challenge for most youngsters, as it is for Solomon. But Solomon reacts with chivalry and courage when faced with some pretty big challenges.
It’s a really satisfying and heart-warming story that does a double achievement of helping you understand the fears, hopes and dreams of a boy in another country – and realising these are not so different from our own.
A joy of storytelling. Great to see a book for younger readers being recognised on the Carnegie shortlist - and who could fail to be moved and excited by Solomon's epic run.