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Children's and Young Adult

Rachel Hickman recommends the best Novels Set in Wild Places

Rachel Hickman, co-founder of Chicken House Publishing and author of One Silver Summer selects books with wild settings that have appeal to older children. She discusses how a strong use of nature adds drama and meaning to a narrative, and the way that setting can become another character in a story entirely.

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Rachel Hickman

Rachel wanted to work in children’s books since joining the Puffin Club as a child. After a childhood spent in Hong Kong, she studied English and Publishing at Oxford Brookes, before beginning a career that has now spanned more than 30 years. Throughout her career, Rachel has worked with the most famous names in children’s publishing including Roald Dahl, Dick King-Smith, Ursula Moray Williams, Roger McGough and Posy Simmonds.

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Rachel Hickman

Rachel wanted to work in children’s books since joining the Puffin Club as a child. After a childhood spent in Hong Kong, she studied English and Publishing at Oxford Brookes, before beginning a career that has now spanned more than 30 years. Throughout her career, Rachel has worked with the most famous names in children’s publishing including Roald Dahl, Dick King-Smith, Ursula Moray Williams, Roger McGough and Posy Simmonds.

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Your own book for young teens takes place in wild Cornwall and incorporates many fairytale aspects.

Yes, it’s a modern fairytale, dreamy and romantic in its depiction of a beautiful coastline and crumbling castles, while also down-to-earth in describing outdoor life, and working with horses. I wanted somewhere that could more than mirror my characters’ mix of emotions: grief and love, hurt and guilt, as well as the inner conflict that goes with the responsibility of fame, wealth and status.

Cornwall and its wild coast – how did this setting help you?

I’ve seen Cornwall in all its moods. It’s a place of darkness and light. I love the lushness of the landscape, the drama of the coastline and the way the weather can change so easily. I wanted it to reflect and shape what was happening in the story, as this is an unapologetically emotional book.

I grew up in Hong Kong, a tiny island of mostly concrete jungle so I used to immerse myself in books set in the British countryside. I think this had a direct bearing on my reading choices.

Tell me about your first book choice: A Devil to Ride (1976), by Patricia Leitch.

Certainly this is the first book that I remember loving for its setting. I was horse mad, but what I loved most was the idea of a girl my age growing up with all this space – and a wild horse she has rescued. There is a particular image of Jinny and Shantih galloping across a windswept Scottish beach that has never left me. There weren’t many horses in Hong Kong except on the race track!

Leitch conjures a sense of place, as well as the profound bond that young people can form with animals. 

I think that with wide-open space comes freedom: freedom to express yourself and be anything. So when my Scottish heroine, Jinny, saved – and tamed – an exotic Arab horse in such a foreign landscape – as a young reader, I inhaled every word.

A Devil to Ride is part of the Jinny of Finmory series aimed at teenage girls.

Yes, A Devil to Ride is the second in that series, which began with For the Love of a Horse. There are twelve books in total although I am not sure how many are still in print. When I look at my old Armada editions each book seems so short. As a publisher now, every book we print seems four times as fat. As gatekeepers, I think we often choose over-layered or too literary stories, forgetting their primary purpose is to entertain. There’s something to be said for really simple, straightforward and, yes, possibly derivative series like this because for the first time reader, there’s magic to be found – in this case and my own, a heady combination of horses, bravery and independence that’s really potent.

Books like these become so much a part of people’s lives. They are formative, so they carry on being important to us long after we’ve out grown them. Your next book, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1936), has a very different tone.

I was in my later teens when I discovered Daphne du Maurier, an author I still love today. Frenchman’s Creek is usually the obvious romantic choice for young adults, but the book that gripped me most was the dark, gothic and truly scary Jamaica Inn. The way Du Maurier uses setting to create atmosphere and immerse you in the action is fantastic. Bodmin moor in Cornwall is truly another character in the book – all that mud and sweeping rain!

“Even the thick mists that descend around them is like a physical presence. It cloaks everything with a menace and secrecy that the reader must stumble through ”

The weather shadows every key moment isolating the reader almost as much as the heroine, Mary Yellan, however Mary is made of sterner stuff, and ultimately the freedom the landscape offers is transformative.

Jamaica Inn is incredibly dark. It’s English folk horror, especially towards the end, and even today wrecking is a sensitive subject. 

It is, but we have to remember local people were starving. Smuggling and salvaging what washed ashore meant survival. Of course wrecking was horrible – but nothing is ever black or white, and the subject makes for thrilling reading.

And again, the setting: those dangerous seas churning and crashing up against the rocks and the relentless stretch of the moors. The characters are up against nature. 

Absolutely. Even the thick mists that descend around them is like a physical presence. It cloaks everything with a menace and secrecy that the reader must stumble through.

Your next choice,Wuthering Heights (1847) is perfect gothic – and underlying it is a kind of sensual horror.

Daphne du Maurier must have been deeply inspired by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as both stories are cut from similar turf, if different wilderness settings – Wuthering Heights is set on the Yorkshire moors. Neither stories are comforting reads, but they are books to get lost in.

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I recently read both close together and there are undoubted similarities, however it is the power of Bronte’s love story that stands the test of time. One of the most memorable and passionate moments in Wuthering Heights, is when Cathy compares her men to nature: Linton to the soft foliage of the trees while Heathcliff is the eternal rocks beneath. I love that paragraph.

“In Wuthering Heights once again it’s the landscape that underlines the choices the characters must make”

In Wuthering Heights once again it’s the landscape that underlines the choices the characters must make. Cathy must choose between the grand house in the lush valley: protected, comfortable and tame; or the wild, exhilarating  bleakness of Wuthering Heights. It’s one of those books that reminds us that as humans often we must decide between following our heads or our hearts.

Where do you want to go next?

I wanted to include two acclaimed books published by Chicken House in which the settings are central to the stories, but above all exotic. Both juggle familiar story ingredients – young heroines separated from those they love, who embark on perilous journeys to dazzling, dangerous places to find out who they are and what they are made of.

Book four, then: The Island at the End of Everything (2017) by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

This is a story about a young girl who is uprooted from her simple, happy home on a tropical island called Culion in South East Asia – a place where she feels secure despite the shadow of her mother’s illness. A place that is beautiful in every way imaginable until the day she is forcibly taken away by the government because her mother has leprosy. Furthermore, the island is to become a colony for lepers.

“I think you can tell that I’m not one for gritty realism. I love books that take you away from the humdrum of everyday life”

Taken to an orphanage on the mainland by boat, all that Ami can think of is finding the opportunity – and the courage, to run back to her island home. You feel the heat and humidity; see and smell the extraordinary flora and fauna. All the beauty in an extraordinary cloud of butterflies that so contrasts with the ugliness of a disease like leprosy, and the fear it creates in people.

There’s a quote on the back of the book that says it all: “There are some places you would not want to go. Even if I told you that we have oceans filled with sea-turtles and dolphins, or forests lush with parrots that call through air thick with warmth. Nobody comes here because they want to. This is the island of no return.”

Finally, The Wolf Princess (2012), by Cathryn Constable.

In The Wolf Princess, instead of a tropical island, the reader goes on an extraordinary adventure to Russia with three school friends – not that this is any school-trip, but an amazing steam-train ride through snowy forest to a grand, but dilapidated, onion-domed winter palace! Though this story is set in the present-day, it somehow feels as if you’ve been plunged into a Russian fairytale from the past: a frozen world of lost diamonds where you must travel by horse-drawn sleigh. There are white wolves howling outside the windows at night. And the best thing is that it’s somehow so entirely believable. From the comfort of their own home, the reader gets to travel with those girls. This is escapism in books at its very best.

“From the comfort of their own home, the reader gets to travel with those girls. This is escapism in books at its very best ”

I think you can tell that I’m not one for gritty realism. I love books that take you away from the humdrum of everyday life. Imagination allows anyone to see and experience the danger, beauty and freedom of wild places. From the safety of a sofa, you can be surrounded by white wolves, or waist-deep in snow in a Russian forest; bobbing about on a small boat as it navigates its way to a distant tropical island, or galloping along a windswept Scottish or Cornish beach.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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