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Writing Climate Change Fiction for Children by Sophie Kirtley

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Sophie Kirtley

Sophie Kirtley

Power to the Readers!

When I heard that my book, The Wild Way Home, had been selected as part of the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge I was so delighted, especially because the theme of this year’s Challenge is Wild World Heroes. Even as a child myself I always felt most at home in nature and this spirit of wildness and wonder infuses everything that I write.

Both The Wild Way Home and my latest book, The Way to Impossible Island, are deeply influenced by the natural landscapes of the north of Ireland, where I grew up. They are also each set partly in the Stone Age and as soon as I began researching the prehistoric world all that we have lost since that time became abundantly clear to me. I felt compelled to explore not only changes to landscape and habitat through time, but also the impact of these changes on my characters.

In The Way to Impossible Island, Stone Age Mothgirl finds herself transported into our 21st century world; she is understandably overwhelmed and flabbergasted by what she sees:

“What had become of her forest? Where were all the trees? Where were the forest creatures? Where were the deer and the boar and the bears? Where were the soaring eagles and the leaping lynx? Where was her home?”

Imagining the reaction of someone from a so-much-wilder, so-much-greener time than now really opened up my own perspectives on the impact humanity has had on our precious natural world.

Just think: seven thousand years ago the very place you are sitting right now would probably have been dense forest. You would have been sharing your corner of the world with amazing animals that no longer inhabit Ireland or the UK: wolves, lynx, bears. And you would be different too – changed by your habitat – the soles of your feet tough enough to withstand thorns and pebbles; your ears, nose and eyes sharp to subtle signs of danger.

When we think of climate change fiction we don’t often associate it with historical fiction, but seeing the modern world through a Stone Age girl’s eyes really brought home to me the stunned shock of what we are doing to our planet. Yet I didn’t just want to wave a red flag, to label the damage and condemn it. I also wanted Mothgirl’s story, and that of her modern-day friend Dara, to somehow be infused with hope.  In fact, I think that’s a keen balance that all of us who write for children have to bear in mind: how can we be honest and true about the huge issues of our times in a way that doesn’t simply terrify our readers?

To me, I really think hope is key. Hope and power. As a writer, I don’t feel like I’m the powerful one; I want to give that role to my readers. I consider it vitally important to allow space in a story for readers to make their own meanings, and to respond in their own ways emotionally too. I try to give my protagonists flaws as well as strengths, to allow them to make mistakes and face the consequences, just so that readers can empathise and identify with them. I also want my child characters to have agency. With agency comes power – the power to change things for the better. That’s where hope lives.

In my books the child characters drive the story forward – both in terms of action and in terms of heart. In The Way to Impossible Island, both Mothgirl and Dara are having to fight back against conventions and expectations imposed on them – neither child is a conventional hero but they do each show great courage by simply standing up to wrong-sighted societal pressures.

This strength to say NO and to stand up for what they believe in is a reflection of the voices of so many powerful young activists within the climate change movement – Greta Thunberg; Mya-Rose Craig; Dara McAnulty, to name but a few. It’s no coincidence that both of my books were written at a time when these voices and the voices of young people in schools and communities all over the world had never been louder.

Young readers are acutely aware of what is going on around them and I feel we have a responsibility to speak about large and important issues, such as climate change, within our story spaces – as well as being a source of pleasure and joy, reading is also a safe way of exploring such frightening and difficult concepts. Books can help us work out ways to respond to problems in the world around us. Reading is empowering. And as writers we can offer real opportunities to our readers to think and question, to react and respond.

Writing Prompt:

Why not take yourself on a wild journey back through time? Simply go outside with your notebook and find a tree – it doesn’t matter what species of tree, just choose a tree that is quite mature. Sit near your tree and imagine if that tree could tell you its story – all the things it has seen, all the people who have passed beneath its branches, all the conversations it has witnessed. Draw a rough timeline in your notebook and pepper it with key imagined moments from the tree’s past. If one of these moments catches your imagination, then go with it, build a story from it, let yourself be transported…

Wild Reading Recommendations:

So many wonderfully wild books have been read by children this summer – transporting readers on a whole myriad of wild world adventures. Here are some of my favourite recent books for children that focus on climate change and appreciating our natural world:

Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

The Wild Before by Piers Torday

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

Wild Child by Dara McAnulty

Twitch by MG Leonard

(c) Sophie Kirtley

Photograph: Sophie Kirtley and her little sister, Amy, in the forest when they were children. Photo credit: James Logan

About The Wild Way Home:

When Charlie’s longed-for brother is born with a serious heart condition, Charlie’s world is turned upside down. Upset and afraid, Charlie flees the hospital and makes for the ancient forest on the edge of town. There Charlie finds a boy floating face-down in the stream, injured, but alive. But when Charlie sets off back to the hospital to fetch help, it seems the forest has changed. It’s become a place as strange and wild as the boy dressed in deerskins. For Charlie has unwittingly fled into the Stone Age, with no way to help the boy or return to the present day. Or is there?

What follows is a wild, big-hearted adventure as Charlie and the Stone Age boy set out together to find what they have lost – their courage, their hope, their family and their way home.

Fans of Piers Torday and Stig of the Dump will love this wild, wise and heartfelt debut adventure.

Order your copy online here.

About The Way to Impossible Island:

Born with a serious heart condition, Dara has been waiting for his Big Operation forever, and this summer it’s finally going to happen. The moment his heart is fixed he’ll row out to the island in the bay all by himself just like he’s always dreamed. But when his op is postponed, Dara snaps. When will he get to live his real life? Maybe the adventures he dreams of are just silly fantasies.
And then he finds a girl hiding in the boat shed. She wears animal skins. She has a real live pet wolf. She is, simply, impossible. Could Mothgirl really be from the Stone Age? And what is she seeking on Lathrin Island? As Dara and Mothgirl set out on a wild, windswept sea journey Dara begins to realise that when you stop worrying about what’s impossible, you can do anything.

A brave, life-affirming middle-grade timeslip adventure about finding your family and finding yourself, from the author of The Wild Way Home.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sophie Kirtley grew up in Northern Ireland, where she spent her childhood climbing on hay bales, rolling down sand dunes and leaping the raw Atlantic waves. Nowadays she lives in Wiltshire with her husband, three children and their mini-menagerie of pets and wild things. Sophie has always loved stories; she has taught English and has worked in a theatre, a bookshop and a tiny pub where folk tell fairytales by candlelight. Sophie is also a prize-winning published poet.

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