My love affair with islands began in my childhood; I lived in land-locked Surrey, but I read and re-read a battered second-hand book called Early Morning Island by R.M. Lockley, the story of eight-year-old Ann’s summer on the island of Skokholm (South Wales). As I read, I became Ann and I lived her island life. My friend Linda and I played out the adventures of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons in the woods near our homes, with imaginary boats on our own imaginary island. Later, as a sixth former, I saw an unforgettable, magical production of The Tempest at Stratford: the island as place of wonder and transformation.
The reader became a writer. As a student, I visited the islands of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for the first time, and saw the Northern Lights from a tent on a remote beach, and years later, that experience found its way into my novel This Northern Sky. I revisited the Outer Hebrides to research my story, and landed (eventually, after a wild storm at sea) on the island of Tiree, and found a ‘real’ story about conflict over wind farms that informed my imagined one. My visit fed into an island story for younger children, Seal Island, and I discovered the joy of drawing maps as part of my writing process. Reading Michael Morpurgo’s Why the Whales Came to my sons inspired us to take the boat to the Isles of Scilly, and the rocky island of St Agnes became the setting for my teen novel, Breathing Underwater. Writing about that wild, beautiful island became a way for me to explore loss and grief, and to evoke the freedom that my own children found when we camped on an island with no cars.
Set apart, remote from our ‘ordinary’ lives, islands offer a sense of wildness and possibility: anything might happen there. On an island, young people can have the kind of freedom to be outside, and to be or discover themselves, rarely found in contemporary urban lives. In a remote place where there is little traffic, children can be free to run, play, cycle, explore and live much more independently of adults. All kinds of adventure seem possible. That’s a gift for a writer. And the small, ‘complete’ world of an island seems to suit the scope of a novel.
My most recent novel for young people, To the Edge of the World, borrows many details of its island setting from a real place, the islands of Grimsay and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, where I have stayed for several years with writer friend Nicola Davies. I wanted to create a vivid sense of the wildness, the spare beauty and remoteness of this place, with its vast, empty beaches and wide, open skies, the potential for adventure, but also the real risks and the dangers. Without risk there can be no adventure.
In my story, Jamie has recently moved to the island. He loves the new feeling ofbelonging somewhere (his family have been island boat builders for generations), but he is deeply fearful of the ocean. He makes friends with a girl who appears fearless – she sails her own boat, she doesn’t go to school, she lives a life on the edge of things. The adventure that follows depends entirely on the wild island setting – and its location, sixty-five kilometres or so from the last, remote outcrop of islands and sea-stacks, with the highest sea cliffs anywhere in the UK: St Kilda. The islands at the edge of the world.
I shall never forget the moment when the cloud on North Uist lifted, and the distant but distinct, dramatic shapes of the remote St Kilda islands appeared in silhouette on the horizon. The story of St Kilda and its people had haunted me – and so many people, I subsequently discovered – for years. A place that had an almost mythic force in my imagination became a reality.
The dangerous sailing adventure I describe in my novel was one I made in my imagination. But while I was writing, my own adventurous grown-up son was embarked on an extraordinary sailing journey of his own, which took him and one friend in a very small sailing boat across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and to a tiny French Polynesian island. I like to think his adventures were at least in part inspired by the stories of island adventures he read as a child. My experience of hearing about his voyage (scarily, only intermittently) fed directly into my writing of my adventure story.
Yes, islands have a peculiar magic of their own. They call to our imaginations. And reading and writing adventure stories set on fictional islands is a safe form of voyage for those of us who might be too fearful of the real thing.
Julia Green’s novel To the Edge of the World is published by Oxford University Press.
Julia is the author of 17 books for young people. She is Professor of Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, and Course Director for the MA Writing for Young People.