Sally Nicholls is no stranger to prize lists. She won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Glen Dimplex New Writer of the Year award for her debut novel Ways to Live Forever. That was followed by three more novels, Season of Secrets, All Fall Down and Close Your Pretty Eyes, all published to critical acclaim. Yet the reception for An Island of Our Own, which won the Independent Book Week Book Award, was shortlisted for the Guardian Award and has been shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Children’s Book Award, came as a huge surprise to her! Why?
‘An Island of our Own is a much more light-hearted sort of book than my previous novels and I was a bit worried that people were going to say it’s quite a slight book compared to the others; when it started winning things it was just lovely!’
Sally has written about a boy dying of leukaemia, the Black Death, and a psychologically damaged young girl haunted by the ghost of a mass-murderer, subjects that can certainly be described as dark. What then was the background to An Island of Our Own?
‘Scholastic said they wanted a family story, though they did say an angsty family story, and the pitch that I sent was all dead parents, no money – that kind of thing, but I’d just finished writing Close Your Pretty Eyes, which is about a girl who has got a mental illness, and while she was a very interesting character to write, she was also a real pain, because you couldn’t get her to do anything, she didn’t think it would change anything, didn’t think it was worth doing anything because she was so unlovable. It wasn’t until I came out of it that I thought actually I didn’t enjoy spending a year and a half in this child’s head. When I sat down to write this book I thought that for my own health and happiness I want to write about someone who is happy and optimistic.’
Holly, the central character and narrator in An Island of Our Own does have a lot to cope with: her parents are both dead, and she and her younger brother Davy are looked after by her big brother Jonathan, who is just 18 himself. Money is tight, and life is tough. Salvation appears in the shape of eccentric Aunt Irene who leaves Holly her jewellery in her will. The trouble is, no one knows where the jewellery is. Holly is undaunted, convinced that a bundle of photos her aunt gave her hold the clue to the whereabouts of her treasure, and determined to track it down. Sally explains: ‘For the book to work Holly needs to be an optimist and be that driving force. When I wrote the synopsis I thought there’s a real danger that this is Jonathan’s story. On paper it should be his story, because he’s the one who needs to provide for this family, but it’s a children’s book, it has to be Holly’s story, so she has to have this big personality in order to wrest the story back from Jonathan and make it hers.’
Holly finds all sorts of help and support in her treasure hunt on the Internet, and via the techy community workshop Makerspace in particular. ‘A lot of what the book is about is the Internet,’ says Sally. ‘For some people their experience of Twitter is being hounded by harridans while for others their experience is of this supportive community that helps them to achieve wonderful things. In children’s books, and YA in particular, people latch on to all these stories of people using the Internet for nefarious reasons – pretending to be someone they’re not, that kind of thing, but I’m a writer, I live on the Internet, I sit behind my computer until I’ve written a thousand words and that’s quite a lonely existence so like a lot of writers I reach out to all these other people who are also sitting behind their computers. My experience of Twitter was universally positive and I think Holly is the sort of person who will elicit a pleasant reaction.’
While set firmly in the 21st century, An Island of Our Own still has the feel of a classic children’s adventure story. How did Sally approach it?
‘I thought what sort of story do I want to tell? I’m a very eclectic reader – it’s one of the reasons why my books are so eclectic. I mention Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom in the back of the book, which is a book about the kindness of strangers, and I was thinking about Saffy’s Angel too, one of my all-time favourite children’s books. I wasn’t trying to copy them, but I thought a lot about why Saffy’s Angel is Hilary McKay’s best book – I love a lot of her books but that is definitely the best, along with The Exiles at Home about the family trying to raise money to feed an orphan: they are her best books because they have this very clear narrative drive – a child who needs to do something. I hadn’t written a book that was quite like that, and I thought I’d like to have a go at a family story that’s also a quest story, I liked the idea that the characters have got to get somewhere and find something. I got really into Nevil Shute at Holly’s age and read my way through the school library’s collection. A lot of them are about technology and I thought if Shute had had the Internet he’d have written a really interesting, positive book about it. His characters are genuinely nice, unassuming, ordinary people, what’s interesting about them is not that their ordinariness is a handicap they have to overcome, their ordinariness is what wins the day and that’s sort of what Holly does, she wins the day by being a nice person and thinking the best of people.'
Holly and co’s hunt for the treasure takes them to the Orkneys, and research for the book included a trip there. ‘I went there when I was writing Ways to Live Forever and loved it. There’s this sense that Orkney is like falling off the edge of the world – you have this vague idea if you live in the south of England – I grew up in the north but I live in the south now – that Glasgow is really north, but if you look at a map of Britain, Glasgow is about half way up. The first time I went I drove with my friend, we were university students, had never been to Orkney or anywhere near, and just decided we wanted to go. I remember we drove and drove all day and finally got to Glasgow, but then there was another whole other day of driving and the country gets wilder and wilder and emptier and emptier, you forget that there’s anywhere as empty and as wild as that in Britain, especially if you live in London like Holly does. Then you get on a boat and it gets wilder still.’
Holly is given a warm welcome by the Papa Westray community, just as Sally and her friend were. ‘We were only going to stay a night but the lady at the hotel said, “We’re having a Burns Night supper, stay for that”. There were 60 people living on the island at the time and about 40 of them came for the Burns Night supper. There’s a wonderful mix of people there too – old Orkney crofters and fisherman, IT consultants, artists – you can’t got to a place like that and not write about it!’
As she continues her search to find her aunt’s buried treasure, Holly is supported by various different communities: ‘As a child I got quite annoyed with how isolated people were in the books I read, characters bundled off to orphanages, etc. My father died when I was quite young, and because of that my mother was always really careful that we knew that if anything happened to her we weren’t going to get sent to an orphanage, I could count about 10 different people who would adopt me and my brother, and only half of them were family. Often in teenage novels as soon as anything remotely bad happens, then the parents collapse. I think it’s quite insulting – I’m not saying that there aren’t bad parents, obviously there are and children who experience that, but most of the parents I know if a child died or they lost their money or whatever, would muddle on doing the best that they could for their children. I’m a Quaker and one of the tenets of Quakerism is that there’s good in everyone. Looking for the good in people is a really interesting tool to use, it is noticeable in arguments on the Internet for example, when people say ‘the Internet was trolling me’ – if you look at what’s being said, it’s just people slightly disagreeing.’ Her view is, ‘If you hadn’t decided you were being bullied, and then insulted those people by calling them bullies, you would probably have ended up having a really interesting conversation. The Internet is full of all little pockets of community and that’s why it works; the reason it has the power to make such an impact on peoples’ lives is because it’s a form of community. All stories are about community really and I think humans are basically kind, that’s what I wanted to celebrate in An Island of Our Own.’
The winner of the 2015 Costa Children’s Book Award will be announced on Monday 4th January 2016.
Andrea Reece is Managing Editor of Books for Keeps, children’s reviewer for Lovereading4kids, and a judge on this year’s Costa Children’s Book Award.
An Island of Our Own, Scholastic Press, 978-1-4071-2433-9, £6.99 pbk
Ways to Live Forever, Marion Lloyd Books, 978-1-4071-5933-1, £6.99 pbk
Season of Secrets, Marion Lloyd Books, 978-1-4071-3048-4, £6.99 pbk
All Fall Down, Marion Lloyd Books, 978-1-4071-3534-2, £6.99
Close Your Pretty Eyes, Marion Lloyd Books, 978-1-4071-2432-2, £6.99 pbk
Shadow Girl, Barrington Stoke, 978-1-7811-2313-3, £6.99 pbk
A Lily, a Rose, Barrington Stoke, 978-1-7811-2196-2, £6.99 pbk