This fantasy story is a clever and satisfying blend of fairy tale and ecology. A short read with fast paced chapters and illustrated throughout, it is a perfect choice for children who are emerging as independent readers. It is so important to be able to give children a wide source of reading material at this age and I feel sure that the combination of strong child protagonists, mythical animals at risk from poachers and an exciting plot will entice many readers of 7+.
From the opening line
In the morning her life turned upside down, all Rowan could think about was the race against her best friend Bellapage 1
I was gripped by the narrative and literally did not put the book down until I had finished it. I think this is a reflection on the beautiful plotting which gives children enough detail but allows the space for their imaginations to picture the setting, aided by the charming black and while illustrations by Joe Todd-Stanton. My mind conjured up a sort of mediaeval fairytale landscape, of a palace enclosed by city walls with a dark, mysterious forest wilderness beyond.
When we first meet Rowan she is living a happy carefree life inside the city walls where her father works in the royal stables and she enjoys playful days running around the city and clambering up its walls and towers with her best friend. However a war is raging with the neighbouring kingdom of Estriaand as the threat of invasion comes ever closer, her father sends Rowan and her mother away to the care of a grandfather that she has never met before. Initially Rowan is unsettled by this dislocation into the depths of the forest, but her natural affinity with her grandfather’s wolf Arto means that she soon settles in to the snug wooden house where grandfather uses his healing powers, tending to a succession of injured animals and humans.
On her first exploration in the forest beyond Grandad‘s fence, Rowan soon discovers the source of the strange rumbling sounds that disturb the peace of the forest. A patch of smouldering grass, a broken eggshell which seems much larger and thicker than any she has seen before, lead her to a small, frightened, injured dragon which has been left behind after poachers have dragged away its mother. From this point in the story the unconditional love and care of animals, both real and mythical drives the actions of Rowan her two new friends, Will and Cam.
I do not want to give away any plot spoilers but will say that the level of peril and tension is perfectly pitched for a readership of 7+. The ecological message of the threat of extinction caused by poachers who kill magnificent animals believing that their horns contain mythical powers written with a light touch, but the parallels with real life will not be lost on the intended readership. I think that this element of the story will appeal to the great sense of justice and concern for wild animals displayed by many children. In addition to being a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, I think that this book could be used in primary schools as part of class discussions around animal welfare and protection. I am delighted to see that a second book in the series is due to be published later next year.
I am most grateful to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy of Wildsmith into the Dark Forest in advance of publication on 2nd February 2023.