Hedgewitch Blog Tour: An interview with Skye McKenna
We speak to the talented author of Hedgewitch about her enchanting debut
If you follow Picture Book Snob on social media or are familiar with our sister blog, Paperback Snob, you will have noticed how excited I have been about Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna (age 9+). One of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my entire life, this is the first in a five-book series (reviewed here). With echoes of Diana Wynne Jones and Alan Garner, Hedgewitch feels like a future classic. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to interview the author of Hedgewitch as part of the blog tour celebrating this book's release. Skye McKenna tells us all about the inspiration behind her masterpiece, shares her own childhood reading favourites and hints at what we can expect from the next instalment, Woodwitch.
When did you first get the idea for this book and how long did it take you to write it? Did it go through many revisions?
The ideas behind Hedgewitch started to form after my initial visit to the UK in 2010. I travelled around for six weeks, exploring the places that inspired some of my favourite children’s books. I spent a lot of time in small villages in the countryside, old castles, and bluebell woods – I was really taken with both the plants and wildlife, and the way the whole landscape was infused with history and myth. When I got back, I knew I wanted to create a story that encapsulated everything I loved about the British countryside, as well as the folklore and legends that had enchanted it for me since childhood. It took a long time to figure out just how to tell that story though, and I had several false starts and wrote some other (unpublished) books in the meantime. Hedgewitch took about three years to write and underwent many revisions. I did multiple drafts trying to figure out just how the world of witches and faeries worked; it was important to me that the story respected the folklore and felt real at the same time.
Are any of the characters inspired by real people? Is Widdershin’s bookshop based on a real place?
No, I don’t tend to base characters on real people, although sometimes I’m inspired by characters I love in older works. Rue, for instance, has a little of Nancy Blackett (whose real name is Ruth) from Swallows and Amazons in her, but is rather more easy-going. Widdershin’s is an amalgamation of every second-hand bookshop I’ve ever loved – but particularly two in Perth, Australia, that have sadly both closed, Pickwick’s and Books Etc.
The Hartwood Tree at the centre of Hartwood Hall is so beautiful – how did you get the idea for this?
Although I spent my early years in the Australian outback, when I was older my family moved to the edge of a national park near Perth. It was there I got to experience a real forest for the first time, although it was very different to British or Irish woodland. Our house, where my father still lives, has trees growing through it and even a small indoor garden. It was a bit like living in a treehouse! The Hartwood tree most certainly comes from that. I’m glad you liked the Hartwood tree, because it is very important, and we’ll learn more about it as the series progresses.
How did it feel to see Tomislav Tomic’s illustrations for the first time?
We were not initially going to have full-page illustrations, only a map and chapter headings, but after we saw Tomislav’s map we knew we had to ask him to do more. I was completely overwhelmed when I first saw the illustrations! Tomislav has such a classic style and is brilliant at rendering the natural world in all its detail. You can’t help poring over each picture. I feel he really captured the style and atmosphere of the story in a way that feels authentic and magical at the same time.
Do you have a favourite part of Hartwood Hall? What would you ask Mrs Briggs to cook you for breakfast?
There’s a lot of Hartwood Hall we haven’t seen yet, including some of my favourite rooms, but I would have loved a bedroom like Cassie’s, with a window seat and its own fireplace. I’m quite partial to a full English breakfast, but as a kid, I would definitely have preferred Cassie’s birthday breakfast – pancakes all the way!
I love how the Faerie folk are unpredictable and sinister, like the folklore I grew up with. Was this influenced by any particular folk tales? Did you read much folklore as research or have you always been interested in it?
Much like Cassie, I was fascinated by folk tales from a young age. I wanted to know the truth about the creatures in my favourite fantasy stories and did a lot of very serious research. That interest has never gone away and studying medieval literature at university allowed me to look at some of our earliest tales about fairies and witches. I have a good collection of folklore books and am always referring to them for details.
The trainee witches collecting badges as they complete different challenges is a wonderful touch. How did you get the idea for this? Were you in the girl guides?
I was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, and my father was a Scout leader, so I spent much of my childhood in the movement. I knew I wanted witchcraft in Cassie’s world to be something hands-on and outdoorsy, rather than academic, but it wasn’t until I saw some old photos of Girl Guides from the 1910s that it clicked. Early Girl Guides wore wide-brimmed hats and carried poles that look a lot like broomsticks, and there’s also a lot of fairy lore in the Brownies, who are named after helpful household sprites.
Who were your favourite authors and what were your most-read books when you were a child?
My most-read books were the Chronicles of Narnia, which I discovered even before I could read by listening to the audiobooks. My grandmother bought me the set and I re-read them every summer. Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning was another favourite, and my introduction to the Arthurian stories. I loved the works of Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Mary Norton, Dick King-Smith and Arthur Ransome.
There are five books in the series – do you have the plots all mapped out or are you still deciding exactly what will happen?
I have a sketch of a plot for each book, and I know where the story is heading, but there are still plenty of things for me to discover along the way. I like to leave enough space in my plans for the unexpected to happen, that’s often where you find the magic.
Can you tell us anything about Woodwitch or is it top secret at the moment?
In Woodwitch, Cassie, Rue and Tabitha will go deeper into the Hedge and encounter some of the ancient magic it harbours. They’ll also have to solve a mystery about the village and a shadowy threat to its inhabitants.
Thanks so much to Skye for taking the time to answer all of our questions. I can't wait to read Woodwitch and would love to see Skye's father's house! Read our spoiler-free review of Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna
Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna (£12.99, Welbeck Children’s) is available now and the virtual tour continues this week. Visit all of the brilliant blogs listed below to learn more about this extraordinary book: