I am thrilled to be joining Sophie Kirtley at the top of the East Lighthouse on Lathrin, for the blog tour for The Way to Impossible Island. From the moment I picked up this book, I was utterly captivated by the combination of characters, setting, theme and Sophie’s lyrical writing. Although I couldn’t finish it in one sitting – pesky chores; I wanted to! I predict that this is a book many children will lose themselves in during the school summer holiday. I love this book as an adult reader and can tell you that 10 year-old me would have been transfixed.
The themes of self-esteem and a child’s self-empowerment are seamlessly woven together with an immersion in the natural landscape. Oh, and there’s a time-slip adventure here too! If you loved Sophie’s previous MG novel, The Wild Way Home, you will enjoy revisiting some of the characters here. Research shows that both reading and an immersion in nature have positive benefits on mental wellbeing in adults and children. In my non-scientific study with a cohort of one subject, I conclude that the feel-good effects of this book are beyond doubt!
So as we gaze out over the island landscape, Sophie has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about the impact of the natural world on wellbeing.
Firstly, can I just thank you for allowing me to ask you some questions, based on your new MG novel The Way to Impossible Island, I’m grateful that you are taking the time for this, and I look forward to sharing your answers.
Thank you so much, Veronica, for having me on your blog and for all the support you give to books and authors (not just me!!) I think a lot of people can under-estimate the vital work children’s librarians do to matchmake books and young readers; so many children do struggle to make choices which fit their needs and tastes, so are reliant upon the expertise of others to help them make these choices. I love libraries and I’m delighted that initiatives like Cressida Cowell’s Life-Changing Libraries campaign seem to be gathering such momentum @CressidaCowell Life-Changing Libraries | BookTrust
As I am an ex-school librarian, now working in an NHS library, an area that particularly interests me is the effects of reading on mental health. I am struck by the sensory descriptions of the natural world in The Way to Impossible Island and would like to explore this with you.
That must be a fascinating change in direction for you. What an interesting setting!
To begin with, there is a tangible sense of place in the setting of the story, Lathrin Island. I suspect that it might be based on Rathlin Island, a place that I only heard about when I started a distance-learning course with the University of Ulster. Can you tell us whether Lathrin is based on an island that you have visited and your motivation for using it as the focus of the story?
Yes, you’re absolutely right – Lathrin Island is indeed based on Rathlin Island! I was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland and both The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island draw on settings which are warmly familiar to me from my own childhood. From an early age I was fascinated with Rathlin Island and I longed to go there, but even though we didn’t live that far away, for some reason we never did. It wasn’t until I was forty-two-and-a-half that I actually visited Rathlin for the first time! (see pic)
So perhaps that sense of longing and mystery which Dara gets from the island in the book is a bit like my own longing for that unreachable place! The more I researched Rathlin the more there was to draw upon for The Way to Impossible Island: the wildlife; the heritage; the myths.
I was a wee bit cheeky though as by calling it ‘Lathrin’ it gives me some licence to play around with the geography and not be utterly true to real life Rathlin. In real life, for example, Rathlin is the largest inhabited island off the coast of Ireland – there’s a whole community of people who live there; my ‘Lathrin’ island is only populated by cows and wild creatures! (see pic)
You include a variety of animals which impact key moments in the narrative for example the golden hare and the porpoises, have you always been a lover of nature and what is the appeal of the natural world to you?
Yes, wildness and the natural world are right at the heart of my books. It’s important to me not to just make animals seem cute or funny but to show how we all share a world together and ought to respect one another. Even when I was a girl I loved being outside – swimming in the sea, playing in the forest, running in the fields. The natural world felt, and still feels, boundless and unlimited; freeing somehow.
I am also intrigued by Mothgirl’s adoption of a wolf cub and utterly adored ByMySide’s character and narrative arc. Did you study wolves and their behaviour during the writing process, and could you tell us something about this?
Thank you. I love ByMySide too! Yes, I read a lot about wolves and wolf behaviour. Plus I was lucky enough to visit and observe an wolf pack at a conservation centre called the Wild Place Project in Bristol and to chat with, Zoe Greenhill, the specialist keeper there. Just watching these incredible animals and quizzing Zoe about their habits and behaviours really helped give me a deeper understanding which in turn helped me create ByMySide convincingly and respectfully too. @wild_place Wild Place Project – Home – Wild Place
Do you have any thoughts on the impact that taking care of a pet can have on children?
We have two cats, Dizzy and Dude, and my own children love them deeply. I think having a pet helps children learn empathy – they know when their pet is frightened or at ease and the deceptively simple act of reading the emotions of others and responding kindly is a hugely important life lesson.
It is not only your descriptions of wildlife that spoke to me, but there is also a particular passage quite near the end of the book when Mothgirl chases her wolf and the golden hare through a wheatfield and your description of the sights, sounds and smells was completely evocative of my walk to primary school, many, many years ago. How important do you think it is for children to be physically active outside and did you deliberately include these descriptions for children who might have only known city life?
I didn’t especially think of city children when writing these descriptions, but it’s really lovely to imagine my stories transporting readers to unfamiliar places, or as in your case, Veronica, to familiar places within their own memories.
I do think that time spent outdoors is very important for children’s (and adults’!) wellbeing and I’m delighted that the whole Forest School and Outdoor Learning movements seem to be gaining such momentum in the education world. I love reading about what educators like Mike Watson @WatsEd and Chartham Forest School @CharthamForest get up to on their wild adventures. I’m always especially thrilled when teachers get in touch with me to share the amazing learning beyond the classroom which has been inspired by my books; have a look on my website gallery page The Gallery – YOUR work | Sophie Kirtley to see the Stone Age settlements created by Leanne Moses’s class at Synchdyn Primary (@MosesLeanne @SychdynSchool) and the wild cooking around Langdale Primary’s campfire (@langdaleprimary).
I can only describe some passages in the story as poetic. Did you structure your writing this way to encourage some mindful reflection at these moments?
I’ve always written poetry, even before I turned my mind to fiction. So I think when my characters experience especially high or low moments in a story the poetry just pops out! I love being playful with structure and form in my writing, the passages which appear differently on the page are there to try to capture the extreme nature of the characters’ experiences in shape as well as in words. Sorry if I’m being a bit cryptic; I’m trying to avoid giving tooooo much away!
Both of your books, The Wild Way Home and The Way to Impossible Island seem to have the natural world and long-term environmental changes to a landscape as overarching themes. Did you consciously set out to bring these factors to the attention of your readers?
It’s funny because I didn’t consciously set out with this, or any, agenda – I just set out to tell an exciting and tender story. However, I find that as a story unfolds I’m often struck by how the themes I really care about do seem to come sneaking in at the edges. Appreciating and protecting the wildlife around us is something I care about deeply and never has there been a more essential moment to unlock conversations with children about the natural world and their role within it. Perhaps books are a way to spark these important conversations and open up the possibilities of change.
Several mental health charities for children, such as Place2Be and the Anna Freud Centre have encouraged young people to spend time in the fresh air to de-stress. Do you hope that reading about children adventuring in the natural world might encourage your readers to step away from their screen-based devices and spend some time connecting with nature?
I would never claim to be an expert in children’s mental health, but I do think there’s enormous power in connecting with the natural world – for children, for adults, for everyone – and perhaps reading adventurously, reading wildly, can go some of the way towards unlocking that power. Saying that, I do think there is value in screen-based activities too (building communities; learning collaborative skills; finding a sense of belonging) and I certainly don’t see time spent outdoors as a panacea. But, for me, I simply love being out in the natural world and I can definitely see why mental health charities are exploring these possibilities.
The chapter heading images throughout the story seemed to suggest the circularity of life, how reassuring do you think this aspect of nature might be for your readership?
A lot of what I write is about acceptance. In the Wild Way Home Charlie and Harby learn to accept that dreadful things can happen, but if we stick together and help each other then we’ll be OK. In The Way to Impossible Island Dara and Mothgirl have to each accept that they are different from the mould that their respective worlds have shaped for them and that they can celebrate themselves and each other for who they actually are. It was important for me to convey a message beyond a simple ‘happy ending’ – although my stories are fantastical in lots of ways they are grounded in our real world and I feel that in life it’s more helpful to accept than to seek to ‘fix’ things (like death or illness) which are difficult and inherently ‘unfixable’ and out of our control.
Thank you again Sophie. I was absolutely captivated by this book, and I am sure it is going to be hugely enjoyed by many, many readers; hopefully whilst sitting under the shade of a tree during the last few weeks of the summer term or the long summer holidays.
Thank you so much, Veronica. It’s been lovely to answer your interesting questions. I wish you best of luck with your job and with your University course. Have a lovely summer!
I am hugely grateful to Beatrice at Bloomsbury Children’s Books for my review copy of The Way to Impossible Island and for inviting me aboard the blog tour for this truly amazing book. Highly recommended for confident readers of 9+, for parents or carers to read aloud and share with children of 8/9+ and for Key Stage 2 classrooms who might be studying UK landscapes in their geography curriculum. Do stop at all the other blog posts on the tour!