When Nature turns deadly
4th Feb 20

When Nature turns deadly

Imagine a world where a disease carried by ticks has made nature deadly to humans...NICOLA PENFOLD tells us about her new book, WHERE THE WORLD TURNS WILD.

WHERE THE WORLD TURNS WILD follows two children and their escape from an enclosed city into the 'wild' - the land beyond their city walls. This is a dangerous journey to make because the children live in a future where a disease carried by ticks has made the natural world deadly for humans.

We asked author NICHOLA PENFOLD to tell us more:

Q: Can you tell us what is Where the World Turns Wild about?

A: It's set in an imagined future where, because of a deadly man-made disease, people live crammed together in cities, where no trees or animals, and barely any plants, are allowed. Outside the cities the natural world has rewilded itself. It's lush and green and wilder than ever.

My main characters, a girl, Juniper, 13, and her younger brother, Bear, were born out in the wild and have resistance to the disease. The siblings become aware they're part of a sinister plan by city authorities to go back into the wild and strip it of resources. Juniper knows they need to escape. From then on, it's a journey and a survival story.

Q: Was there something you saw or read that helped inspire the ideas for Where the World Turns Wild?

A: There were a few things. There was a book I read called Last Child in the Woods. It was written in 2005 and it's the book that coined the term 'nature deficit disorder' - the idea that our society has become disconnected from the natural world, and that this is bad for our mental and physical health.

I was aware of large numbers of articles and reports about this growing disconnect - children spending less time outdoors, lack of access to green spaces, rise in screen time, rise in depression and anxiety.

Then in 2015, and this is well documented now, a group of writers, conservationists and artists, including Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, wrote a letter to Oxford University Press, protesting against the removal of some nature words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Bluebell, conker, fern, kingfisher, moss had all gone, and in their place were broadband, celebrity, chatroom, cut-and-paste.

Now we have the beautiful The Lost Words celebrating some of these things, but that replacement really saddened me. That was really the start of my story. I wanted to write a rewilding adventure. I wanted to show what nature deficit disorder might look like applied across a society, so that I could then show the total opposite. A world where nature had got the upper hand. A world humans could feel in awe of again.

Q: How long did you spend creating this world, or did it develop as you wrote?

A: It actually came to me almost fully formed. It was the juxtaposition that got me. A city constructed from concrete and metal, crowded, a shanty town in places, where people lived in fear of any kind of wild plant or animal. Then outside, across a barren buffer zone that's drenched in insecticide and herbicide, a rich, verdant, wild landscape, where people never go.

All the city locations were there in the beginning too - the school, the climbing centre, the glasshouses that grow the city's only plants (desert plants mostly - cacti and sedums). I went back and added detail of course, but the city felt real to me from the beginning. I had it mapped out in my mind.

Q: The novel follows siblings Juniper and Bear and their journey from an enclosed, sterile city back into the wild. Do you feel many of today's children are also very separated from nature?

A: I think lots of us are more separated from nature than we used to be, not just children. Our homes are closer together. Lots of 'spare' land has been built on. There are more roads and much more traffic. We have fabulous playgrounds, and amazing indoor play centres, too, if you can afford them - climbing walls, trampoline parks, and so many fun things to do, but it's not the same as being outside. There's something about being in the trees that's good for us.

Also, when I was a child, my parents just seemed to know what everything was - birds, trees, wildflowers - but with my own children I realised how much of that knowledge I'd lost. The names had slipped away. I think we (and I'm including myself) have got separated. We've become distracted with other things. It's lovely seeing the love and enthusiasm for The Lost Words. People don't want to lose nature in their lives. They want to reconnect.

Q: What would be your greatest fear, if you were making the same journey that the children make?

A: Aside from the foremost concerns of staying alive, I'd have a big question in my head: what's at our journey's end? Has the Ennerdale community survived? I think Juniper feels a huge responsibility for Bear and sometimes worries she's taking him on a fool's errand.

Q: Why did you decide to give the children the company of Ghost, a lynx?

A: It's a long and lonely journey the children take. It felt they should have some kind of protection. Ghost was part of my book from the beginning and she was always a lynx. They are incredible animals: secretive, solitary, beautiful.

They're also a bit of a poster child for the rewilding movement because they are a keystone species - a top predator that we've been missing in the UK for hundreds of years. Their reintroduction could help control deer numbers, preventing overgrazing of our woodlands and allowing vegetation to recover.

Lynx also felt fresh. There are lots of stories about bears and wolves, other icons of rewilding, but I couldn't think of any about lynx cats.

Q: Did you need to do any research into rewilding to help make the novel authentic? Where did you go for the research?

A: I went to Ennerdale, which is Juniper and Bear's destination in the book. It's a valley and a lake in the Lake District National Park. It's one of the most remote and the most westerly of the lakes. Really I should have walked in, from the mountains, but I didn't. We were with our children, a couple of whom were at the 'too small to walk long distances but too big to be carried' stage. By then I was well into writing and it felt like a pilgrimage, like Juniper and Bear were close by, if only I could see them.

I also did really simple things - going outside at night in areas without much light pollution, going into the cold and really trying to think what it felt like.

I saw lynx cats at Whipsnade zoo, but it's always hard seeing animals like that in captivity. I much preferred a beautiful book called The Lynx and Us, by David Hetherington.

For the city section, I went to glasshouses, but this wasn't really research, it just became a hobby. There's something about the light and them being halfway spaces: not entirely inside or out. They are fantastic places to photograph.

It's perhaps a cop out, but what I really did was imagine. I spent so long daydreaming my way through the two separate worlds: the city and the wild. And daydreaming Juniper and Bear too. I could hear their voices in my head and they felt real.

Q: What would you like young readers to take from the novel?

A: I want them to go outside, into nature. I want them to look up at the tree canopy and listen to birds singing and hold a conker in their palm.

Q: Will you be returning to Juniper and Bear's world, to see what happens next?

A: I'm not writing a sequel yet, but would love to at some point. In my head, Juniper and Bear are still in Ennerdale. It's a bitterly cold winter and they're hunkering down. I'm starting to think what might happen next.

Q: When are your best times to write, and where do you prefer to write?

A: I prefer to write in the morning and I'm best in a captive environment: a train, a waiting room, a library, a coffee shop. I'm terrible for being distracted! Most of my best ideas come when I'm out and about however, so I try to always carry a notebook for scribbling.

Right now I'm writing a second book for Stripes and it's set beside the sea. It's another imagined future and, like Where the World Turns Wild, it's about our connections with nature.

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