One of my favourite things about history is having to opportunity to discover seemingly ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Karen McCombie’s The Girl with her Head in the Clouds imagines the young life of one of those ‘ordinary’ people, Dolly Shepherd, and tells the story of the journey that led to her flying through the skies as one of the very earliest aeronauts.
We first meet Dolly in the early 1900s when she is just sixteen years old. She is utterly fearless and feels no need to behave as is expected of young ladies of the time. Although she appears to have a safe and secure future working for her aunt’s fashion business, Dolly is a thrill-seeker who embraces adventure and dreams of something different.
One day, when determined to see an American band leader perform at Alexander Palace, Dolly has a chance encounter with two other entertainers and she fearlessly volunteers to take part in a wild west show. This audacious bravery leads to an invitation to join Captain Gaudron, a showman who soars high in a hot air balloon but then leaps from the basket and floats to the ground beneath the canopy of a parachute. This is Dolly’s chance to fly and she seizes the opportunity without a second thought.
McCombie beautifully captures Dolly’s excitement about all of her adventures. Instead of being nervous for her we gleefully join in as she volunteers to have an apple shot off her head and when she takes the opportunity to parachute from a balloon high above the heads of the people of Alexander Palace. Even when she faces some very dangerous situations Dolly’s calm and clear characterisation is enormously reassuring to the reader and we trust her as much as the friend who nervously chooses to fly beside her. This sense of adventure and determination to do things that were usually only done by men makes Dolly a fantastic character for a children’s book.
Throughout the book, Dolly’s story is enhanced even more by Anneli Bray’s delightful illustrations. Pictures of her balloon, her unusual outfits and her calm, or not so calm, parachute descents all show how important an illustrators work is and Bray creates images that make you pause and absorb the sights of Dolly’s world.
Dolly Shepherd is a wonderful of example of how high we can all soar when we ignore the limitations imposed by others. This Girl with her Head in the Clouds contains such a wonderful message for young readers about living our dreams and defying the expectations of those around us. That message is enriched by the fact that Dolly was a real person who continued to do incredible things even after the events of the book. History can show us so many unexpected stories and it is thanks to authors such as Karen McCombie that these incredible stories find new audiences who are enchanted and inspired by the people of the past.
Thank to Barrington Stoke for my review copy of The Girl with her Head in the Clouds.
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