Phil Earle talks writing for underdogs in When the Sky Falls


Winner of the The British Book Awards 2022 – Children’s Fiction Book of the Year, When the Sky Falls  is a powerful story inspired by true events.

It’s 1940, and Joseph has been packed off to stay with Mrs F, a gruff woman with no great fondness for children. To Joseph’s amazement, she owns the rundown city zoo where Joseph meets Adonis, a huge silverback gorilla. Adonis is ferociously strong and dangerous, but Joseph finds he has an affinity with the lonely beast. But when the bombs begin to fall, it is up to Joseph to guard Adonis’s cage should it be damaged by a blast. Will Joseph be ready to pull the trigger if it comes to it?

We had the honour of chatting with Phil Earle on his remarkable title.


Congratulations on being shortlisted! You mentioned that this was inspired by the real life story your friend told you about his father, who had to train a rifle on a lion in the zoo during the war. Why the change from a lion into a gorilla?

Thanks ever so. Realism is the genre which gets me excited. I’ve not got the imagination of a fantasy writer, so I needed the animal to be one that could’ve forged a bond, a friendship, with a boy. Silverback’s are so magisterial and powerful, yet unpredictable that it gave me a volatile beast that still felt like it could love a boy. By the end of the book, I wanted the boy to be faced with a huge decision – could he pull the trigger on the one thing in his life to have truly shown him love?

Other than gorilla Adonis, there are also other animals featured in When the Sky Falls, such as pets and animals that can help out in tasks. If you were to write a book/short story about animals that helped the war effort, which types of animal would you focus on?

I already am! My new book, While The Storm Rages was inspired by the great animal massacre of 1939, when 750,000 animals were put to sleep at the government’s advice. I wanted to write about a rebellious boy who chooses to save as many as he could. There’s cats, dogs, rabbits, a twenty-foot python…and a donkey in a sunhat.

You started the tale with lyrics from The Lake Poets’ Vane Tempest. What is the meaning behind the lyrics for you and why did you choose to include it?

I’m a HUGE fan of Martin’s LP. He’s a working-class writer. I recognise and relate to that in his lyrics. I’ve always believed that we all hold wonderful stories within us, regardless of our class, and Vane Tempest embodies that. When Martin gave me permission to use his beautiful words at the beginning of the book, I was bowled over.

What do you think is the most significant difference between having an angsty boy like Joseph to prepare to shoot Adonis, and a more responsible adult like Mrs F?

I’ve long been obsessed with underdogs: in books, films or in life. Joseph epitomises that for me. He’s deeply troubled when we meet him, wears his rejection like scars. What I’m interested in people’s ability to do good, regardless of the difficult starts to their lives. When you meet Joseph, and when he meets Adonis, you’re in no doubt that he would pull the trigger, but 300 pages on, you’re not so sure. He’s changed, and that’s why I gave him the rifle, to show the potential in him.

The relationship between Mrs F and Joseph is so well written. Mrs F, with her no-nonsense attitude, is a force to be reckoned with. How did you decide on this “tough love” approach for Mrs F and why is that chosen instead of a gentler approach? Is that inspired by your time working as a care worker in the children’s home?

Thank you. My time as a care worker had a profound and lasting effect on me. It’s twenty years since I was lucky enough to work with these young people, yet their stories haven’t left me. So many of them were written off, abandoned, and that killed me.

Understandably, as you tried to build a bond with them, they were often resistant, due to the endless rejection they’d faced from their families or carers. Mrs F does wear a tough exterior, but she is a constant, she doesn’t walk away, even when Joseph is challenging. I wanted her tough love to show him over time that he had so much to offer, if he would just let it be seen.

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle (Andersen) has been shortlisted for the 2022 Yoto Carnegie Medal. The winners of the Yoto Carnegie Greenaway Awards 2022 will be announced on 16 June. For more information visit

Grab your copy of When the Sky Falls here.

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