Myths, Forests and Childhood Stories: Into the Witchwood by Méabh McDonnell

Writing.ie | Magazine | Children & Young Adult | Interviews
Into the Witchwood by Méabh McDonnell

By Méabh McDonnell

Walking Into the Witchwood . . .

‘When you’re in the dark forest, you’re afraid. You feel as though it might be the end of the story: you might be lost forever. But it’s never the end of the story, and that’s another thing that fairy tales teach us.’ – Heroine’s Journey: The Dark Forest by Theodora Goss

Fairytales and mythology are the tools we use to escape the dark forests of our lives – that’s true for adults but even more so for children. We learn lessons from those stories that stick with us. Lessons about culture, lessons about empathy and lessons about life. Children’s books and fairytales have had that impact on my life, as a reader, as a bookseller and now, as a writer.

My first novel, Into the Witchwood, came from the fairytales and places that made me believe in magic as a child. It tells the story of 13 year old Rowan, who is on a mission to rescue her mother from the clutches of a terrifying Witch. The same Witch lives at the heart of the woods beside Rowan’s home, which were directly inspired by Kylebrack Woods in Co. Galway. I walked through those woods frequently in my childhood and during the first lockdown I found myself there again.

The heart of the woods is the place where most heroines in fairytales find themselves trapped. Woodlands are incredibly potent magical places in Irish stories too. There is ample mythology and folklore surrounding Ireland’s trees and woods. The more I wrote Rowan’s story, the clearer it became that this story was both a response to the Euro-centric fairytales I had read to me as a child, and to the Irish mythology I had loved too. I delved back into folklore and stories I had forgotten and found hidden gems of inspiration there. Stories about gigantic cats, and powerful wise women, knights trained by fierce female warriors, even magical hags in wells. Elements of all of these stories found their way into the Witchwood.

The stories that inspired me were accompanied by the books I read as a child. I grew up in the 1990s, a golden age of Irish children’s writing, with authors like Marita Conlon-McKenna, Eoin Colfer, Cora Harrison and John Quinn filling the shelves of bookshops and local libraries and schools. My own interest in Irish culture and mythology was spurred on by stories of children in the famine, ghosts on landlord’s estates, and fairy magic that could be manipulated by child geniuses. My passion for these stories deepened because it showed me new facets of a world that was already familiar to me. They allowed me to travel all over with characters who were Irish too, gave me windows into life in New York, Paris and Tunisia. Reading books by Irish authors made me see that being an author was something I could do too. Once I found a story to tell.

They say write the book you want to read. I did a variation of that. I wrote the book I think I would have wanted as a child. And I tried my best to write a book that would also appeal to children now. Particularly children living in Ireland. As a children’s bookseller in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, I’m lucky enough to spend my days engaging with all of the brilliant new titles in children’s fiction, and see and influence first-hand what goes into children’s hands. I get to talk to kids and their parents about the books that inspire them and the books that give them that magical passion for reading and stories. And I get to read children’s books – which is something I think not enough adults do.

The best children’s books are clever and wise and funny and often possess hidden depths. Because children are clever and wise and funny and often possess hidden depths. I have learned more about writing children’s books by reading children’s books than I think I ever will from any workshop or book about writing. Children’s books are the secret weapon for writers who want to write for children – what other genre gives you a gateway into how to write by placing you inside the mindset of your ideal reader? The calibre of Irish writers passionately filling those spaces today is incredible. They are writing books that reflect the story of contemporary Ireland and can stand right alongside international counterparts, from Katherine Rundell to Catherine Doyle, Robin Stevens to Natasha Mac a’Bhaird, and Patience Agbabi to Patricia Forde.

For me, the key to writing a book for 9-12 year olds, was remembering what it was like to be 12 years old. It was being back in my childhood bedroom, thinking about the woodland that sat on my horizon every day. It was remembering the fears that really plagued me then – the fears of being left alone, of the things I couldn’t see, of realising the world isn’t always a safe place. But it was also remembering the fearlessness that I think all children have. The fearlessness that sends them on adventures. The fearlessness that tells them they are right, that they should keep going, even when all adults would shout stop.

Those are lessons I learned from the fairytales that I loved and the children’s books I was lucky enough to have access to throughout my childhood. They might not have taught me how to escape the woods. But they did teach me how to keep going once I got inside. That’s what I hope children might take from going on their own journey with Rowan Into the Witchwood.

(c) Méabh McDonnell

Into the Witchwood by Méabh McDonnell

About Into the Witchwood by Méabh McDonnell:

I had to see what those whispers meant. I had to go into the wood. Tonight.

Surrounding Rowan’s home is the dark, dangerous Witchwood. At the heart of it, sitting at the bottom of an ancient well, is a powerful Witch. Six months ago, Rowan’s mother went into the woods – and never came back out. Now it’s up to Rowan to save her.  

Order your copy online here.

About the author

MÉABH McDONNELL was born in Dublin and grew up in Loughrea, County Galway. She has worked with the Clare People newspaper as sub-editor and children’s books reviewer and founded and edits cindersmagazine.com. She has an MA in journalism. Méabh has always loved nature and folklore and the mysterious ways they intertwine. During lockdown her daily walks through Kylebrack Forest got her wondering if anyone or anything was watching her – perhaps a Witch?

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from writing.ie delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books