Kate writes to her estranged uncle on her twelfth birthday. She is hoping her letter might initiate some excitement in her dull, purposeless life. Like many tweens, she has the sense of waiting for something big to happen in her life, and she senses a shift in her thinking and an awakening to the wider world around her.
Uncle Herbert is no ordinary uncle. Unannounced and unheralded, he delivers a full-size working steam train to Kate’s backyard, much to the consternation of her parents. Kate and Tom board the train and it comes to life, issuing instructions to the children via printed messages and setting off on a journey to…? No-one, not even the talking train, seems quite sure.
Tracks magically appear and the train pushes on, asking for more coal and more water at intervals. They also stop to add on carriages and to pick up an assortment of unusual animals at various stations. Kate and Tom realise their role is to be the conductors: collecting tickets, managing the huge variety of animal passengers, finding suitable locations among the carriages for each of them so they are safe and comfortable on their journey.
Miraculously no animals eat another, even though there is plenty of scope for bloodshed. The animals are travelling to other stations, located in some of the worlds most delicate and fragile environments including the Arctic Circle, a rainforest, a mangrove forest and the depths of the ocean. Along the way, Kate and Tom learn about the issues different animals are facing as their environment comes under pressure from humans. Their teachers are their animal companions, including a fishing cat, an adorable baby pangolin, a critically endangered white-bellied heron, an indignant porcupine, an emaciated polar bear, and a gorgeous mamba.
Kate feels helpless due to the enormity of the environmental problems and the urgency to stop the daily extinction count, but the animals are hopeful that humans will set it right. As the heron says:
“…. there is nothing more terrifyingly effective and resourceful than a human being. In all the four billion years that there has been life on Earth, you are the most successful animal that ever was. You’re better than us at everything. If you want to fix this problem, you will because when human beings want something, nothing gets in their way.”
Author Lev Grossman has delivered a story that is certain to become a children’s classic. It is an adventure in time and place, from the peaks of the highest mountains to the sandy desert, across oceans and into the clouds. It is beautifully imagined and instantly captured my imagination. The scene where the children become trees is worthy of a study in itself: a glorious piece of creative, descriptive writing that I read three times to extract everything from it. I am sure teachers and librarians will use this passage and others for activities with young readers and writers. It is also a perfect form of escapism coupled with an environmental message that will inspire purpose and activism.
The Silver Arrow is perfect for readers 10 +, especially fans of Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, The Chronicles of Narnia, Fern Gully, Howl’s Moving Castle and Polar Express.