Review of William Nicholson’s “The Wind Singer” by Pippa Wilson

A beautifully written dystopia

Winner of the 2000 Nestle Smarties Book Prize and the Blue Peter Best Book Award for “The Book I Couldn’t Put Down” in 2001.

Synopsis from William Nicholson’s website:

“I hate school! I hate ratings! I won’t reach higher! I won’t strive harder! I won’t make tomorrow better than today!” In the walled city of Aramanth, exams are everything — not only for children, but for whole families. When Kestrel Hath dares to rebel, the Chief Examiner humiliates her father and sentences the family to the harshest punishment. Desperate to save them, Kestrel discovers that life in Aramanth was once different — and if she can find the secret of the Wind Singer, maybe life can change for the better once more. So she and her twin brother, Bowman, set out on a terrifying journey — to the true source of the evil that grips Aramanth…

So what did I think?

The Wind Singer is the first in  William Nicholson’s “Wind on Fire” trilogy, first published in 2000. It is a long standing personal favourite of mine since reading it soon after publication, when I was teaching Year 6. I’ve re read it more recently to my two eldest children. I love the world, the characters and the story, and it’s one of those books that I’ve thought about a lot long after reading it.

The Wind Singer tells the story of a young girl called Kestrel (Kess) who lives in a world where children and adults are frequently tested for their intellectual abilities, or “rating”. Where and how you live in Aramanth depends on the outcome of the tests: the better your scores, the better your living standards. Put a foot wrong, and you’ll be relegated to a poorer district (which are all organised by colour).

What strikes me reading this once again, is how it has a very similar feel and tone to the Hunger Games. Indeed, Kess has many similar qualities to Katniss: loyalty to her family, fearlessness and determination. Both characters fight against the rigid unfairness of their societies, while knowing in their own hearts that the rulers are wrong, and they must defend the honour of their families. But the worlds they live in are of course very different.

Kess and her twin brother Bowman discover that resistance to the ways of the College of Examiners leads to humiliation and degradation. As they make a run for it they end up in a strange Underlake world, and find new friends and scary enemies. All the while as a reader you wonder: will they ever get back to their parents, and baby sister Pinpin?

There are some great characters in this book besides the protagonists. Several times my 11 year old shouted out, “Come on, Pinpin!” at the comedy timing of her baby antics. And Mumpo brings tears to your eyes with his stoic chirpiness in the face of horrendous adversity. He simply has nothing to lose. The baddies (the army of Zars) are grotesque and hideous: they just make my skin crawl!

There are many themes to this book, but the one that means most to me is that of sticking to your principles and beliefs and not being afraid to go against the grain if you feel something is wrong. And that’s a message that I would certainly still like people to hear in 2016, which is why I think it is very much relevant today.

Reading William Nicholson’s blog is fascinating for aspiring writers too!

Happy reading.

Pippa Wilson

24th January 2016

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