‘We can find wildness all around us’: Gill Lewis on her new book, environmentalism and her favourite books as a child

Published on: 14 November 2018 Author: Anna McKerrow, filmed and edited by Robbie Hunt

Gill Lewis has been one of our favourite authors for older children and teenagers at BookTrust for some time. We catch up with her before the launch of her new book Run Wild.

Watch our interview to find out about the book, what inspired Gill to become a writer, her commitment to 'wildness' and the books that helped transform her from a reluctant reader to a prolific author.

What originally inspired you to write about our relationships with animals?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by animals. I was the child that was out there in the dirt looking for earthworms and beetles and lots of these creepy crawlies, I even had a doll’s house that was this open zoo where I tried to collect all these animals from the outside. I wanted to climb up into the tree and look at the world from the bird’s eye view. The world of animals absolutely fascinated me.

Like all children I had so many questions, like why doesn’t a spider get wrapped up in its own web, how to birds know where to migrate to when travelling all the way from our country to Africa in the summer, I wanted to know all the answers to these questions.

It was really my love of animals that led me on to wanting to become a vet, and up until then I hadn’t really been all that interested in people. But it was through my work as a vet, and really seeing that relationship between people and their animals. Whether it was an old lady and a dog that connected her to local communities and people or whether it was a farmer and how he took care of his cows or how he looked after the wildlife putting bird boxes up for the birds or creating wildlife bonds. That’s how I realised that humans and animals are ultimately connected.

I not only became obsessed with the animals but also the stories that I was hearing about people’s connections to the wild world, and that’s what inspired me to write the stories not only about animals but about people to.

Why was it so important to write about wolves in Run Wild?

In the story of Run Wild, Asha and Izzy find a wolf in wasteland in the middle of the city. I wanted to write about the wolf because the wolf is very much an emblem of the wild. In fact wolves used to live in Britain over 300 years ago, but they were heavily persecuted. They were shot and killed, not only in this country but also across Europe.

Over the recent decades wolves have been coming back to France and to Spain, to the Netherlands and other places in Europe. But we don’t have any wolves in Britain, and it’s a big question ‘should we have wolves up in Scotland, should we be able to see them sliding through the shadows, or should we be able to hear their wild howls at night?’. I think we should, because bringing wolves back in to the wild will not only re-wild our landscape, but it will help re-wild our own selves too.

Why is ‘wildness’ so important?

Wildness is a theme that runs through the whole story of Run Wild. Izzy and Asha find this special place, this hidden wilderness within the city, and for them it’s so important as it’s a space to be away from the troubles of home and school. It’s a place they can feel truly free.

When we talk about being in the wild most people within about it being a remote place in some faraway place in some faraway jungle or up some high mountain, but like Asha and Izzy we can find wildness all around us.

The wild can be that time when your heart quickens and all your sense are heightened, such as if you go at night to watch Badgers in their set and wait for them to come out. For me the wild is a place where you can really challenge yourself in the elements, whether your walking up a mountain or your sailing or kayaking down a river. I think the wild is a place where we can really connect with nature, it’s a place where we can feel free and really and truly feel alive.

There is a theme in your books of children finding solace in the natural world, particularly during time of stress. Why is that?

The emotional bond between children and animals is so important. I’ve seen it actually in my own children. When they were very little we bought out first Puppy Sam who was this black Labrador. Sam grew up with them. Sam would climb in to a cardboard box which would become a rocket ship to the moon, they would sit in Sam’s bed and read books to him and as they became teenagers they would come home and cry in to his shoulder and tell him all their troubles.

Sam became this guardian for them and they really loved him and relied on him. He gave them what lots of animals give to us, which is this unconditional love and friendship.

In doing that Sam gave my children so much more, he gave them the understanding of how to look after and care for an animal. Sadly Sam is no longer with us but he will always be in their hearts and they will always remember him. It’s a bond between them that they will never forget, and that is so true for many people and their pets. But there’s a also a bond between people and wild animals and the habitats and environments in which they live too.

The emotional connection between people and animals is so important and I think it’s something that is often overlooked. I remember a true story that was told to me about this boy, who became the inspiration for Scott in Run Wild. Scott is a troubled boy and as what quite often happens, people put labels on troubled children and it’s very hard to remove those labels without understanding why someone has had a troubled life.

So this true story was about a boy who had these labels put upon him. One day he was out in the woods by himself, he didn’t want to go home and he came across this injured dog that was lost. He found a real connection with this dog, he lifted it up and too it home. He then found out that this old man had lost his dog and was looking for it, so he returned the dog to the old man. It was through that connection when he sat chatting to the old man that the old man listened to this boy, he was the first person that just sat and listened and took time to understand. Together, through that dog, the old man helped the boy turn his life around.

There is also always a strong environmental message in your books, why do you think it’s key that children hear these messages from an early age?

There’s no doubt that wildlife is in trouble. All across the world we’re finding that the biggest problems are habitat loss, illegal wildlife crime, pollution and climate change. Here in the UK we’re one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, in just the last 50 years over 60% of our wildlife has declined dramatically.

That’s in my lifetime and that scares me a lot.

It can feel very daunting, how do we reverse these changes? We can campaign for wildlife, we can ask our MPs and politicians for change, but actually we can all change things right here right now. Many of us have access to some outside space, it could be a balcony, it could be a small garden or a big garden, it could be a school grounds, it could be a park, but all these areas can be re-wilded we can let the wild come back to them.

When we think about it we’ve got over 400,000 hectares of gardens across the UK. So just imagine, just imagine if we let a little bit of the wild come back to each garden, if we put log piles and if we made ponds, let the weeds and shrubs grow so we could provide shelter for birds in the Winter with nesting places. We could really let the wild come back and we’d have this huge network and patchwork of the wild all across the country. That would have a huge impact, we could ditch the weed killers and the pesticides, we could let the wild flourish in all it’s glorious forms. It would be amazing to watch hedgehogs coming back in to our gardens, we could see slow worms in our compost bins, we could see a sparrow hawk flying across in chase of a blackbird. It would be an amazing place.

The problem sometimes is with the adults. Adults have this obsessive need for tidiness and neatness, to trim the borders and pull up the weeds, to have a nice neat lawn; but we want to do away with all of that!

We need to do away with neatness and tidiness because it isn’t wildlife friendly, we need an area where the weeds can grow where we can build a den, we can hide-off off from the rest of the house or the garden where you can just sit in the den and read stories.

In the story of Run Wild Asha and Izzy find this wildlife haven in this old and disused industrial site. The wildlife has gone rampant, weeds have grown everywhere, the animals and birds have come back, there’s a myriad of insects. It’s a beautiful place. But it’s under threat from developers who want to wipe it down, they want to fill it with concrete. Asha and Izzy realise that this is a magical place and they want to save it, but they’re only children. How can they persuade people to save this wildlife from the encroachment of all the buildings.

What were your favourite books as a child?

When I was growing up I struggled with reading. I could see lots of other children progressing along with reading schemes and I was stuck. I was stuck on some of the long words and books without pictures scared me. But one of the books which really introduced me to the world of stories and got me hooked on books was Tintin in Tibet. What I loved about the Tintin stories was that they were really great stories but they were told through pictures and they were easy to follow.

One of my other favourite stories as a child was The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. As a child who struggled with reading, I picked this book up because the first thing that I could see (when opening the book was a picture of this lovely girl. This was Fritha and she’s was holding this wild goose, and when I picked up the book I just suddenly wanted to be Fritha, I wanted to be that girl finding that injured bird and finding out about the story. So many of the pictures spoke to me as a struggling reader as I really needed the pictures to access the words. I think it’s so important that children find the story that speaks to them, because once you find that story your reading will fly.

There was one book that was my absolute favourite and it was a non-fiction book. It was my bible, it was my way in to the natural world. It was The Living World of Animals. What I loved about this book was that it showed the whole animal kingdom, how it was classified. Then it separated the animals in to their habitats, whether or not it was across the Oceans, or arid deserts, or grasslands or jungles. It brought the whole wild world in to my bedroom and that’s why I loved it so much.

Where was ‘wildness’ for you as a child?

Having access to wild space is really important. When I was growing up, I grew up on the edge of a city. We had a really long garden, very steep which went down to this scrubby woodland which was owned by the council. That’s where I went to play with my friends, we went on these amazing adventures in this tiny bit of woodland. We climbed trees and watch out for the foxes than ran through, we made mud pies and dens. It was a place to be far away from adults, just to be ourselves. Sadly that woodland has been concreted over, there are houses there now and I do wonder where do those children who live in those houses play? Where’s there wild space? All over the whole country these pockets of wild space are being covered up with housing or development, and I think we really need to protect wild space.

Gill Lewis' Run Wild is out now.

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