“I am your mother and I want to make your life less painful in any way I can. Your journey will ebb and flow, like a river searching for the sea. You will not, I know, be dragged under. Like any journey, it will begin with the first step.
You will meet your guides along the way – be open to them.
Be on your guard, but do not be afraid to take risks. Let love give you courage.
Always believe in your destiny.
My love for you is infinite. My heart is with you always.
God bless you, my child.
(The Forest of Moon and Sword)
The Forest of Moon and Sword is Amy Raphael’s first book for children. It is a beautifully written story set in 1647, a tale of twelve-year-old Art who goes on a quest to save her mother who has been accused of witchcraft and imprisoned.
The Forest of Moon and Sword includes black and white illustrations by August Ro and is published by Orion Children’s Books.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Amy.
Thank you so much for having me and for supporting The Forest of Moon and Sword.
What is your professional writing background? Why have you now written a book for children?
I have been a journalist for the last 30 years and have written half a dozen non-fiction books, including A Seat at the Table: Women on the Frontline of Music and Danny Boyle’s official biography. I have always wanted to write fiction, but got distracted by writing about my other passions – music, film and football. Finally, when my daughter was 11, I promised I’d write a book for her to read when she was 13; she is now 16 and more interested in psychological thrillers! Forest started out as a young adult book, but it became clear that the story was more suited to middle grade.
Where are you based and how does The Forest of Moon and Sword reflect your surroundings?
I was born in London, but have lived in Brighton for the last 20 years. We are lucky enough to be close to both the sea and the countryside; my daughter and I spend a lot of time wandering through ancient woodland, which is a central feature of Forest. I am a bit of a night owl and often watch urban foxes playing on the street outside my house when everyone else is asleep. Without giving too much away, the fox with the torn ear in Forest keeps a beady eye on Art. I should add that the book starts in a town called Kelso, on the Scottish borders. I spent a lot of time in Scotland as a child and my daughter is half Scottish. I long to be able to visit again, when it is safe to do so.
What is the significance of your title?
It’s a nod to the key elements of the book: the forest that protects Art but also keeps dark secrets; the moon that guides her (the moon always has a feminine pronoun in Romantic languages); the sword that gives her power to defend herself against the Witchfinder General, who is set to hang her mother Agnes for being a ‘witch’ (Agnes in fact made herbal remedies for the locals in their Scottish village, but during the Civil War strong women who were ‘different’, who knew their own mind, were often scapegoated).
What is the importance of the natural world in your book?
The natural world is everything.; our connection to nature is all we’ve got. I am incredibly frustrated and terribly saddened by the worldwide disregard for nature. It can only end badly! Art has been ostracised by her local community, by her aunt and her best friend, so all she has as she journeys to save her mother is her beloved horse and nature. She learns to read nature’s signs and to let nature guide her. Even when she is feeling pretty sorry for herself and sleeping on yet another damp forest floor, she still takes the time to notice a particular bird or insect. She is learning to be happy with life’s little joys. Art also uses her mother’s battered recipe book to make the best use of the wild flowers and herbs that she finds on her journey.
Could you please briefly describe the relationship between Art and her mother?
Art adores her mother and will do anything to save her, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Art’s father and brother are both dead and Agnes is a kind, compassion woman who has taught Art the value of caring for others.
In Art’s mother’s letter to her (quoted above), who are some of the “guides”?
The “guides” are open to interpretation, to a degree. But I would include Maude, the older woman who Art meets in the forest and who gives her the courage to continue her journey; Mercy West, the girl whose life Art saves and who becomes her best friend; nature and, of course, the fox with the torn ear.
How have you made the horrific events of this time in history palatable enough for children to read?
A great question! It was a challenge. I read a wide range of historical books and then disregarded the grimmer elements. It’s a tough balancing act because you want kids to have a real insight into what happened during the English Civil War, particularly to women, but you don’t want to give them nightmares.
How have you dealt with the issues of prejudice and discrimination?
Hopefully by showing how quickly Art’s aunt, cousins and even best friend turn against her once Agnes has been arrested/kidnapped by the Witchfinder General’s men. Agnes saved the lives of dozens of locals, but when the Witchfinder offers money for turning in ‘witches’, the local community pretty swiftly renounces her. Art herself makes judgements about other characters in the book that she has to reassess. The point being that we all discriminate, often without realising.
What is the role of compassion and kindness in your story?
There’s a quote attributed to Plato that I love and try to think of on a daily basis: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ It’s simple but profound. Where are we without compassion, kindness or empathy? In terms of Forest, the kids in the story can’t make significant progress without compassion. Young readers might not automatically be empathic as it’s a life skill we pick up when we’re older. But I am hoping that as they read Forest, kids will see that people will always be cruel, but we have to try and be kind regardless.
How does your protagonist Art grow and change during the course of this story?
She is always feisty and fierce, but she doesn’t necessarily know this at the start of the story. She only knows that she cannot let her mother be hanged by the Witchfinder General. She is distraught that her best friend has turned against her and this is the turning point: she has nothing to keep her in Kelso. Art is also teaching herself how to tight rope walk. At the start of the story, she keeps tumbling off the rope. By the end, she is able to keep going simply because she finally believes in herself.
Which of illustrator August Ro’s picture particularly appeals to you, and why?
I adore the illustration of the four kittens who were to be drowned until Art rescued them. The black one is Malkin, the cat Art took home and who was then slaughtered as a witch’s cat.
What are you writing now or next?
A second, stand-alone middle-grade novel for Hachette Children’s Group, set in the early 1800s. It’s about a young girl who becomes an accidental stowaway on a ship travelling from the UK to Europe and it has a mythical angle to it.
In your role as a journalist, you have interviewed many famous people. What was something that surprised you about one or two of them?
I was always surprised by how many of them hated being famous. It was something they longed for, but when they got it, they realised that it took away everything they valued, from privacy to the freedom to be creative in their own idiosyncratic way. I spent three days in New York with Kurt Cobain, a very gentle, thoughtful human being who was unable to deal with the intense scrutiny of the media. And this predated the internet.
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
I love The Wolf’s Secret by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, illustrated by Júlia Sardà, which is for younger kids. The Dragon and Her Boy by Penny Chrimes for middle grade readers. In terms of adult books, I tore through Push by Ashley Audrain.
The Forest of Moon and Sword deals with important ideas wrapped well into the conventions of a satisfying, exciting and thoughtful fantasy adventure.
Thank you for your lovely writing and responses, Amy, and all the best with this book.
Thank you so much for your great questions! Stay well.