With Stalin and his Secret Police in power, Russia in 1938 is a dangerous place. But not as far as seven-year-old Shura is concerned. For Shura, life in Leningrad is happy and uncomplicated. He has his Mama and Papa, his big sister Tanya and his baby brother Bobka, his best friend, his schoolmates and… and then it’s all ripped apart.

Mama, Papa, and Bobka are missing. Not just missing but, according to neighbourhood rumour, they have been kidnapped by the mysterious Black Raven. Why? Because (the neighbours’ whisper) Shura’s Mama and Papa are spies. So Shura and Tanya set out to find the Raven and reunite their family, but Shura quickly discovers that it’s not as simple as stopping the nearest KGB car and asking to be taken to their parents. In fact, when he does, Shura’s nightmare escalates. Separated from his sister and confined to a sinister orphanage called the Grey House, Shura is given a new name and clothing and forced to forget his parents ever existed. But Shura’s will is stronger than that, although he quickly realises that he is not the only one searching for the loved ones they’ve lost…

The Raven’s Children is something of a phenomenon in Russian publishing, a bestselling nationally and international acclaimed children’s book that highlights a brutal period of history that most Russian higher-ups would probably rather forget. But author Yulia Yakovleva, who loosely based her story on events from her own family’s past, wrote The Raven’s Children to break the silence and encourage others to share their own experiences. It’s the kind of heartfelt emotional agenda, which has underdone many potentially fine writers because their need to spread a message can often overshadow their want to tell a compelling story, but in the case of The Raven’s Children, both these strands are intertwined quite wonderfully – Yakovleva has a lot to say but she says it in a way that always puts the storytelling first, almost like teaching history by stealth.

The other thing that really impresses about the story is that, like the colour of the clothes Shura wears in the orphanage, it could easily have become a grey book with very little optimism between the pages. This isn’t the case at all. Although it begins with a realistic study of working-class childhood, elements of magical-realism begin to infiltrate Shura and Tanya’s world for reasons, which are both good and bad. Okay, so the metaphor button might be pounded a little bit too hard on at least one occasion (we’re saying nothing, except that maybe walls really do have ears) but there’s a sense of fairy tale about Shura’s journey that always gives us hope for a happy resolution. Whether that happens or not, who can say? Stories like these have a habit of turning when you least expect them. All we can tell you is to set any reservations about children’s books and historical fiction aside and take Shura’s journey – The Raven’s Children really is worthy of all the applause it’s receiving.