The Machine Gunners has made its name as a children’s literary classic. In 1975 it won the Carnegie Medal and in 2007, it secured a place on the list of top ten CILIP Carnegie Medal Winners announced as part of the award’s 70th anniversary. The novel is set in World War II and draws upon Robert Westall’s own experience of growing up in a small coastal town during the Blitz.

Like the events that unfolded between 1939 and 1945, Westall’s plot is fast-face and unpredictable. It is at times frightening and fragmented like a flying piece of windowpane, blown away from its frame by the impact of a fallen bomb. The central character of the story is Chas McGill – a schoolboy fascinated by the relics of war. These ‘souvenirs’ include nose-cones and tailfins and bits of shell and shrapnel that fall from the sky during an air-raid. One day, Chas comes across a war souvenir that beats all the metal scraps that line the pockets of his schoolmates. But with this dangerous new possession comes big responsibilities and along with some close friends, Chas finds himself drawn into the war effort in an extreme and risky way.

On his website, Westall lists The Machine Gunners as suitable for children aged 10+. The text is challenging, however, and extra guidance may be needed to help some readers appreciate its full meaning. Westall frequently changes narrative perspective several times in a chapter and his prose is full of wartime jargon which may be unfamiliar. With assistance, this book can be a valuable text for readers wishing to know more about the emotional and physical impact of war. What does it mean, for example, to be 'safe' in a world where you might return from school oneday to find the roof missing from your house? For Chas, it is the smell of frying bread. 

Written by Robert Westall
Lydia Mihailovic, literary editor