More trees please!
When I was a kid, there wasn't much on the telly. There were no computer games. And I don't remember many playgrounds. So we made our fun on the streets. Roads were fine for football, (just try not to smash the windows of the parked cars). Any patch of grass became a rounders pitch, (dodging the dog mess, of course). And if you were lucky enough to live near some trees, well, the potential for adventure was endless. Tree climbing. Den building. And enough shadows, strange noises and weird rustlings to create a whole world of jeopardy.
When I started writing the second book in the Agents of H.E.A.R.T series, I knew I wanted to set it in a forest. And the fact it was an American forest meant I could throw in the odd moose or two, because who doesn’t love a moose. The idea for Camp Out Quest was born. And it got me thinking about why woodland settings are such a draw in children's fiction.
We’re shaped by the books we read. And many of my childhood favourites were set in woodland… From AA Milne's stories of Winnie the Pooh to the chilly landscape of the Narnia forests in CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George was another favourite. It told the story of a 12-year-old boy, who runs away from the city to live by himself in the Catskill Mountains. It was unsentimental, tough and essentially a how-to survival guide. As a kid who went to seven different schools and was frequently an outsider, this book was perfect escapism. While I might not have had the guts to try it myself, reading this story made me believe I could, if I wanted to.
The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford was a story we listened to on a cassette tape in the car on one of our many, long-distance family expeditions. Despite living in Scotland with breath-taking scenery on our doorstep, we often headed to Cornwall for our holidays. So there was plenty of time for talking books on a 12 hour car journey! And this story, (along with the Hound of the Baskervilles and the Guns of Navarone), was one my brother and I could agree on.
Set in the Canadian wilderness, the Incredible Journey followed the epic quest of three pets travelling hundreds of miles together to find their family. This story had everything – animals, trees, adventure… did I mention the animals?
But perhaps my favourite, was The Mystery of the Island by Isobel Knight. Although it wasn't set in a wood, it had a similarly wild location – a remote Scottish Island with kids fending for themselves. There’s a chapter halfway through the book, when the siblings have to take to the seas, and row around the island in a leaky boat in the middle of the night, to save their father’s life. It was a section of the book I returned to regularly. There was something about the daring, the bravery and the ultimate victory of the brother and sister over the elements, that felt inspiring and immensely comforting.
Part of the draw of this book is the realistic, sibling relationship, arguments and all, which is another common theme in my own stories.
I shared many adventures with my older brother. He was, (and remains), my captain. Wherever he went, I wanted to go, too. And luckily, he usually allowed me to tag along.
And it is the same for my own kids. Their unsinkable bond inspired me to write the picture book Star in the Jar, the story of two children rescuing and returning a lost star.
Adventures, big or small, are at the heart of all my books, with children being allowed the freedom and independence to explore together, to solve their own problems, rely on one another and build up resilience. And woodland settings offer the perfect playground to practise these skills. Of course companion animals also help! Did I mention the puppy?
Having a dog was my childhood dream. I would nag incessantly. I’d encourage stray dogs to follow me home from school and I took every opportunity to help with other people’s pets. Thank you to the owners of ‘Niffy,’ the black Labrador who lived next door. And to friends who allowed me to share their pets – especially Linda Davidson. Not only did she have the coolest glasses, (NHS 1980s blue frames; I loved them for their colour, smart box, and special cleaning cloth), she also had the best puppy ever – an energetic spaniel; every kid’s dream!
Unfortunately, I never got the dog. But hopefully Evie in Camp Out Quest will be luckier. After all, she’s got the Agents of HEART to help her. And what better place to enjoy a Happily Ever After, than in the Big Woods just north of Lime Bay. Hope to see you there.