With the war looming, Rowan and her mother flee to the Dark Forest, meeting Grandpa and his white wolf Arto for the first time. Though she misses her father, Rowan makes new friends and explores the forest herself, even rescuing a baby dragon from poachers along the way. Soon Rowan discovers that she is a wildsmith and must rise to the challenge when danger threatens the forest. We had the honour of chatting with Liz Flanagan on Into the Dark Forest.
Such a fun adventure! At the beginning of the story, Rowan is being whisked away because war is coming. What do you think Rowan’s parents could have done better to prepare Rowan for the big change?
Thanks so much! As writers, we want to kick stories off with a dramatic change – that’s why Rowan’s life alters completely, all in one day. Rowan’s parents have tried to protect her by not telling her the truth about various things, including the war that’s brewing, the fact that she has a grandfather, or that he is a wildsmith – someone with the magical gift of healing and talking to animals. That’s an instinct I recognise! Even in my own ordinary experiences, there’ve been times when I’ve tried to protect my kids, when trusting them with a simple version of the truth would’ve been better.
While I’m sure how much the kids would love this, how did you, being a parent, feel seeing Rowan always going off on her own?
What we feel as parents might be the opposite of what works for stories! In middle-grade fiction you often see characters who are orphans or who have huge amounts of freedom, just so they can be the ones to make choices and be at the centre of the action. This is something I had to be reminded of, working on this series with my wonderful editor Tilda Johnson: that Rowan had to be the one to solve the problems – she’s the star of the show! And for me, that’s one of the reasons I love fiction, to have adventures that are quite different from real life.
And actually, what do you think us adults can learn from Rowan?
I had a lot of fun writing Rowan, so thanks for this question! She’s brave and curious, often putting others before herself – including all the animals she rescues. However, she can be a bit stubborn and grumpy, so she’s not perfect by any means. But she is kind, more than anything.
There are many animals, both usual ones and magical ones, in Wildsmith: Into the Dark Forest. Why did you pick dragons to be our main focus in this book?
I love dragons, as you can tell from my writing history! They work so well in stories because they make things happen, with their power and ability to fly and flame. But the dragons in this book are young and still vulnerable. When I was writing this book, we were fostering cats and kittens, who all had different personalities and problems. So those kittens definitely inspired me – I wondered if kittens might be quite similar to baby dragons with their playing and pouncing and learning to hunt? The four red dragons in the story are totally based on my favourite litter of foster kittens!
And where in the UK would you recommend readers to visit to enjoy nature?
Ah, we have so many amazing landscapes to explore! I’d say there are beautiful wild places in every corner of the UK, so seek out the ones near you. I grew up here in Hebden Bridge, with its steep wooded hills, rivers and moorland. So for me, this is my favourite beautiful place to enjoy nature, and I love to get out there most days with my dogs. There are so many footpaths, I’m still finding new ones. Having said that, I was watching Attenborough’s Wild Isles last night and it really made me want to explore the far north of Scotland!
Other than being a fun adventure, Into the Dark Forest also teaches readers the importance of conservation. What can young readers do to help this cause (maybe not catching the poachers themselves)?
For me, connecting with nature and spending time in it is a great way to begin, then you might feel empowered to start taking small steps, which all add up. Whether it’s making a bug hotel, or a bird or butterfly feeder, putting water out for birds and animals, or doing a litter pick, there are lots of great options to choose from, and there are wonderful conservation resources online aimed at children. I’m also mindful that it’s easy for children to feel overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility, so with my own kids, I’ve found examples of successful conservation actions around the world, and we might also talk about how it’s the job of large companies and governments to lead on the action we so urgently need, too.
The illustrations done by Joe Todd-Stanton are amazing! Did you give him any guidelines? And which part of the illustrations do you love the most?
I love the illustrations so much and feel very lucky that these stories are illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton! He manages to add so much emotion and atmosphere to every single picture, and I am in awe of his talent. Yes, I did give an illustration brief which detailed how people were described, their ages and clothes, etc, so that his art matched the text. Otherwise, it’s all down to Joe’s incredible imagination!
We have so many questions and we know book 2 is coming out in April. What can we expect?
Yes, book two is due to arrive any day now, and I can’t wait to see the finished version. The story carries straight on from book one, with Rowan starting to embrace her gifts as a wildsmith, though she is still missing her father and her friends from the city. Then her dad arrives in the middle of the night with a pegasus foal who has been caught up in the war. Rowan and the pegasus bond deeply, but when their enemies close in, who can she trust? I really hope readers will enjoy Wildsmith: City of Secrets too, and there are two more books coming next year!
Thank you so much for these questions! You can find out more at lizflanagan.co.uk