I was lucky enough to request and receive a copy of this from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.
Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold, illustrated by Kate Forrester
Lily, Amy and Mary all got to this first, and all both loved it and knew I would too, and they were so right! In fact it’s one if those books I’m going to struggle to review because finding the words to talk about why I liked it so much feels impossible, but I shall try!
As the climate crisis worsened and humans did more and more damage to the environment, it became clear that neither they nor it could survive much longer.
A small group of environmental campaigners, the ReWilders, release a tick which causes an awful, and fatal, illness killing millions and sending the remaining population into walled cities.
Stay with me if you’re currently thinking “this doesn’t sound like a hopeful MG book with moments of joy and natural wonder.” It is, we just haven’t got there yet.
Juniper and Bear live with their Grandmother, Annie Rose, inside one of these walled cities, but they are misfits, outsiders (literally as they are almost unique in having been born in the wild to Rewilder parents) and they yearn for nature in this place where it is forbidden. There is no real weather, and no flora or fauna save for cacti; any living thing which does make it in is destroyed and even books and images featuring nature are banned.
The plan has always been to try to reunite with their parents one day, but that day comes sooner than expected and the siblings embark on a difficult and dangerous journey into the unknown.
Oh this book.
I don’t know where to begin. I simultaneously have SO MUCH I want to say but can’t find the words or the coherence to do it justice. Suffice to say, in short – it is beautifully written, utterly plausible, terrifying and important, yet utterly hopeful, joyous and uplifting too.
First off, I should note that this book had me in the early pages when Nicola described Juniper reading an old dictionary and looking up words on the thesaurus, “changing them for others words…crafting and recrafting”, which transported me so immediately and wholly to my story-writing childhood with a battered Roget’s Thesaurus by my side that I’d have five-starred this on the spot!
I appreciate this is a very subjective sliver of the book, but luckily what followed was just as visceral and captivating and I think it’s safe to say that unlike our dictionary episode, it won’t be just me who thinks so!
Following on from this though is the wonderfully evocative use of and clear love of language and words – from Juniper and Bear’s word game to the descriptions of wild creatures and plants from before/outside to detailing their journey, the writing is exceptional. Through the lightest of touches, humour, or simply the selection of exactly the right word at the right time, Nicola conjures an immersive and utterly believable world.
And it is terrifyingly believable, not to mention clever as it carefully treads a line between fiction and reality, between dystopia and an all too possible near-future, between places that are real and recognisable and something new and unknown. It somehow hammers home a dire warning without feeling in the least bit preachy or obvious.
The city is scarily uniform, controlling, regimented and confined. From the supposedly calming fractals to the curfews and border guards to the banned books and The Institute, its soon very clear not only how corrupt and wrong it is, but also how much we need nature for our mental health (even mud-fearing city-lovers like me!).
“Even after all that [the scientific reasons we need the Wild] You just need it. The Wild. You need to know it’s there.”
Then there is the Wild which we venture into as something unknown, and almost unknowable. Familiar plants and animals are described with wonder, puzzlement or, in the case of the nettles, a mixture of humour and fear! There is a ‘Lost Words’ feel to a lot of the natural world sections, with plants and animals described, named, categorised and listed, which is fine by me and a wonderful way to get all these words (and by extension then, the things themselves) into young minds. It felt like a retreat into nature itself.
Then there is The Buffer, the zone surrounding the city before The Wild begins. I will say nothing on this to avoid spoilers except – wow. What an impact.
I loved that Bear and Juniper’s journey felt almost impossible. They were travelling poorly dressed and poorly equipped after a hurried exit across unfamiliar terrain. It woukd have been easy, especially in a children’s book, to make this into a jolly adventure where foraging, fishing and found shelters save the day. But there’s none of that here and I’m glad. We’re exposed to the brutal realities of it and it’s hard.
Which brings us to Ghost, a lynx who becomes something of a companion, protector and guide to the children. I’ll be honest, I was hesitant about this aspect at first – I think Bear sums it up towards the end of the book when he suggests
“What if Ghost is actually an Ennerdale cat and has come to take us there?”
I think I was worried this was going to be what happened for a while, but I should have known better in a book like this that that would not have been the case and as it turned out I though Ghost’s part in the story – tender but always fiercely wild – was superbly executed and weaving in the tale of Romulus and Remus very clever.
Our human characters too were fantastic and oh so believable with all their realistic flaws, worries and emotions. For example, unlike many earnest, well-behaved younger siblings in stories, Bear felt like a sulky, impulsive, egotistical six year old (though utterly loveable and with a heart of absolute gold). The relationship between him and Juniper was fiercely loyal and incredibly close, but that’s not to say they didbt fight which was a relief!
I was so invested in this pair. There is one point in the book that became so tense, I just had to tweet! This really sums up how much I got behind the siblings, although I can’t say much about this particular part now as I don’t want to spoil anything!
And the characters we meet along the way are just as rich, rounded and – for the most part – likeable (even those that aren’t have a depth and complexity that makes them so much more than ‘bad guys’, except Portia Steel. She is just a bad guy. Full stop.) I loved Ms Endo, Annie Rose and the ‘Forest Folk’ and I can’t tell you how my heart broke for Etienne.
But that is, part of what I loved about this book – while it remained hopeful and positive, it pulled no punches and there were moments of real despair.
Well, if you have made it this far, well done! I know it’s been a long (and probably waffly) one that despite all that doesn’t come close to doing this book justice. An ode to nature, a warning to us all, an exciting but dark and perilous journey, a beautifully written book. I cannot wait to see what Nicola does next!