His Name Was Walter by Emily Rodda
After their bus breaks down on a school excursion four kids, including Colin and their schoolteacher, take shelter from a huge storm in a nearby deserted mansion. While there, Colin discovers a secret drawer that contains an old book with strange vivid drawings and a handwritten story about a boy called Walter who was found abandoned and was raised in a beehive-orphanage. The five start to read it to pass some time and while he tries to rationalise the feeling, Colin feels strongly compelled to keep going after the teacher calls for it to be put down.
The story within the story at first seems like nonsense – a boy raised by bees, who works for mice, meets a witch who turns into a cat, lives with a landlord who’s a chicken and falls in love with a young woman who turns into a sparrow – but as both stories move on fantasy and history blend and reveal themselves for what they are.
In the hands of a less skilled writer the ‘reveal’ could have been almost jarring – the way reality suddenly appears on top of this story about talking animals and ogres – but instead – the shift from an English-style folk story to Australian history was a thrill. Another magnificent book from Emily Rodda. For ages 9+.