Not to be Overlooked
By Katie Simpson and Rachel Gray
“Not to be Overlooked” introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers with finding their next great reads. This week’s column reviews The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom and Children of the Quicksands by Efua Traoré.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
The Five People You Meet in Heaven was published in 2003, but I had never heard of it until a close friend told me it somewhat shaped her life as a young adult. A few days later, I was spending my nightly four hours scrolling through TikTok when I saw the book again, floating in the stratosphere of BookTok. The comments were flooded with praise for this highly emotional story that, apparently, has the power to change your perspective on life. I picked it up the next day.
Let’s start with the plot: we meet Eddie in his older days. He is, and has been for a very long time, a maintenance guy at Ruby Pier Amusements. To Eddie, the small park – with all its rickety rides, bemused visitors and reels of candy floss – is his entire world. This is a man who knows nothing but how to keep people safe in the park. Then, he receives a call from a younger, inexperienced lad who has encountered a problem with a ride.
As Eddie approaches, he immediately spots a child in danger of being crushed by the falling ride. He jumps to move her out of the way without hesitation, and this is when we’re transported to a whole other world. Eddie is in the afterlife, obviously confused by his surroundings, but more so concerned for the child. Did he manage to save her? By moving through the afterlife stages and meeting five people who were once significant to him, we join Eddie on the quest to find out whether his final act allowed him to do what he did best: help people.
Mitch Albom’s tale remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for ninety-five weeks! With emotionally packed words of wisdom and a final scene that genuinely brought a tear to my eye, it’s unsurprising to hear of the book’s success. This story might seem to only have two directions; he either saved the child or he didn’t. The final few pages, however, have an unmissable twist in store.
Above everything, Albom has written an intriguing, easily digestible narrative with lessons for everyone. There is love and kindness to be found in every corner, even in the (sometimes) monotonous role of fixing the same ride every other week. Eddie was content even though he didn’t think he had made much of his life, but Albom takes us deep into his childhood and then right through to his death, where we learn the real lessons of life alongside him.
Children of the Quicksands by Efua Traoré
If you love your children’s fiction with a side of fantasy, Yoruba myths and delicious food, let me introduce you to the perfect book! Children of the Quicksands by Efua Traoré was published in June 2021 by Chicken House Books, having won the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2019.
In this brilliant novel set in Nigeria, Simi is sent to stay with her long-lost grandmother in a remote village with no TV, internet or phones. Her grandmother, the resident healer, makes herbal medicines and is well-versed in the village’s legends and gods. When Simi wanders into a forbidden forest and finds herself caught in the quicksand of a lake, she uncovers a whole new world of myths, curses and magic.
I really enjoyed this novel. The combination of traditional Nigerian myths with the contrast between the rural village of Ajao and the metropolitan city of Lagos makes it a fascinating read. The mystery, which begins almost from page one, is intriguing and very well crafted, and the twists and turns are excellent – I didn’t see them coming at all.
The main character, Simi, is brave, clever, and really grows throughout the novel. I liked her voice a lot. Her parents divorced just before the novel begins, and the feelings children go through as a consequence are dealt with sensitively. There is so much in Simi’s story that many children and adults can relate to.
I also loved the setting so much; I felt like I could smell and taste Ajao through Traoré’s descriptions. The oppressive heat, the incredible thunderstorms… it was all evoked so well!
Overall, I would highly recommend this novel to children and adults alike. It has an all-black cast of characters and is set in a part of Africa that doesn’t feature often in middle grade fiction. Diversity in children’s fiction is so important, and Children of the Quicksands is one of many books doing vital work that lets children see themselves in the stories they read.