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An Interview with Gill Lewis

Firstly, congratulations Gill on celebrating the 10th anniversary of Sky Hawk! Sky Hawk was your debut children’s book and went on to win the 2012 UKLA Children’s Book of the Year and the Green Earth Book Award. How did you celebrate this special landmark?

Thank you I’m so thrilled to be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Sky Hawk. Much has happened in the last 10 years since Sky Hawk was published and the success of osprey conservation continues to grow. Ospreys are now a regular feature on many Welsh waterways. And in Poole Harbour, near me, ospreys have recently been reintroduced. So, I celebrated the 10th anniversary with a wonderful trip to Poole Harbour going out with Poole Harbour Birds to see the ospreys fishing. And it was the best celebration of all.

Sky Hawk tells the story of Callum and Iona who form unlikely friendship when they pair up to protect a rare osprey in a remote part of Scotland. What was the original inspiration behind your story, and why was writing this book important to you?

I remember seeing an empty swallows’ nest in our sheds on a cold New Year’s Day and wondering if children in South Africa were watching the same swallows that my own children had watched in our summer. I thought of all the hazards birds face on their long migrations and how their safety depends upon safe passage; safe resting spaces, food supply and free from trapping and persecution. I chose to write about the osprey because it is a big iconic bird that has been regularly fitted with satellite trackers. It’s also a symbol of conservation success having been brought back from extinction in the UK.

Having been driven to extinction during the Victorian era, ospreys have since made a remarkable conservation comeback with nearly 300 breeding pairs now in the UK. What’s your favourite facts about these birds?

I find it totally and utterly remarkable that the young ospreys travel alone, both to and from the breeding and feeding grounds. How to they do that? How do they travel thousands of miles along routes they have no experience of? We really don’t know. We can make guesses, but the migration of animals is so poorly understood. It makes me think that there must be so many patterns of behaviour hardwired into all animals, including ourselves.

Ospreys are also zygodactyl, which means they have two toes facing forward and two facing backwards. (most birds have three facing forward and one backwards.) Presumably this is to help catch and carry fish.

© Bird Spot

As well as touching on the importance of friendship, bravery and hope, Sky Hawk offers a powerful insight into migration, nature and climate change. What do you hope readers take away from Sky Hawk?

I hope that 1) readers are inspired to look around at what they can see from their own front door and engage with nature. 2) In developing an interest and love for the wild world around them, they develop an awareness of some of the threats facing wildlife and wild places. 3) With awareness comes empowerment, the precursor to change.

I hope that Sky Hawk gives an insight that borders between countries are a man-made construct and that we are connected to people and wild places across the world, and that our survival is dependent upon making those connections and protecting people and wild places too. Next year in 2022, Sacha Dench, a conservationist and explorer will be flying on her paramotor, following the flight of the osprey to make those connections. Sacha kindly let me interview her and you can listen here.

How much of an impact do you think children’s books and storytelling can have on protecting and preserving the environment?

I believe storytelling can have a huge impact. Story has the unique means of taking a reader by the hand and pulling them into the world they might not have experienced. Storytelling allows the reader empathy; to feel what the protagonist is feeling, to see what they are seeing. Storytelling makes a powerful emotional connection and that is paramount to make a reader care. Books, both fiction and non-fiction can empower readers to take action of their own. Books are truly radical beasts.

From the rugged northern moorlands to the lush Cornish coast, the heart of the African jungle to the bustling city of Laos, your books locations and landscapes are at the heart of all your stories. Why is this important to you?

Landscapes define us, and we too have defined landscapes though man’s actions. Often, species of flora and fauna will be found in habitats defined by geography and climate. But humans radically change landscapes too, and not often for the better, degrading the flora and fauna. In Sky Dancer I explore the issue of driven grouse shooting; a debate played out on vast upland landscapes. These landscapes have been shaped through millennia by man to the bare, treeless landscapes they are today. They have been treeless for so long in our collective memory that we think these as normal. More recently, monocultures of heather to produce grouse, cover much of our uplands. Driven grouse-shooting is underpinned by crime and environmental degradation, but is bound up in power, landownership and politics. I want my books to challenge our use of landscape, to create a more sustainable planet. In White Dolphin, I explore the landscape of our seabed, often out of sight, and out of mind but integral to healthy oceans. Researching landscape is very interesting looking at the history, the people and cultures, politics and the natural world.

What are your top three favourite children’s book settings that you’ve read?

1) The Essex marshes in The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

2) The Catskill Mountains in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

3) The beautiful haunting landscape of The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold

For readers wanting to travel in your literary footsteps, do you have any local and/or international hotspots that have inspired your writing?

I am always drawn to the sea, to the west of Cornwall or Wales. But I also love the wild Atlantic rainforests in the UK. But I think that a good story can be told anywhere, from the banks of the Thames, to the banks of the Zambezi. Story, for me, is about finding a character to explore that landscape through story.

Temperate Celtic Rainforest, UK © Woodland Trust

Your life and work has taken you to some of the furthest corners of the world including the wilds of Africa and the frozen lands of the Arctic. Does travelling have a big impact on your writing?

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel. However, like so many people I am questioning the ethics of flying and the environmental harm to the planet. I think it will become more difficult to travel too with Covid. However, I do not think it is essential to travel to explore writing. I think it is more important to stay curious about the world. Some people have travelled the world but remain in the confines of their own world views. For Moon Bear, I did not visit Laos, but I researched the history, the cultures, the landscapes, the food, and the language. I googled street views. I read literature from a Laos and Hmong perspective. Hopefully my obsession to detail won through as I have often been asked for how many years, I have lived in Laos. I would like to travel again, but I think more slowly; by boat and train and by bike. We have extraordinary places in Britain and Europe that would take a lifetime to explore. But often we miss what is on our own doorstep. During the first lockdown, I discovered many new footpaths where I live and found good blackberry picking spots too. And some of the most interesting stories can be found on our own doorsteps if we only choose to look.

On top of celebrating the 10th anniversary of Sky Hawk, you’ve also launched your latest middle grade adventure A Street Dog Named Pup. What’s next for your writing journey?

Willow Wildthing and the Magic Spell is the fourth and final book in the Willow Wildthing series – chapter books for young readers about a group of children playing in urban wildspace. The book is reminiscent of my own childhood, playing imaginative games in woodland, where time and distance expand, and where reality and fantasy blur.

I have also just finished a book about beavers with Barrington Stoke, a story about one girl trying to fit into a new landscape and beavers being the agents of change of that landscape and also the girl’s life too.

You have a wealth of children’s books under your belt, along with a number of prestigious awards, what originally brought you into writing for children? And what do you enjoy most about writing for this audience?

I suppose when I started writing, I wanted to tell a story. I had a desire to write. It was a simple as that. When you write for children, you don’t really write for children, you write as the child you once were, but with a greater ability for articulation of emotions and thoughts. You can’t please everyone, so you have to write the story you want to read, and for me this has always been about wild animals and wild places. Over the past ten years it’s been a real privilege to meet so many readers. I hadn’t anticipated that it would be part of a writing career, but it has been, and continues to be great fun. Perhaps the thing I have appreciated most is being able to develop my own voice to speak out about human and environmental justice. And I hope to encourage young people to use their voices too, because collectively, we can all bring about real change.

Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring children’s writers?

The most important thing is to stay curious about the world. Why? Is a word children often use, and adults seem to lose the capacity to use it. So, keep on asking, ‘why?’. Expand your world view by reading, listening to others and observing the world. And practice writing; experiment, have fun, push your boundaries and learn from your mistakes. Write about what makes you laugh, what makes you cry and what makes you angry – this way you will engage your readers. For me, character is everything in a story. An exciting plot but with dull characters doesn’t engage me. Yet, a story told through character can be powerful whether or not told on a high-octane adventure, or monologue in a bus queue.

This question is about your favourite children’s/YA books! What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now, and a book you can’t wait to read?

A book I loved as a child: Snow Goose by Paul Gallico because it made me a reader.

A book I love now: Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan because of the extraordinary marriage of words and images

A book I can’t wait to read: I’ve heard a lot about Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and I’m going to dive in and give it a go.

If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only bring one thing with you, what would you bring and why?

My dog. If you own a dog, you probably know the reason why. And if you don’t know why I’d take my dog, please read A Street Dog Named Pup!

If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictional – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

Oh this is a hard one. I’d invite Remy, the rat from Ratatouille to come and cook and because he’s kind and funny and a great cook. I’d like to invite Ruth Tingay who is a conservationist and writer of the Raptor Persecution blog, because she has a sharp wit, is very knowledge and takes no nonsense from anyone. I’d invite Roy Dennis the osprey expert and conservationist behind the reintroduction of ospreys and white-tailed eagles because I’d love to know more. I’d invite Etta Lemon, one of the founders of the RSPB because I’d want to ask her why she didn’t support women’s suffrage when she fought so fiercely for the birds. And I’d invite my eight year old self because I think she would be interested in what the other people had to say, although suspect she would probably want to spend her time nattering with a talking rat in the kitchen.

Gill Lewis is a multi award-winning children's author and activist for environmental justice and change. Her books explore our human relationship with the natural world. She lives on the edge of the Somerset Levels and writes from a tree house in the company of squirrels.

Gill Lewis is a multi award-winning children’s author and activist for environmental justice and change. Her books explore our human relationship with the natural world. She lives on the edge of the Somerset Levels and writes from a tree house in the company of squirrels.

Sky Hawk 10th Anniversary Edition is published by Oxford Children’s Books.


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