Hardcover, 272 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Chronicle Books
Source: ARC from Raincoast Books
Maybe schools in the future were different. Maybe all students here were really friendly to everybody, even bookish girls in glasses. Humans had invented the internet and artificial cooling systems; surely they could have invented a way for kids to be nice.
Once Was a Time by Leila Sales is a charming tale about friendship that transcends time and age. Charlotte Bromley was born in England in 1930. With the advent of the war and her father’s increasing absence from home, Charlotte’s mother, frustrated by her inability to help fight the war, leaves their home in the countryside to go to London. Charlotte is left with her siblings (a younger brother and an older sister), her absent dad, and her very best friend in the whole wide world, Kitty.
When Kitty and Charlotte are kidnapped by German spies and used to emotionally blackmail her father into giving up his research on time travel, circumstances conspire to create a portal through which Charlotte flees into modern America. She has nothing except the pajamas she’s wearing, her memories of her past, and a profound guilt at leaving her best friend behind and escaping on her own.
Charlotte meets a boy her age as she walks through the streets, scared and lost, and he helps her to the one place she knows she can find some relief: a library. A meeting with another kind soul, the librarian, sends her into the (almost too) welcoming arms of her foster parents who end up adopting her and becoming her family. Charlotte goes to school and finds out that in order to fit into the hierarchy, she will have to be horrendously mean to the first person who helped her in the modern world and she, unable to do otherwise, is.
Years pass and Charlotte grows from the ten year old to a fourteen year old, trying to fit all her jagged edges into the shape everyone seems to want her to be. But Charlotte cannot forget her past easily and in a very poignant scene she goes and looks up the obituaries of her family. She finds out how they died and whether her siblings left any descendants. At the library (which is closing due to the funding cuts) she finds a clue that makes her sure that Kitty is still alive and somewhere in the world waiting for her.
Charlotte is determined to find Kitty and this leads her to Jake, the boy she was pressured into shunning the first year she started school in the modern world.
I very much enjoyed this novel. The protagonist is flawed and has certain moments of vulnerability and weakness that make her realistic and extremely likable. I particularly loved how Charlotte is portrayed as a child but at the same she has a certain depth to her that is appropriate for someone who has been through what she has.
I absolutely loved the friendship between Kitty and Charlotte. I can’t say much without giving things away but it’s so heartwarming and it’s so important that we see this kind of friendship in books for kids. And it’s not just the friendship between Kitty and Charlotte that’s important, there’s also the friendship between Jake and Charlotte that admittedly started off badly but is salvaged due to Charlotte’s courage in admitting her weakness and apologising. I like that Charlotte acknowledged that her foster parents are extremely unimaginative, in fact, they are very pedestrian in their ways, but she has a clear sense of appreciation for what they do for her.
I think you should read this book because it is a wonderful story about friendship that is torn apart by war, guilt, and time but still manages to persevere because sometimes friendship is just that strong. Definitely a crossover novel that will appeal to both children and adults alike.