In her books Where the World Turns Wild and her latest novel, Between Sea and Sky, Nicola Penfold explores how climate change might affect our future world, and how societies will adapt to the challenges they face.
Nicola, who was born in Merseyside and grew up in Doncaster, studied English at Cambridge but completed a Computing Science masters at Imperial College London before turning her hand to writing. Her debut, Where the World Turns Wild, was shortlisted for the first Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize in 2017. It was also selected for SCBWI's 2018 Undiscovered Voices anthology.
Nicola lives with her husband, four children and two cats in North London, and escapes when she can to wilder corners of the UK for adventures.
Find Nicola online: Twitter: @nicolapenfold, Instagram: @nicolapenfoldauthor, and
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Between Sea and Sky (Stripes Publishing)
Like her debut Where the World Turns Wild, Nicola Penfold's new book Between Sea and Sky introduces a future world where societies have had to take on new forms to meet the challenges of climate change. Between Sea and Sky explores a costal society governed by harsh rules, but where signs of hope are also emerging.
Nicola Penfold introduces the themes she explores in Between Sea and Sky:
Q&A with Nicola Penfold
1. What is Between Sea and Sky about?
Between Sea and Sky is set in an imagined future where sea levels have risen and pollinators have declined. Characters refer to the 'Hunger Years' and large-scale civil unrest. Things are a bit better now, but tight restrictions remain in place - travel bans, a one child policy, compulsory shifts in various food production plants. Plus a prison ship, brooding out on the horizon for anyone that breaks too many of the rules. My book features two illegal sisters living at sea on a ramshackle old oyster farm with their dad, and a boy, Nat, who lives on land. It's about how their separate worlds come together.
2. If you could choose two or three lines to highlight from the novel, what would they be?
Nat is telling one of the sisters, Clover, about the stilted compound which is his home. He says when it was being built, local children thought the authorities were building a spaceship - that they'd found a new planet humans could start again on. Clover asks, innocently, if there was another planet. Nat tells her no.
"There wasn't anywhere else to go, was there? Planet Earth's all we've got."
This is the salient message in the book. There is no Planet B. We have to look after this amazing planet we're lucky enough to have.
3. Between Sea and Sky is, like your debut Where the World Turns Wild, a novel about a future where climate change has radically altered how we live. What drew you back to this theme for Between Sea and Sky? How realistic is this 'future' for the UK, given the current science?
As a writer, not a scientist, I pick and choose the bits of science that interest me and feel good for a story. But there is real science to all these things. We're suffering a colossal climate and biodiversity crisis. These things come hand in hand and need tackling together. Pollinator decline is already happening and will lead to much greater, and more devastating, food shortages. We need to look at alternative methods for food production, whilst doing everything we can, quickly, boldly, to protect all life on earth, including our amazing insects, who do so much for us. And, as terrifying as this is to think about, sea levels are rising, and many coastal communities are under threat from floods and storm surges.
3. Why do you enjoy writing dystopian fiction for younger readers? How do you make these future worlds menacing - but without losing hope for the future?
I couldn't write without hope! Some of the more menacing forces at work in my books, I've actually left quite unexplored - the shadowy institutes in Where the World Turns Wild, the prison ship in this book (we only see the library and the kitchen!).
I think having the darker edge to the stories feels important. It's important the characters have something to fight against, that it's clear this is a world that needs changing. But straight away, as I write in bad things, I instinctively come up with counter-forces. In Where the World Turns Wild, I couldn't, it seemed, write a city totally devoid of nature - straight away in that vision, were also these beautiful glasshouses. And on land, in Between Sea and Sky, where there's so little freedom, straight away, these characters were on bikes, escaping, finding their freedom in fields of solar panels, playing elaborate dare games.
So hope comes in two forms in my books: the natural world of course, but also human spirit at its best, which is almost always most evident in the children.
4. The prison ship on the horizon is a constant reminder to the community of what can happen if anyone steps out of line. What gave you the idea for this?
I think it came from Great Expectations, the book by Charles Dickens, which I read as a teenager, but most especially the old black and white film adaptation, which I adored watching as a child. The main character in Great Expectations, Pip, meets a shackled convict, Magwitch, in a churchyard. Magwitch has escaped from a type of prison ship called a Hulk, moored out in the murky marshland. This always really haunted me. I can't resist including a Dickens quote here!
'By the light of the torches, we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah's ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison-ship seemed in my young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners.'
6. Were there any new areas you needed to research for this book?
Yes! I looked into soilless farming - vertical stacks of plants grown hydroponically (in nutrient rich solution) and in artificial light, for the growing tower in the book - a converted cooling tower from an old power station. I didn't need to use much detail from this research, but it helped me to know it was possible to grow salads and vegetables like that.
I researched restorative ocean farming too, which is a hugely exciting area to think about. So rather than fishing, which is effectively hunting, and which depletes and damages our ocean environments, ocean farms can be overwhelmingly positive.
Seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide (actually at a much greater rate than land-based plants!) and helps de-acidify ocean environments. This is great for shellfish like oysters and mussels, whose shells become brittle in acidic conditions - so growing seaweed side by side shellfish makes real sense, and shellfish can further filter and clean the seas.
Seaweed is useful in lots of other ways too - it soaks up excess nitrogen, provides oxygen, it provides nursery grounds for young fish, we can eat it, we can use it as a fertiliser and as a biofuel, it can protect coastal communities against storm surges… It has also been shown that including seaweed in the diet of dairy cows, reduces the amount of methane in their burps and farts. This is all great news for climate change! Seaweed is the future!
7. Butterflies play an important role in this story - why did you want to make pollinators so central to this story?
Pollinators are really important to our lives, even though they go about unnoticed a lot of the time. Not just bees - wasps, ants, hoverflies, beetles, birds, bats - these can all be pollinators. And we need them - over a third of flowering plants rely on pollinators. As pollinators decline, so does the amount of fruit, nuts and vegetables. But there's much more to it than food. These flowering plants also help clean our air, our soil and our water.
Books about a loss of pollinators have been done before - I was inspired by How to Bee by Bren MacDibble and Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari. I chose butterflies because the process of metamorphosis a butterfly goes through seemed really fitting for this book. A small egg that can go unnoticed, a tiny caterpillar, hidden in leaves. Then the chrysalis stage - the waiting, before the beautiful butterfly emerges. In a way, in my story world, the characters are all in a chrysalis stage; they're waiting, even if they don't know it, for something to change. For new hope. For life to get better again. The butterflies become symbolic of this.
...And did you find out any interesting new facts about them?
Butterflies are amazing! I found out things like:
• Butterflies have taste receptors on their feet!
• Butterfly wings are actually transparent, but they're covered in thousands of tiny scales which reflect light in different colours.
• Butterflies don't eat, they drink, through a long kind of drinking straw called a proboscis. They don't just drink nectar - they sometimes drink from muddy puddles to get vital minerals. They even occasionally drink rotting dead animals!
8. The story follows two families, one that lives at sea and one that lives on land. Why did you decide to tackle difference in this way?
I wanted to challenge myself as a writer by trying dual narration. I love voice in a book, and I wanted to prove I could create two distinct voices. I also knew this was the right approach for this book - to look at the world from two perspectives: a girl who hasn't set foot on land for years; and a boy who has grown up being told the sea is dangerous and something to be kept away from. What will happen when their worlds collide? And imagine experiencing the sea for the first time!
9. Which life would you choose, if you found yourself in their world?
I'd love to live at sea, like Pearl and Clover. To be able to swim, to find treasure in the mudflats. I think the sisters in this book have the greater variety - this landscape is washed clean and changed every single day by the tides. And of course they have each other! But despite this, Clover especially is lonely. She's longing to meet new people, and to feel like her life can truly begin. We all want to feel we can move on, I suppose, and that different futures are possible for us.
10. Have you ever tried eating seaweed, like your characters?
Great question! I think only in sushi actually - the type called nori. I really like sushi (veggie only as I don't eat fish!). I'd like to try more types of seaweed - I need to be more adventurous!
One of my favourite foods is samphire, which isn't seaweed, but is a sort of sea vegetable. It grows in marshland and salty mudflats. This is in the book too.
11. What is the one change you feel we could all make to our lives to avoid this kind of future happening?
Gosh, there are so many things. One thing I'm passionate about is letting areas grow wild. I think the days of a pristine, close cut green lawn, should really be in the past (except for a few mostly sport related exceptions perhaps!). I'm a big advocate of wildflowers, long grass, piles of old leaves and wood to encourage insects, minimal mowing…Wherever we can, we should make space for nature. All these spaces add up - they soak up carbon, they're great for biodiversity. They allow us to live alongside and closer to nature. It basically all comes back to rewilding, to giving nature space.
12. Do you enjoy writing, or is it a struggle?
I love writing, but I'd be dishonest to say it's not a struggle at certain times. I think the hardest thing for me is the juggling of time - making space to write, when other things also compete for my time - family, chores, promoting the books I've already written, health, life, everything!! What I love is the sense of flow you sometimes get, when the story takes over, when it's all there coming together in your head, and it feels a race to get the words down.
13. What are you currently writing?
A new story set in the Arctic! Expect ice, and polar bears! And a wooden hut - I'm slightly obsessed with wooden huts!
14. What are your favourite things to do when you're not working?
It's the obvious answer for me, but I love spending time in nature. Going for walks in the woods, or by a local river. One of my favourite things of all is being by the sea, especially on a beach good for treasure hunting - for fossils, for example on the Jurassic coast, at Charmouth or Lyme Regis, or one that's good for sea glass and old bits of pottery. Reading too of course - that's a given!