Once Was a Time

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Once Was a Time Book Poster Image
Imaginative, emotional tale of BFFs torn apart in time.

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Kids say

age 10+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

There's much discussion of the science underlying theories of time travel that may inspire budding scientists. The story includes a lot of period detail of England in World War II, which comes out in interesting ways, such as when Lottie, in the 21st century, asks about food and clothes being rationed. There's also a lot of detail about present-day Italy and popular tourist destinations there.  Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess plays a recurring role in the plot.

Positive Messages

A strong friendship endures even between friends separated in space and time. As the story unfolds, there are also strong messages of kindness, bravery, quick thinking, working hard for what you believe in, and a love of books. Also this, from Lottie's father: "All great scientists doubt. That's why we become scientists. These are all just theories. Time travel is a theory. Gravity is a theory. Evolution is a theory. I suppose they might someday prove to be incorrect, but until then, they're the best explanation we have for the world around us."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Time-traveling Lottie doesn't always make the right choices, especially when, after being victimized by mean girls in her school in 1940, she joins a clique of them in 2013 and says mean things to Jake, the nerdy kid who was the first to befriend her. But over time she learns better ways. How her friendship with Kitty manages to survive what should have been a fatal blow involves determination and clever thinking (on both their parts) that will be a delight to BFFs of today. Jake proves a true friend and a kid unafraid to follow his own path. Many adults are kind to Lottie, including her sweet but definitely not book-loving foster parents and the librarian who fills that gap.


The violence of World War II defines much of the action, particularly the kidnapping of Lottie's father and the two girls by spies who say they'll kill the girls if he doesn't hand over his secrets (which, Lottie speculates, involves the ability to travel back in time, kill Hitler as a baby, and avert the whole war). It's already broken up Lottie's family, as her mother, fed up with her husband's secretiveness, has left them, and the girls are determined not to let it separate them: "Kitty and I had come up with [a plan] for what we would do if we ever got separated by the war. We'd heard stories on the wireless about families in occupied France or Poland who were suddenly ripped apart, some of them carried off to prison camps, others who simply disappeared in the middle of the night." The girls hold a seance that freaks them all out.


A teen character plays Xbox.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Leila SalesOnce Was a Time isn't going to be every kid's dish, but tween girl BFFs looking nervously at the forces conspiring against them (mean girls, international warfare, and plain old change) will find it engaging and empowering. The violence of World War II plays a key role in the story, as spies kidnap children and shoot at them, a professor's time travel research is being pursued as a weapon against Hitler, and some characters die. There's a bit of an old-fashioned sensibility, as suggested by the fact that Lottie's favorite book, which plays a crucial role in the plot, is A Little Princess. And there's a similar theme of persistence through adversity bringing unexpected, and very satisfying, rewards.

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Kid, 11 years old November 22, 2018

Once was a time review

You NEED to get this book right now! It’s a heartwarming and beautifully crafted tale of two friends- one who is stuck in the present and the other who has tim... Continue reading

What's the story?

As World War II rages in 1940, 10-year-olds Lottie and her best friend Kitty live in Bristol, England, where Lottie's father, a scientist, is working on a top-secret project involving time travel -- which, Lottie suspects, is part of a plan to go back in time and prevent the war from happening by killing Hitler as a baby. Bookish Lottie isn't that interested, especially when her dad points out that if you go through a portal in time you'll probably never get to go back. Kitty, on the other hand, says she'd love it, though she'd never go through a portal without Lottie. But after Lottie's father disappears, and spies kidnap the girls and are about to kill them, worlds collide and Lottie lands in 2013 Wisconsin, not knowing what's happened to her loved ones but fearing the worst.

Is it any good?

Leila Sales crafts a fast-paced, engaging, sometimes heartrending tale of two 10-year-old BFFs determined not to let World War II or anything else tear them apart -- and then something does. ONCE WAS A TIME isn't the first story or the last to plunge a kid from another era into a 21st-century American middle school, but it's one of the more intriguing. Sales has a light touch with the life lessons, letting her protagonist figure things out for herself rather than jumping in with sermons. Sophisticated readers may roll their eyes a bit at how conveniently potentially plan-derailing issues work themselves out -- as when Lottie, determined to tag along on a classmate's trip to Italy on short notice, miraculously has a passport already (which, considering she's an undocumented time traveler, is a bit much). But the girls' struggles against insurmountable forces to stay connected will grab many a young reader, and book-loving kids will find Lottie especially relatable:

"Everyone in my family read during dinner, and pretty much all the rest of the time, too. I had A Little Princess in my lap, and as soon as Dad finished telling us about time travel, I was planning to read (for the eleventh time) the scene where Sara makes Miss Minchin cross by being secretly fluent in French. A Little Princess is my favorite book. I took it out of the library six times in a row before I had saved up enough pocket money to buy my own copy."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about time travel. Do you think it's possible? Why do you think people find it such a fascinating idea? Which other time travel stories have you read or seen on-screen? 

  • If a kid from another time and place suddenly landed in your town, what do you think would be the hardest things for them to deal with?

  • Do you and your best friend have a plan for staying connected if things get weird?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love tales of friendship and science fiction

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