12 year-old Hani fears for his life and the life of his sister, Reema, as they work hard labour on an isolated farm day in, day out. They are told every day they are lucky to be there, to be alive but this is not the childhood he imagined, this is a prison. Their parents had been promised they would have a new life, filled with opportunity, health and happiness in exchange for their life savings. After a perilous journey across the unrepentant seas from Syria to the UK, there is no light in their dark world, only hunger and despair. When Reema goes missing from the farm, Hani has no option but to escape and try to find her.
Being 12 and in the foster care system is difficult for Mia. She wants a family who love her unconditionally, just like her parents did before they died in an accident. She thinks her foster parents are only interested in themselves so she escapes to find the place where she always felt safe, where her memories of the life she once had were made… The Island.
Hani and Mia’s paths cross as they both escape their situations and together they embark on a journey filled with tension, a huge amount of luck and bravery beyond their wildest nightmares. Can they escape the gang-master to find Reema? Will the police catch Mia and return her to her foster parents? Most importantly, will they make it to the island?
When images of children seeking a new life flash up on the news in the UK, it’s hard to imagine what would make parents risk such a journey for their children and families. I read When We Get To The Island in one sitting. It made me ignore the clock as it turned from midnight into the wee small hours. The story of Hani and Reema can be told a thousand times but Alex Nye has a unique way of pulling you in as if you, the reader, are on the dinghy with them and then when they land after weeks at sea, you’re in the farm with them too. You’re with them when they’re trying to sleep and you’re with them as they work their fingers to the bone for a life they never asked for. This story is full of hope. It surges through you as you turn each page, urging them on, willing them to run faster/hide safely – to succeed. Hani and Mia may have started on a separate quest to survive, but they are joined together in the search for a better life. I laughed and I cried at this book in between bouts of anger and frustration at the world we live in.
I urge teachers/parents/guardians to read this, to make it a classroom staple and a permanent fixture on every bookshelf. It’s important to learn, to discuss both Mia and Hani’s predicaments so we can understand more about what goes on in our world, beyond the island we live.