November 27th, 2018.
It is a wolf.
A wolf in London.
‘Run Wild’ Gill Lewis’ most recent book, was published in July by Barrington Stoke, a publisher specializing in books that appeal to, and make confirmed readers of young people who may have challenges with reading, or who might just be reluctant readers. In addition to being short and well-written, Barrington Stoke stories have dyslexia-friendly features, such as special fonts and tinted pages that make for a more reader-friendly experience. Lewis’ story, with characters and a story that grab the reader straight away, will no doubt be enjoyed by any young person looking for a good read…
‘Run Wild’ revolves around two London middle-school girls’ quest for a place to practice skateboarding, away from school bullies. This leads them to discover a new space, but also much more… When they come across an old abandoned gasworks near the river, the girls soon realize its chain-link fence encloses not only a quiet retreat, but also several untamed features – and inhabitants. Nature has stubbornly held on here: in wild plant life, native insects, birds and, most unexpected of all, an injured wolf… an animal many have only encountered in fairy tales. This presents a huge dilemma – how to help this wild creature, and also retain their special place. As one of the girls thinks, ‘It’s not a wasteland. It’s a lost world. A hidden wilderness.’
In recent years the importance of having regular contact with, and a deep appreciation of nature, especially for children and young people who live in urban areas, has become a concern. Finding opportunities for developing meaningful connections with a wilder world is vital, if we are to care enough to save our planet..
A former veterinarian, Gill Lewis had a deep knowledge of, and affinity for animals. Her books for children (‘from eight to twelve, though I hate to be so limiting…’), have covered a range of issues, many of them controversial and timely. An example is ‘Sky Dancer’ (published in 2017 – see previous writeup and interview with the author on this site), set on a grouse shooting estate in the Yorkshire uplands. Its main characters grapple with both sides of issues around persecution of the iconic Hen Harrier by Grouse shooting estates in the UK. Ms. Lewis has won several awards for creating compelling stories which animate and educate young people on a range of social and ethical issues, often involving wildlife.
I found in this most recent book, as I had in ‘Sky Dancer’, believable characters and compelling scenarios. Ms. Lewis is able to seamlessly weave her stories and subjects, subtly drawing threads from her characters and her conservation issue simultaneously, without being didactic… Her books create worlds that readers return to eagerly… even those of us MUCH older than twelve : )
Gill Lewis was kind enough to agree to a short email interview.
Note: Some readers may not have heard the term ‘rewilding’. George Monbiot, arguably the world’s best environment writer, is also one of the most prominent and vocal supporters of this approach to the natural world. He writes, in his best-selling book ‘Feral’, that after being introduced in the dictionary in 2011, ‘…it was already a hotly contested term.’* For a short video of Mr. Monbiot outlining his definition, please see the link at the end. Another definition I came across recently was in the book ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree (highly recommended!), where she writes:
‘Rewilding is restoration by letting go, allowing nature to take the driving seat. In contrast, conventional conservation in Britain tends to be about targets and control, doing everything humanly possible to preserve the status quo, sometimes to maintain the overall look of a landscape or, more often, to micro-manage a particular habitat for the perceived benefit of several chosen species, or just a single, favoured one.’ Also, ‘Allowing natural processes to happen, and having no predetermined targets to meet, no species or numbers to dictate the plan, is a challenge to conventional thinking… Rewilding – giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself – is largely a leap of faith.’
Q: Several of your stories have revolved around conservation-based issues. What was the inspiration for this one?
There were several inspirations behind ‘Run Wild’, but I think all those can be traced back to my childhood of growing up on the edge of the city of Bath. I lived in a house that had a very long and steep garden. Beyond the garden, through a hole in the hedge, was a scrap of council-owned land that had been unused and unwittingly allowed to grow wild. It was a small woodland of thickets and young trees, and fox runs and badger holes. My friends and I spent hours there. We called it The Woods. We built dens, climbed trees and became part of the wildlife. In The Woods our imaginations took us to the Amazon Jungle, to prehistoric lands where we had to evade dinosaurs and to wild wastelands of other planets. I dreamed of finding an injured tiger or wolf or golden eagle that I could rescue and look after. We were unsupervised and left to play, knowing we had to look out for each other. The Woods seemed vast and endless to us as children, but in reality it was a very small patch of urban space allowed to be wild. Yet it was important vital space, not just for wildlife to flourish and grow wild, but for children to feel connected to the earth and grow wild with it.
Yet sadly, the site of The Woods was ‘developed’ for housing long ago. And I wonder where do the children living in those houses now have a chance to explore and climb trees and build dens? Urban gardens are often unfriendly towards wildlife; monoculture lawns, non-native plants, use of pesticides and weed-killers… and a human obsession with ‘tidiness’.
Nature is becoming somewhere to go for an experience, where children are more likely to be supervised and told what to do. Seeing wildlife is becoming a tick in the box, rather than allowing a child having time to observe and explore questions for themselves.
With ‘Run Wild’, I wanted to return to my own childhood of a wild place in an urban area. I thought what if my child characters find a wolf in an urban wild space? What if? Where does the wolf come from? And what will the children do to protect it? I wanted the wild space to take the children out of their comfort zone, to become a place where they have to make decisions and where it gives them space to explore, to imagine and to forge unlikely friendships. I wanted them to do what I had been unable to do and to try to protect their wild space.
Q: ‘Run Wild’ takes place in an urban environment. Was the story influenced by rewilding projects in cities that you have heard of?
There are many great rewilding and green urban space projects in cities.
The Wildlife Trusts have many sites:
There is a movement to improve life in London by connecting people with green space:
I chose to focus on the location of London as a city because brownfield sites in and around London are the last stronghold of the rare and threatened Streaked Bombardier Beetle. We are often aware of threatened mega-fauna such as rhinos and elephants, but there are the smaller species that have the potential to become extinct quietly without much fuss. In ‘Run Wild’, when two of the characters discover the explosive qualities of these beetles, they are hooked to find out more about the wildlife within the site of the disused gasworks.
Q: Rewilding is also about increasing biodiversity. We have heard shocking news recently about huge reductions in populations of invertebrates, birds, wildlife in general and their habitats, worldwide. Rewilding includes bringing back larger animals such as beavers and wolves for the benefits they bring for trees and flood reduction, and also encouraging a wider diversity of animals and plants in the landscape. Are there any projects or proposals in the UK where these animals are being reintroduced?
Certainly there are projects where beavers are being introduced. There are talks about reintroducing the lynx to mountain areas and the white-tailed sea eagles to Norfolk.
The work is being carried out by Scotland the Big Picture who are working towards a vision of a wilder Scotland through repairing and restoring ecosystems and possible re-introductions of species: (https://www.scotlandbigpicture.com/)
Q: Are there any rewilding projects that you feel are especially of interest in the UK or elsewhere?
I too have read Isabella Tree’s fascinating book ‘Wilding’ and think it opens up many questions about how we can manage both urban and rural areas to benefit people and wildlife through rewilding. I am very interested in the large-scale rewilding work such as is happening in Carrifran (http://www.carrifran.org.uk), but I’m also interested in community-led rewilding of small areas. Near my home in Somerset, about forty acres have been converted from pasture to young woodland and meadow and I love seeing the birdlife thriving there. Last summer I regularly saw a barn owl hunting over the long grasses. This is in stark contrast to the surrounding dairy pastures that have no field margin for barn owls to hunt prey. Wild areas are vital to provide a green patchwork and corridor for wildlife across the country.
Q: You have written several books that introduce young people to serious conservation issues. The characters and conflicts in your books are brought to life by your insightful writing and an informed, balanced perspective on the issues. How do you go about researching your books? Does the story come to you first, or do you focus on an issue, then write a story to ‘inhabit’ it? Or perhaps a melding of the two?
I think it’s the melding of the two. For example, in ‘Sky Dancer’, when I heard about the plight of Hen Harriers in the UK, I wanted to find out more about the reasons behind the near-extinctions of this bird there, and I researched as much as I could. Of course the research brought me to the driven Grouse shooting industry and to the intensive land use of the Uplands. But a story only becomes a story once there is a character to tell it. I wanted to find a character who was central to the issues, one who has divided loyalties who could see all sides of the argument, but has to choose their own path. So Joe, a gamekeeper’s son became the narrator, and ‘Sky Dancer’ is his story.
Q: As a prolific author do you have a particular schedule you follow for your writing and research? Are there particular challenges you’ve encountered juggling family life and your writing career, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I don’t have a strict schedule, but I do try to plan my time. The biggest challenge is finding headspace; the still moments to dream and imagine and then to attempt to translate those thoughts and images into the written word. I try to ensure I have realistic deadlines and plan to write or allow myself thinking time each day. I’m a slow writer. If I have managed 1000 words in a day, that would be a very good day. Some days just mulling over a plot or character is enough. In fact, finding the time to think without distractions is the biggest challenge of all.
Q: Finally, I know you’ve just finished ‘Run Wild’, so a much-deserved rest is no doubt in order, but do you have any plans for future projects upcoming?
Yes, indeed! I have another book with Barrington Stoke which I’m very excited about, but can’t tell you about yet at the moment. It has a bird at the heart of it.
I also have another novel with OUP being published in January called ‘The Closest Thing to Flying’. This book was initially inspired by hearing that the founding members of the RSPB were women who were fighting against the use of feathers and birds in fashion. The story has developed as a story about women’s empowerment and how a chance finding connects two girls from very different backgrounds who live over a hundred years apart.
Sounds intriguing! Thank you for taking the time to answer these, Gill, and to you and Barrington Stokes for a review copy… Wishing you the very best in your future endeavors!
Earlier books by Gill Lewis include ‘White Dolphin’, which Kirkus Reviews describes as, ‘A satisfying stranded-dolphin rehabilitation and an edge-of-your-seat sailboat rescue… (Lewis) evokes the natural world beautifully, with compelling descriptions of the surprising undersea and shoreline wonders that support the strong environmental message.’, to the conflicts around bear bile farming in ‘Moon Bear’, and also ‘Sky Hawk’, a story of ‘…two children in a Scottish village and two rare birds, about real death and imagined death, about secrets and community…’ (Goodreads, comments).
‘Sky Hawk’ was also adapted into a stage production which toured schools in Wales in 2014. There is a link at the end to find out more.
NB: For educators: Free teaching workshops about ‘Run Wild’ available from Barrington-Stoke in partnership with Rewilding Britain: https://t.co/pg66ug5O2b
To find out about Ms. Lewis’ other books, please see her website: http://www.gilllewis.com/web/
*To hear George Monbiot’s definition of ‘rewilding’ watch short video, or come in around 2:27: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rZzHkpyPkc
Here is the link to a blog post about the theatre adaptation of ‘Sky Hawk’: http://gilllewisauthor.blogspot.com/
There are several rewilding organizations in the UK and in Europe. Here are a few links to some of them, and some previous or upcoming projects:
Note: all photos are by Jo Turner.