Almost accidentally, author Susan Hood stumbled upon a historical event that has gone mostly overlooked and it is the basis of her exciting middle grade novel Lifeboat 12. The book is told in verse format by narrator and actual survivor Ken Sparks, who is thirteen years of age right before London is destroyed in the Blitz. His life in London is troubled by things large in scope (like running to bomb shelters nightly when the alarms go off and living off rations and hand-me-downs) and intimate (feeling slighted by his stepmother who dotes on his half-sister and only seems disappointed by his presence). When the opportunity arises for Ken to be evacuated to safety with other children ages 5-15 thanks to the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), he is nervous and put-off, convinced this is a scheme of his stepmother’s to rid him from the family. But life on the ship City of Benares is an oasis during wartime – real food, a plethora of playthings, and adults who are genuinely happy for his presence. After a harrowing few days fearful of being torpedoed by the Germans, the ship enters the safe-zone, and all settle in. But things were overlooked: The Nazis have recently acquired France, extending their attack zone further out into the Atlantic. And one night, Ken is shook out of bed by an explosion, and frantically ends up on Lifeboat 12, where he and stranded children, passengers, and sailors must pray for rescue with only 8 days of food and water for their crew of fifty.
Lifeboat 12 is a great lesson in the amount of work it takes to write a truly wonderful historical novel. The story itself is exciting and touching, rocking the reader across a rocky sea of the emotional and physical turmoil during wartime. Then to cap it off, Hood shares pages of back matter showcasing the true story of Ken Sparks and his fellow passengers with photographs, extensive interviews, and a thoughtful inclusion of the Asian crew members whose went practically forgotten (and suffered the greatest loss of life and limb). Hood has stuffed her verse with pages of actual quotes from Sparks and the survivors, and it’s very clear how much she treasured her time spent with them creating this book. I only downgraded it a star because the verse itself didn’t necessarily stand out to me as an ideal format for this story — but I really appreciate how Hood wove in the quotes and it does make it a nice quick read with punch. Highly recommended for anyone who likes historical fiction and for tweens who love tales of survival and adventure.