‘There are only two sorts of fantasy story,’ says Philip Reeve about Skye McKenna’s debut, ‘the ones that feel fake and the ones that feel real. It’s hard to explain the difference, but you know the real ones when you read them, and Hedgewitch is one of them.’ It’s a description that certainly rang true for me. Hedgewitch tells the story of Cassie Morgan, ostensibly an orphan, growing up miserable in a boarding school, all lumpy potato and bullying. Driven at last to run away, she is rescued from a pack of goblins by a talking cat and delivered to an aunt, previously unknown to her, and the village of Hedgely, which borders an enchanted forest. Once there she is swiftly enrolled in the Hedgely Coven to learn the basics of witchcraft. The spells she struggles with and the local Faerie lore feel utterly real while the countryside of Hedgely is so alive you can hear the leaves rustling in the hedges.
It comes as something of a surprise therefore to discover that Skye was born and brought up in the Australian outback, making her first visit to the UK only as an adult. Where did her love and understanding of the English countryside come from?
‘I think it really started when I was a child. I had an excellent library growing up, not a home library a public library, packed with wonderful books by authors like Alan Garner, books that explore the countryside as an enchanted and mythical place. They really sucked me in to that kind of mythology. I read the Narnia books too, and although they’re largely set in another country, they’re so much influenced by that English pastoral tradition, that when I first came to the UK it felt a little bit like coming to Narnia.’
That visit to the UK was Skye’s first trip abroad by herself. ‘I visited a lot of the places that had inspired some of my favourite books. I went to Alderley Edge of course, and to the Lake District because I’d always loved Arthur Ransome. I went down to Cornwall where Rosemary Manning’s Green Smoke was set – that’s been a huge influence for me as a child and as a writer – and I went to the area where Elizabeth Goudge used to live too. I came in May, it was a sunny and I got to see the best of the countryside and its little villages. I think the idea began forming in the back of my mind after that trip, to write something set in an enchanted English village and I think I pinched bits of all different villages that I’d been to rather than sort of focusing on a real one. When I eventually started to write Hedgewitch they became the village of Hedgely, an amalgamation of all these wonderful places that I visited.’
I wondered if boarding school stories had been an influence too? The scenes at the boarding school also have the sort of realness that Philip Reeve identifies, and as the story develops in Hedgely, Cassie soon gathers a group of female friends from the other trainee witches as they learn their craft.
‘I don’t actually recall reading a lot of boarding school stories as a kid but what filtered through were the fantasy novels I read which sometimes referenced boarding schools. The Worst Witch was obviously a huge influence, Diana Wynne Jones actually occasionally talks about boarding schools as well. As an adult I’ve been reading girl guide fiction published in the 1950s, and so that tone and style of writing definitely influenced me.’
It was a deliberate choice to have a girl gang around Cassie though. ‘I thought for a while about having boy witches particularly in the first
book but you know what, there’s plenty of books out there for boys who get to be the centre of the story and while there are obviously some great female led fantasy books, Philip Pullman’s for example, I’d like to see more where female friendships dominate, not necessarily trying to balance out the male and female characters, but so that girls can see their friendships and their experiences on the page. When you’re writing about witches there are so many stories where there’s prejudice against witches and where they’re persecuted, it comes up again and again including in children’s fiction, and I wanted to create a world where being a witch was respected and something girls could aspire to.’
Although we discover that Cassie’s maybe-not-dead mother was a powerful witch, she’s not naturally gifted at witchcraft, it’s very much something open to everyone, and that requires proper studying.
‘There lots of superhero stories where kids discover that they have some kind of magical power and that can be a lot of fun because it makes us think what kind of skills do we have that we don’t know about but I thought it would be more interesting to think what if ordinary people could do magic and any girl could train in it like any other skill, playing a musical instrument or horse riding or anything else they were interested in. In Cassie’s world, magic doesn’t come from inside the hero, it comes from the natural world and the magical world around you.’ The better their understanding of that world, the better their magic. She adds that their training is based on Brownie and Girl Guide rules: ‘that’s an environment that welcomes everyone.’
Cassie’s spells are created from plants you’d find in English hedgerows, with the odd added invented ingredient – lanthorn for example, which proves very important. It felt so real though that I looked it up.
‘Most of the fungi that the girls encounter is real, and I wanted a mix of natural history so that kids could go out and look for some of these plants, but I also wanted some really magical fairy ingredients that you could only find in Cassie’s world and the lanthorn is one of those.’ Skye researched medieval spells and potions for the book having become interested in the history of practiced magic while at university.
‘It’s a really rich and interesting field. Even up to the Victorian era you have ‘cunning folk’, sort of practicing magicians who work for the community. Sometimes they’re con artists but sometimes they genuinely have an interest in herbal medicine. People would go to them like they would go to a doctor now for example but with different magical problems: “I think my cow is cursed”. They’d give you a spell or they’d give you an object to make that problem go away, so the witches in the book are very much inspired by that.’
Talking about magic brings us to The Hedge – the mysterious border between Cassie’s world and the Faerie world. I love those in between, liminal places.
‘I love them as well’ says Skye, ‘and you used the word liminal. It’s a very academic word but I think of it all the time particularly when it comes to The Hedge, because it’s a place that’s not fully in our world but not fully in the Faerie world either. And it’s a forest, and the wonderful thing about it being a forest is that you can’t see its edges, so you don’t really know how big it is and once you’re in it you don’t really know when it ends. Every time I send Cassie back into The Hedge, I really love writing about it. It’s a medieval thing as well – the savage forest where anything can happen. It’s important for me that this story took place on the border between these two worlds. There are lots of great stories where there’s place that’s on the edge of a magical world – Garth Nix’s Abhorsen stories for example – and you very quickly end up in this magical kingdom and spend the rest of the story there. I’ve always wondered about what it is like actually living on the edge though, what’s it like living in a community that’s halfway between two worlds so essentially in The Hedge they’re in that liminal space. Book two will go a little but deeper into The Hedge and explore what it means to be right on the edge of the Faerie world and what it means to the fairy characters as well as the human characters.’
The good news is that there will be five books in the series. Skye is settled in the UK now too, so able to look for more inspiration in the UK countryside.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Hedgewitch is published by Welbeck Flame, 978-1801300087, £12.99 hbk. Illustrations are by Tomislav Tomic.