Guests invited by Oxford Children’s Books to meet Gill Lewis at a recent dinner were given unusual gifts: a net of bird food and a Wildlife Trust mug! But how appropriate for someone who was discovered, before she could walk, under a hedge feeding an injured hedgehog, and who became a vet before she took up writing. More surprising to me when we met the next day, was finding out that this award-winning author of four novels, all of which reflect her passion for wild animals and wild places, had such a troubled relationship with reading at school. She really struggled with the rigid reading scheme and totally lacked confidence about reading. This held her back to the extent that she was not even ‘allowed’ to do O-level English since her school did not think she would pass!
Fortunately she did have a huge love of stories, and adults who read to her, and it was through reading to her own children that she rediscovered children’s books. As a child struggling to sleep she found she had to tell herself stories. Often these would be stories about animals. She loved looking at museum wildlife displays but always wondered what the living animals had been doing just before they were caught and would lie in bed imagining their lives. Telling stories became a family custom and from there it did not seem such a radical step to actually start writing them down.
But school had taught her one valuable lesson: if you want something you have to actually work for it, as she did, retaking her A-levels to get into veterinary school. This proved a useful life experience too when she was struggling through the endless series of rejections which followed her early writing competition success and the publication of a picture book (The Most Precious Thing) in 2006.
Deciding that she needed to work at being a writer too, she enrolled on the M.A. in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. A ‘brilliant course’, it gave her the space and time to commit to writing and eventually to produce Sky Hawk (2011), which publisher Liz Cross described as Oxford’s fastest ever acquisition. This despite Gill having received early feedback from one agent – who must now be kicking themselves – to the effect that ‘animal stories are old fashioned and don’t sell’. Winning critical acclaim and multiple awards Sky Hawk was far more than an animal story.
Each year since then has produced another vivid, character-led and engrossing story: White Dolphin, Moon Bear and, most recently, Scarlet Ibis. We agreed that what these books all have in common is a complete lack of both sentimentality and anthropomorphism (subject of a college essay apparently!). Gill described toying with the idea of a psychic connection between Kara and the dolphin in White Dolphin and rejecting that because she realised she only wanted to write about the real world. As a vet she has often observed how the very real emotional connection between people and animals can bring out the best in human beings and enhance their lives. Scarlet Ibis focuses memorably on a special relationship between an autistic boy and birds. In fact this gritty and moving story of a young carer struggling to hold her family together is the least likely of her books to be characterised as just an animal story.
Each of her books has taught me something new and, according to Gill, curiosity was the very best thing for her too. Research is obviously a real obsession: ‘It makes you realise how much you don’t know,’ she says. In the case of Moon Bear, it was discovering that Laos had been the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world, one bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. She is particularly thrilled that Moon Bear has now been sold in America despite this dark episode of their history.
Making a difference and showing children that they can help change things is very important to her. Her next novel Gorilla Dawn promises to be equally hard hitting, involving research into the war torn Congo, the mining of the so called ‘blood’ coltan used for mobile phones, and the impact on both gorillas and people. This is again a very different culture and environment, but she fundamentally believes in the universality of human feelings and emotions. I think too that part of her success is not overburdening a story with research, however fascinating the details may be.
Guests were also given another clue as to how Gill might find her way into her characters: a beautiful sketch of Imara from Gorilla Dawn. She thinks her anxieties about reading and writing as a child turned her into a very visual thinker. Her creative process always begins with sketching her characters and then extends into copious notes and diaries before she ever starts work on telling the story. ‘I try to get to know them inside out, although quite often they still surprise me while I am writing the story too.’
2015 will also see a surprise for her fans. She has written a series for 7-9 year olds. Puppy Academy, which launches in July, is about a school for working dogs. She fully admits these are actually funny school stories full of human characteristics that children will recognise – the a-word no less – but also filled with a vet’s experience of dogs and, as ever, the reader will learn something. Each book will feature an actual working dog and a link to its relevant animal charity. They even managed to find a police dog for Scout and the Sausage Thief that hadn’t been involved in age-inappropriate drug busts!
I was very glad to see that the covers of this new series are definitely not cutesy and should appeal to both genders, as indeed all Gill’s books do. This is just one of the reasons she is justifiably so popular with librarians and teachers, many of whom, I suspect, like learning things with this multi- talented author just as much as I do.
Formerly Learning Resources Manager at Coventry Schools Library Service, Joy Court is a consultant on reading and libraries, Chair of the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Medals, and reviews editor of the School
The books, all published by Oxford Children’s Books:
Sky Hawk, 978-0192756244, £6.99 pbk
White Dolphin, 978-0192756213. £6.99 pbk
Moon Bear, 978-0192793546, £6.99 pbk
Scarlet Ibis, 978-0192793560, £6.99 pbk
The Most Precious Thing, Little Tiger, 978-1845063726, £5.99
Gorilla Dawn will be published in the autumn. Scout and the Sausage Thief, the first in the new Puppy Academy series, will be published in July.